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Heck No—We Won't Go!

March 1, 1996
Related Topics: Relocation Services, Relocation Management, Featured Article
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These days, the relocation game may seem like a backwards round of musical chairs. Instead of a big group of people fighting over a limited number of openings, there's a big group of openings and a limited number of people interested in them. When the music stops, the space still stands empty.

No, it's not impossible to relocate employees. But it is getting more difficult. The rules of the game have changed in the past decade. Part of the trouble has to do with the ever-shifting workplace—and the employer-employee relationship. "It used to be that the company's mission was the top issue for an employee," explains Ellie Monty, president of Hinsdale, Illinois-based DOTSERO Inc., a national relocation education firm. "Everyone placed their value and esteem in a job, so if it was best for the job, a relocation was fine with them. That's not the case anymore."

But we can't blame it all on the employee. Remember that in the good old days, relocations were part of a grand scheme of advancement. A transfer generally meant that the employee was heading up the corporate ladder. Now, that's not necessarily so. A relocation often has benefits solely for the company—upper management needs a certain skill at a certain spot, and that's that.

Obviously, the current value system and structure of the '90s also plays its part. Today, the family no longer is considered simply a cheery appendage of the male breadwinner. Women work more often. Homes eat up more income. Children are more likely to pipe up with their opinions on a move. Parents need a little extra assistance.

Even Generation X poses a challenge in a relocation sell. Surprising, when in general they don't yet have homes, kids or dependent parents? Maybe not. As children of the first extremely mobile generation (think of the booms of the '60s and '70s), many Generation Xers moved around a bit too much for their liking while growing up—and now they're ready to set roots. Monty pinpoints many employers' frustration: "You have the Sandwich Generation saying no to relocation—they have elders and kids to be concerned about—and you have the younger generation saying no—they have no interest. So who gets relocated?"

Good question. How does a company get employees where it needs them, short of coercion, threats and dragging them kicking and screaming? There are a few ways to make sure both sides win this game.

Find the right person.
No kidding, you say. But when you look around, this isn't always the case. We often approach a relocation assignment from the wrong direction. We identify the employee who has the skills we need at a certain operation without concerning ourselves about whether this employee is a good candidate for a relocation in the first place. And that's important. In a survey by the publication Relocation Compass, 72 transferees were asked two questions. First: Was it advantageous for your company to relocate you? Second: Was it advantageous for you to relocate? Eighty-three percent believed the company benefited from their relocation. Compare this to only 53% who believed they personally benefited from the relocation, and we've identified the discrepancy.

Why is this the company's problem? "If an employee isn't satisfied with a relocation, that employee isn't going to be productive," says Jan Dickinson, president and CEO of Portland, Oregon-based Dickinson Consulting Group Inc., which specializes in administering and writing relocation policies for group moves. "Now maybe they'll adjust and be fine in the long run. Or maybe the relocation will fail. But either way, people who are suffering through poor relocations are like carriers. They'll infect others in the workforce who've relocated or are considering a relocation."

"People who are suffering through poor relocations are like carriers. They'll infect others in the workforce who've relocated or are considering a relocation."

So what should an employer do? Monty says the best thing a company can do is get all the cards out on the table. Clarify whether an employee would accept a relocation—and feel good about it. That's much different from an employee reluctantly accepting a transfer because he or she feels that's the only choice. So, just as you'd conduct a skills inventory to ensure you've got the right set of competencies identified, find out whether you've got the right transferee identified. "There will be some employees who just won't move," says Monty. "You can go to the cookie jar a thousand times, and they still won't like the idea. That's something you need to know before a move."

Once you've ascertained that a relocation on the right note is achievable, conduct a fact-finding mission to uncover what would sound that right note with the employee. Do a basic needs assessment. Anything should be fair game for discussion. "In the event that a company truly wants an employee somewhere, and the employee says, 'I don't think so, because... ' the company will erase those 'becauses.'" There could be any number of things that make the employee reluctant to move. And, correspondingly, there could be any number of things that a company can do to alleviate this reluctance. But you have to ask what it is the employee wants. "Companies may say that this approach is opening a can of worms," says Monty. "They may say it's too much work. Well, it's not rocket science. It's just asking a few questions." And once you identify an employee's issues, the two of you can work on finding an answer that will satisfy both sides.

