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Corporate Relocation Takes its Toll on Society

February 1, 1999
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Relocation Management, Featured Article
Folk wisdom and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s best seller, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Simon and Schuster, 1996), have raised the public’s consciousness of the importance of a caring community in the lives of our children and our families.

The title of Clinton’s book is taken from an African proverb that says, "It takes a village to raise a child." The proverb recognizes the many hands needed to share the work of child rearing, the breadth of skills to be learned, the lessons of commitment, persistence and cooperation to be taught, and the feelings of purposefulness that result. Lessons of the "village" ring true today because they speak to our need for knowledge of who we are, how we are and why we should care.

Learning from a community and learning to give to a community requires time, but we’re in the midst of a Relocation Evolution that’s challenging this process.

During the past 10 years, more than 5 million families have been relocated one or more times by their employers. These relocations affect the emotional stability of household members, disrupt the careers of many members and require individuals to invest tremendous amounts of time to reestablish their lives. The increase of relocating families is a trend that provides few incentives for long-term commitments, individuality and investment in one’s community.

We need to be aware of the outcomes of the Relocation Evolution, we need a coherent response to it, and we need trained professionals who both understand and are prepared to deal with the impact of relocation.

The dynamics of relocation have changed.
Relocation has always been part of our history, but corporate life and a global economy have changed the course of history. We admire the fortitude and independence of our forebears who put down stakes in the New World, headed Westward in Conestoga wagons or disembarked on Ellis Island.

These same attributes are found today in relocating families, but are worn thin by multiple moves, often on short notice, to locations selected by an employer. With every relocation, transferees are reminded of how much their lives are in someone else’s hands. Our forefathers and mothers sometimes stumbled for lack of an ax, a rope or a compass. We’re just beginning to figure out the tools needed to master a wilderness of corporate downsizings, mergers and buyouts.

Until recent history, families used to face relocation once or twice in a lifetime, and many families raised two or more generations within the same community. It’s not unusual for corporate families to relocate five times in 10 years. The sense of being part of a community’s roots and heritage are lost. The communities we float through suffer as a result.

These corporate families are often resourceful at adapting to their situation, but they take comfort in the sameness of communities, having little time for uniqueness.

One out of five Americans has relocated at least once, moving not as much for adventure as for economic stability. They long for deep friendships, but know it’s easier to say goodbye to acquaintances. They try to do their fair share at the school, at church and at Little League, but they can’t commit to the big picture. Not surprisingly, this rootlessness is reflected in the comments of the children:

My six-year-old daughter has lived in five cities already. Yesterday she asked when the movers were coming, even though we haven’t said anything about relocating lately.

My high schooler refused to sign up for swimming next year—when I asked him why, he said he didn’t see the point of it, we’d probably get relocated before the final competition anyhow.

Long-term relationships are difficult to sustain.
In the past, relocation always involved painful goodbyes, and nothing compares to the experience of immigrants who leave knowing they’ll never see their families and old friends again.

Corporate transferees rarely face this trauma. However, these employees report their lack of control over their relocations interferes with their ability to cement and sustain long-term relationships. Opportunities to participate in activities with extended family and old friends are limited and even holidays can’t be shared.

In the past, community organizations could look to new families as a source of long-term involvement. Today, however, many of our religious, social and philanthropic organizations must gear up to serve a transient population to survive. Organizations have a wealth of members seeking to use their services, but there’s a dearth of members who are willing to make long-term investments in time and money. Parents make comments such as:

I used to join a congregation to get to know people, but now we do it mostly to send the kids to Sunday School. I’m tired of goodbyes; I’d just as soon not meet anyone new.

Families suffer from constant relocations.
Multiple relocations have a detrimental impact within the family, too. Families may move together physically, but they don’t always move together emotionally.

The transferred employee sees the most stability, moving from one structured setting to another. But while expectations may be familiar, within the new setting, stress may build as the employee strives to cope with being the "new kid on the block" and prove his or her worth. Long work hours, travel and corporate commitment are valued, but are counterproductive to creating quality family time. This was one telling comment:

My husband offered to take the kids to their soccer games. Fifteen minutes after he left the house, he called me on the car phone. Despite living in this town for six months, he realized he hadn’t been home enough to know where the soccer fields are!

