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Do More Than Make a Move

March 1, 1999
Related Topics: Relocation Services, Relocation Management, Featured Article
We all know the really important thing people do at work to prepare for a relocation: find sturdy boxes. The copier room is a gold mine of cardboard. But how else can companies assist employees relocate besides helping them pack up their belongings?

Relocation, by nature, is a confusing, emotional and expensive procedure for the migrating employee. Although recent market trends show relocating homeowners may have an easier time selling their, that’s only one element of the move. Since there’s much attention being placed on relocation, perhaps now is a good time to reinforce the internal communications that bolster it.

Having supporting roles in relocation, recruiters need to convince people to make a move in the first place, and operations managers need to get the people up to productivity in their new jobs. HR is in a position at which it can facilitate both groups of professionals. By helping educate recruiters and operations managers about what the recruits or transferees really need with respect to relocation, HR has the opportunity to improve the process both in its early and later stages. These two particular areas are crucial to employees’ comfort with a move.



Each employee’s expectations are unique.
Market conditions may make it easier for employees to sell their houses, but it still doesn’t mean they won’t refuse to relocate, because there are more important matters at hand than housing. According to the January 1999 issue of Mobility magazine, Washington, D.C.-based Employee Relocation Council’s (ERC’s) monthly publication, family or spousal issues account for 72 percent of relocation and recruiting refusals. As the people who entice new hires and transferees to relocate, recruiters are the first people that employees come to trust in the move toward the new environment. HR should communicate with recruiters about ways they can better meet employees’ needs.

One way recruiters help employees overcome doubts about moving is to show them the company will go the extra mile to help them. "Providing a real estate broker who’s experienced in relocation will show how interested you are in them and how valued they are by the company," says Sandy Christensen, vice president of relocation for Northern Trust Company, a financial service corporation in Chicago. But recruiters have to be flexible with the application of relo services—recognizing some employees need more help (or different kinds of help) than others.

Of course, flexibility doesn’t imply a free-for-all. There should be a consistent flow and policy of the basic relocation procedure. The point is to make sure the policy is flexible enough to include special needs. "We have a basic policy to address the issues that come up," says Bill Agopian, HR consultant for Torrance, California-based Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. "But one thing you come to realize when you work with many relocations is that there’s a uniqueness to everybody who moves. It’s easy to sit and make a policy and say, ‘This should cover everything’—but there’s always a unique circumstance for each person." Dual-income homes, elder care, special education, and no prior relocation experience all count.

By having the employee fill out a survey that reveals what he or she expects from the relocation—or simply by asking—recruiters can determine what benefits would be most valuable. From the very first meeting with the person, or even the first phone screen, recruiters should be feeling out what, if any, are his or her concerns about relocating. Determine what’s special about that particular employee’s lifestyle that may need support.

And as recruiters should know how to be flexible with relo services, they also should know when enough is enough. "Don’t go overboard," warns Christensen. "Be cautious in offering all of the policy provisions during the initial offer. There’s a point at which a company has done all it can do, and there may be personal problems that the company can’t resolve." If there’s someone who isn’t satisfied with the help that’s available, don’t push too hard because he or she is probably unhappy about moving in the first place.

Most importantly, recruiters must be honest about what life is like at the new location. Throughout the process, the relocatee must have a clear account of living conditions at the new location—not a smokescreen of all the things that won’t be affected by the move. Debunk the thought that relo benefits are a cure-all for the difficulties of moving, or that they will exactly duplicate current living situations.

Another good idea that will help employees prepare for the change is to be sure recruiters understand the potentially wide cost-of-living differences between an employee’s point of origin and the destination. Give specific examples of the price of things like groceries and gasoline. "I’ve had to go to various sources to get accurate information to educate the prospective employee on what reality is versus what he or she has read or heard ‘through the grapevine,’" says Christensen. "[Recruiters] should know what the expense and his or her involvement will be in the hiring and relocation process so that he or she can get the employee productive as soon as possible."

Remind managers that relocation is very emotional.
Once an employee actually starts his or her relocation assignment, everyone breathes a big sigh of relief because the objective of the relocation is over and done—the employee is at the new location, starting the new job, not to mention the bulk of the expenses have already been paid. Unfortunately, this relief may cause disregard of other issues.

One post-move problem is the inadequate amount of time employees have between the move and starting work. As if packing and moving one’s belongings weren’t difficult enough, some employees have little time to situate themselves or even to unpack because of pressing work concerns. And those are just the effects at home. At work, there are people to meet, a new environment to become accustomed to and other tasks to take on. HR can break this stress by discussing these issues with the operations manager at the new location.

"Operations managers often expedite the process of getting the employee at the new location, on the job and productive in a relatively short turnaround time," says Ann Cox, director of corporate relocation services for The Paxton Companies, an agent for Atlas Van Lines that services national corporate clients for relocating employees. "As [speed] often is the focus, details may be overlooked or last-minute relocation expenses need to be incurred."

HR can help avoid these mistakes by reminding operations managers of the importance of understanding relocation procedures and the emotional impact they have on employees. "Understanding that transition time for each employee will be different would be a start," says Cox, who also stresses that operations managers need to be sensitive to the process. "They often belittle the need to ‘coddle’ the employee during transition, assuming he or she will be resilient and adjust." Again, allowing flexibility applies.

Though the decision to relocate is a change that’s based on one’s profession, the emotional adjustment may spill into work hours. Be sure managers are giving employees the assistance needed to make the adjustment. Availability to answer questions they may have is a good step, building trust between the employee and manager. "Though Toyota is a big company, we internally try to operate small and try to keep in touch with people," says Agopian. "We try to have those avenues open so people can ask questions."

Furthermore, managers can periodically follow up with the employee for the first three months after the move, or assign a mentor. Cox suggests the best candidate to mentor the new hire or transferee is a person who already has experienced relocation. Following along those lines at Toyota, Agopian says, "Most of our managers themselves have been through the [relocation] process, so they’ll understand if you need more than a day to go house-hunting or need time to close a deal. Whatever our people can do to support the transferee, we want to encourage that."

So just because the market makes housing expenses easier to handle, don’t slip into being neglectful of other points during the transition. "Recruiters and managers often get bogged down with the details of timing or the money surrounding relo, and forget that people have set habits and a pattern of living," says Cox. "The comfort of those habits are what dictate the reluctance or lack thereof to relocate." Adds Northern Trust’s Christensen: "HR’s biggest role is to maintain the momentum of the move and settling-in process for the employee." Both recruiters and operations managers can be reminded of how they can make relocation easier for employees. By improving communications between them, HR can show that your place of employment isn’t just a good place to find boxes.

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 95-97.

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