You can solve the "spouse issue."
The number one reason for rejecting a relocation is "Family ties," according to Atlas Van Lines' 28th annual survey. Of 147 responding companies, 63.8% listed family ties as the top reason employees declined a transfer. That's up from 52.7% a year ago, according to the Evansville, Indiana-based company. A similar trend echoes throughout the relocation world. Last year, Rochester, Wisconsin-based Runzheimer International surveyed 323 relocation administrators and they reported that 63% of employees who turned down a transfer cited "family considerations." Likewise, in a 1995 Washington, D.C.-based Employee Relocation Council survey of 179 companies that reported experiencing employee reluctance to relocation, the top reason, given by 66%, was "employee/family resistance to move." Although family does also include dependent parents and children, you can bet the primary player in the decision to move is the spouse.

The majority of families now depend on a dual income (the number of couples in which both partners work has risen by 34% since 1978). A move—and the loss of a spouse's job—means taking a serious monetary hit, even if it's just a temporary one. According to a survey of more than 2,000 employees and 1,000 spouses conducted by Philadelphia-based Right Associates, 42% of dual-income families reported a decrease in their standard of living due to relocating, compared to only 23% of employees with just one working spouse. In addition, more than 50% of spouses who found jobs in the new location reported receiving poorer salaries and benefits than they'd received in their former positions.

"Spouses or partners play a big role in the decision of whether or not to relocate," explains Alan Freeman, manager of corporate relocation for The Walt Disney Co. based in Burbank, California. "If [an employee's] partner has a great job, making good money and benefits, and the company offers no assistance in a job search and no career support, why would the employee accept the offer to relocate?"

Therefore, it's important to get the spouse on board in the decision to relocate. Yet how many companies bother with any kind of service? According to the Atlas Van Lines survey, more companies are offering assistance: Thirty-six percent in 1994—up from 16% in 1989. Still, that's not a lot, considering that in the Right Associate's extensive study, two strong facts surfaced:

  • A spouse's willingness to relocate is strongly related to the employee's willingness
  • A spouse's adjustment to the relocation is strongly correlated to that of the employee.

"Spouses are key," says Dickinson. "Pay a month of their salary while they're looking for a new job. Hook them up with an employment agency. Do what you need to do." What do you need to do to get the spouse's stamp of approval? For most, like Dickinson implied, it's assistance in finding that new job. In the Right Associates survey, spouses were quite candid about the assistance they'd find most valuable in a future move. The top four:

  • Identifying their best skills: 68%
  • Assisting with long-distance job search: 67%
  • Negotiating offers: 65%
  • Self-marketing: 63%.

Assistance with the more basic kind of job-search skills—such as interviewing (49%), self-assessment (50%), networking (54%) and resumes (55%)—received positive responses, but it's telling that these were ranked below the more advanced career search support. It seems safe to say from the study that spouses feel fairly confident in their basic job search skills, but saw the need for "the kinds of help a career-minded individual needs when attempting to advance or at least maintain his or her level of career achievement" post-relocation.

You can solve the "dependents issue."
Besides spouses, there are dependent family members to take into consideration. Many employees you'll probably be dealing with are part of the Sandwich Generation—aging baby boomers who have responsibility for both their parents and their children. "That's often the situation now," says Freeman. "The kids are in school and deeply involved in activities and social groups and the parents may be in local care facilities or dependent on employees for assistance." Although dependents may not make a financial contribution to the family as a spouse does, they do still hold a lot of sway.

Companies more and more are recognizing the family's need for assistance in relocating the children. "Kids really need to be in the loop," says Dickinson. "They need to know that just because their room and their location is changing, that doesn't mean their place in the family is changing." One way of ensuring that children don't feel left out is to keep them involved in visiting and choosing a new school. Also, assure children they may continue their involvement in baseball or the choir in the new area. In fact, this has become a big segment of what a good destination service will take care of: finding the right schools and locating new activity groups, such as sports teams, music or other kinds of lessons.

Assistance in the school search or child-care situations can earn big points among transferees. In the Right Associates survey, these concerns dominated other worries about children. Of 448 respondents, 96% identified concerns over location and quality of schools, followed by the availability of suitable child care and availability of schools for children with special needs.

For older kids, those in high school—particularly those in their junior and senior years—the resistance to move can be a massive force. Often, an arrangement may be made for the teen to stay with a close friend or relative during that last year to finish up high school. Dickinson suggests throwing the options out to employees so they know it's not an uncommon arrangement. The company may even want to offer to fly the child to the new location for a few visits.