The spouse relocates from a structured environment—oftentimes one that has just been rebuilt—to disorder within the household, in addition to a community network, activities and career that need to be reestablished. The spouse often feels vulnerable, having given up so much to further or sustain the employee’s career. It’s a dangerous time for marriages, with one partner often feeling disenfranchised and having few safe outlets for frustrations. As one spouse put it:

Sarah and I met in the same corporate training program. Then she got a promotion, so it seemed sensible for me to relocate with her.

I got a job OK the next time, but then there was another promotion and yet another relocation. Employers want to know why I’m moving around so much. I’m falling farther and farther behind Sarah’s career—I’m not sure it’s worth trying very hard anymore.

Children’s experiences with relocation varies. An older child who has many commitments and activities may have feelings that are similar to the spouse’s— resenting the disruptions in friendships and his or her efforts to achieve. A younger child, who relies on the environment for constancy, mostly feels confused and uncertain.

Because family members experience relocation in different ways, it’s difficult for them to empathize with each other and to communicate their concerns. Multiple relocations compound these problems by causing families to spend an inordinate amount of time in transition. Some people master the process of transition, but few people enjoy it. For most, it’s a time of increased anxiety and physical exhaustion.

Many people report feelings of loss not unlike a death in the family, and with multiple relocations often comes a numbing of feelings and a reluctance to commit to new goals.

A systems approach to relocation is needed.
The many deadlines that are associated with a relocation mislead us to believe it’s a time-limited event. In reality, relocation reaches back in time, drawing upon our previous experiences with separation and change, and forever coloring future experiences.

Relocation isn’t just a milestone in an individual’s or family’s life. Rather, it impacts systemically on extended families, classrooms, the workplace and social milieus. Systems theory teaches us that a single change in an individual’s life has a ripple effect across time, place and relationships.

The net effect of the Relocation Evolution is that it creates a system that undermines our efforts to foster the qualities needed for good citizenship. We would like to teach self-esteem, but self-esteem is difficult to sustain when one’s interests are persistently set aside for others. We would like to teach perseverance, but that’s hard to do when tasks are left unfinished and outcomes go unobserved. We would like to teach patience, but that can’t exist without time. We would like to teach compassion and cooperation, but we would need the opportunity to learn our neighbor’s name. We would like to teach the value of family life, but first our families need opportunities to be together.

Some would argue that the image of the village is a quaint anachronism that’s already being replaced by a global community—and, indeed, there’s much truth to this. There’s some odd comfort in discovering that all malls are essentially the same, that Star Trek reruns are universal and that the Internet has no bounds.

There’s even some comfort in knowing that other people also don’t have the time to entertain friends, that others don’t have a home town, and that the town has reduced its expectations for a good turnout at local events. However, this mode of thought is survival thinking—the kind of thinking that enables people to continue going, but does not tell them much about where or why they’re going.

Every evolution generates countercycles. We hear the needs of our transient society expressed in the increased emphasis on family values and work/life decisions. It also has been expressed in the growing popularity of cluster housing, telecommuters and family reunions—and it’s expressed in the growth of entrepreneurship.

We hear the needs of our transient society expressed in the increased emphasis on family values and work/life decisions.

The Relocation Evolution begs a coherent response so that today’s families can anticipate the impact of relocation, weigh their choices and develop a game plan. Such a response would include an assessment of the individual’s and family’s readiness to cope with and adapt to changes, the identification of new goals, the availability and provision of needed information and the teaching of skills to implement these goals.

Some corporations are beginning to respond by offering assistance to their relocating employees, but the majority of relocating families don’t receive assistance. Those that do generally are offered limited career development assistance for the spouse or assistance in locating schools and medical resources for family members. A comprehensive, systemic approach is rare.

A systems approach improves employee functioning by reducing the number of work hours devoted to family relocation problems. It’s also an invaluable tool in speeding adjustment to relocation and in reducing the stress of family members.

If relocation is an inevitable part of employment during the foreseeable future, then we need to be aware of the messages that we give to the next generation. We need to be proactive in developing ways to make corporate goals congruent with family goals—we need to be proactive in developing productive life planning skills, and we need to be proactive in enhancing change, not just surviving change.

After all, the lessons of the "village" can be no better than the composite memories of its citizens.

Workforce, February 1999, vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 35-38.

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