What about adult dependents?
Elder care is receiving increased attention from companies as more employees take on responsibility for their parents. In 1993, 84% of companies reported in the Atlas Van Lines survey that they didn't offer elder-care assistance. In 1994, the figure lowered to 76% (see "Firms Offering Elder-care Assistance"). Despite the growth in companies offering this assistance, this is still not the hottest of issues across the board. In the Right Associates survey, among 500 companies asked "How often do employees who've been asked to relocate express concerns regarding the care of an elderly/dependent relative?" not a single company answered "always" or even "usually." The majority (49%) said "rarely," while many others (37%) answered "never."

Still, among those who do have concerns, the greatest worry was the availability of elder care in the new location (63% of 270 specified this particular concern) and the impact of moving the elderly relative from a network of family and friends (56%). Again, these dark clouds can be tackled partly by the use of a good destination services program that can identify care services as well as assist the older person in finding activities to continue in the new location. "A really good destination service can make a big difference," says Freeman. "It focuses on individual lifestyle issues—for all family members. If I'm into horseback riding, it will tell me where to go, how far away it is, what the best places are for it. If my daughter plays the harp—it will tell us where to get into classes. Destination services give facts and focused, quality information."

You can solve the "what's in it for me?" issue.
Family issues aside, workers need to know the personal benefits of a move before packing their bags. They may be enticed by different things. Sometimes it's money. Sometimes it's recognition. Sometimes it's a little bit of both. The money issue can be a tricky one. You don't want to hand employees a blank check just for accepting a relocation. Yet for many, moving is an expensive proposition. In fact, high housing costs and the cost of living in the new location rank on most surveys as the second most common reason for rejecting a transfer.

Obviously, if an employee is going to face a major equity loss on a house when moving from one area to the next, an employer could offer to take care of the difference. Most experts recommend some sort of home-sale assistance.

The Employee Relocation Council survey identified four primary types of assistance. The most popular is third-party (68%), in which a company contracts with an outside firm to purchase and resell the transferred employee's home. After that, the most commonly used assistance is direct reimbursement (18%), in which a company doesn't guarantee or purchase the residence at the market value, but does reimburse some or all of the direct selling expenses. In-house purchase (in which a company purchases an employee's home at market value) and guarantee-against-loss (in which a company reimburses the difference between the home's market value and what it sells for) both ranked fairly low—10% and 3% respectively. Only 1% of respondents offer no real estate assistance whatsoever.

Dickinson also suggests in some cases a one-time signing bonus to ease the pain. A cost-of-living differential for the new location may also help. "But if you do that, make sure you give it on a separate check so it doesn't start getting seen as part of their salary, as an entitlement," she warns.

One item that used to be hot among relocation professionals—the lump-sum payment—is seeing a backlash these days. Introduced originally as a means of controlling costs, cutting administrivia and fostering employee responsibility (transferees received one big check, handled the move themselves and got to keep whatever was left over), lump sums now make many experts wary. "To just cash out an employee is absolutely detrimental to the employee," says Monty.

Dickinson concurs: "It's not a good idea. This is a time when employees are stressed enough. They're not professional movers. I've seen employees cash out, then feel completely stranded when something goes wrong. It's not part of a caring company culture to say 'Here's a check... see ya.'" Freeman says he tends to agree, particularly in cases in which companies have the ability to set up an arrangement with a carrier or a temporary living facility. "Companies will have much more negotiating leverage than the employee who walked in off the street," he says.

Finally, there's the simple recognition factor. When so many relocations these days involve lateral rather than vertical moves (according to the Right Associates survey, only 39% of respondents' relocations involved promotions), it's important to show a little appreciation of employees. Let them know that they were chosen not just because they had the right skills, but because they're the right person. If this lateral move may introduce them to a new side of the business or earn them valuable skills, use that as a selling point. "Employees today are feeling valued less. They're working overtime. They're feeling overtaxed," says Monty. "They want to know, 'Do you value me as a person or just my expertise?' Feeling valued on an individual level is, for many employees, going to trigger whether or not they accept the relocation."

This demonstration of concern for employees on a personal level should flow just as strong after the relocation as before. Conduct surveys to see how quickly transferees got up and running. Ask them if all the services promised them came through. See if there's anything the company can do to help them settle in the new location. Because, in the long run, one of the most important elements in convincing an employee to accept a relocation can be the ability to show that employee a shiny record of previous relocations. Personal testimony from fellow transferees can assuage any last-minute reluctance.

Think about it: satisfied employees in just the areas you need them. Maybe this game of musical chairs can truly be won by both sides. You can fill the empty spaces with satisfied employees. You just have to know the right tune to play.

Personnel Journal, March 1996, Vol. 75, No. 3, pp. 37-43.

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