More care is needed to address the emotional experience
By Russ Banham
It’s one of the most difficult decisions a person must make—whether or not to take the job offer that requires relocation to a new city. The way that this delicate decision is handled by the hiring organization may determine the new employee’s level of engagement from that point forward, with attendant retention risks as well.
Many personal factors are also involved in the decision to accept temporary or longer-term relocation either domestically or abroad. If the new hire is married, they must consider their spouse’s career and income. If they have children, the availability of a quality education is also a factor. The new location’s real estate market, crime rate, and social and cultural amenities also play into the decision. If just one of these factors is substandard, a highly regarded job candidate may become a highly unproductive employee.
“The relocation experience is often the first impression a new hire has about the employer,” says Scott McCain, senior vice president of global growth and consulting at Paragon Relocation (a provider of corporate relocation management). “This enormous responsibility is treated differently by different companies. Some are merely accommodating; others go the full mile to ensure the employee experience adheres to the company’s culture no matter where they are.”
To go “the full mile,” employers should consider the value of outsourcing the task of relocation to a relocation management firm. These firms can serve as an intermediaries between hiring organizations and the various suppliers of specific relocation services, such as real estate agents, household movers, local employment agencies, and providers of temporary lodging. “It’s our job to ensure that everyone is on the same page, providing the due diligence and care needed to ensure an optimum relocation experience,” says McCain.
More Important Now
While assuring a positive relocation experience for new hires has always been important, it is more critical at present. In the current war for talent, companies cannot afford the possibility of a dissatisfying relocation experience, due to the employee “flight risks” that this may foster. “Employers tend to focus on compensation, but the more important issue is effectively manag[ing] the emotional impact of the relocation,” says Heisha Freeman, executive vice president of MoveCenter, a relocation management firm. “The new hire or transferee needs to feel a sense of control [and] that their concerns are understood and addressed.”
The challenge is that all people are different. Some individuals need a bit more hand-holding when it comes to dealing with the stress of moving to a new place. Others feel a thrill and love the sense of adventure that a new environment offers. “The problem is that many companies treat the relocation experience as if it were one and the same, when each employee has different expectations and concerns,” Freeman says. “Everyone needs to be treated on a one-by-basis.”
In this treatment, relocation management firms listen closely to the employee’s specific worries to create a relocation experience that will ease these anxieties. Chief among these concerns today is the impact of relocation on a family. “It used to be all about the home value and still is to a degree, but what has really risen to the top of why people turn down a relocation experience—both new hires and current employees—is family,” says McCain. “My dad worked for General Electric, and we moved five times when we were children. He’d just say, `Kids, start packing’ and we were off. Today, families don’t want to uproot unless they’re sure the move is the right one for all the family members.”
Gail Rabasca, vice president and managing director of worldwide operations at MSI Global Talent Solutions, shares this perspective. “The big questions are emotional: Will the children adapt well to the new location? Will their education not suffer, and will my spouse find meaningful work?” she explains. “If the relocation is temporary, the transferee is concerned about his or her career path—the quality of job they will return to.”
She adds, “These are highly emotional concerns that affect a person’s peace of mind [and have] possible negative consequences for their productivity.”
Managing the Impact
Fortunately, the relocation experience can be managed to mitigate the recruitment, retention, and productivity risks. This explains why many large, multinational corporations are turning to relocation management service providers. Their value proposition is to consider each employee’s concerns in pre-decision consultations and then put forth a strategy to manage them. “You’re trying to eliminate the surprises [by] ferreting out what makes the new hire stressed about relocating,” McCain says. “You can then plan for these bumps in the road.”
Like the other relocation management firms, Graebel Relocation sits down with a new hire to perform an initial needs assessment. For example, the assessment may indicate which real estate professionals properly match the family’s needs for the origin and destination locations. “We mitigate concerns with the unknown by furnishing [the relocation plan with]factual market information and demographics of the new location,” says Teresa Valadez, Graebel senior vice president of global client development.
To alleviate the employee prospect’s concerns over the new location, Graebel or its service providers often provide pre-hiring tours of the new area and post-hiring assistance with settling-in, all while paying attention to the children’s unique needs and the family’s social, cultural, and religious wishes. “All service providers in our supply chain must be sensitive to our high standards,” Valdez says.
The providers also must be equipped to do more than properly perform services. A case in point is real estate agents. “Based on what they’ve learned about the individual from the needs analysis, the real estate professional should recommend resources and connections to local events such as dining, entertainment, and family-oriented activities,” Valdez explains. “For instance, a family interested in the outdoors could be provided with a resource that describes the best location for a scenic hike.”
Most relocation management firms have a technology platform that integrates with their respective services providers. Using an employee portal, the new hire or transferee can manage the entire relocation process in real time to ensure that everything is going as planned. This is especially important when the move is international, as it will demand even closer alignment and collaboration among the various providers.
Equally important in international relocations is cultural training for the family before they arrive. “We do a fair amount of destination counseling to help families understand from a cultural perspective what to expect,” says Rabasca from MSI. “The more they know, the softer the landing.”
Graebel offers similar consultations in addition to workshops and online tools focused on the family expatriate experience. The goal is to help the transferee’s family acclimate more quickly to cultural differences, although this is not a once and done process. “New schools, new friends, [and] new foods and languages can be daunting, and training can only go so far,” acknowledges Tim O’Shea, Graebel’s vice president of consulting services. “It’s key for companies to look at the emotions of a move as a constant—the emotional ups and downs that will happen over the course of the entire assignment and not just in the first month.”
Once More, With Feeling
Once a new hire makes the move to a new location, a sophisticated relocation management firm will not close the book on the employee. Rather, they will check in frequently with the transferee and his or her family to gauge their comfort level with the new experiences in the host country. “Keeping the lines of communication open can go a long way to help families not only adjust, but also to thrive,” O’Shea says.
A caveat for employers is not to assume that the cultural acclimation will be easy in regions where the language is the same as the employee’s country of origin. “A big mistake is to skip cultural training when American families take assignments in Ireland, the U.K., or in other geographic locations where English is commonly spoken,” O’Shea says.
Another mistake is to treat a new hire right out of college the same as one with 20 years experience. Young people have little experience navigating the shoals of the banking and real estate markets, McCain from Paragon points out. “They’ve lived in a rental with two roommates in college paying cash for everything,” he says.
Many college graduates may not have credit cards and are likely to be low on money. “You can’t expect them to wait for $5,000 to pay the moving company—that’s a big deal,” says McCain. “You need to ensure their financial concerns are alleviated, but you won’t know what [the concerns] are unless you ask them.”
Not all college graduates fit this paradigm from a relocation standpoint. “Some young people are great at doing stuff on their own, and for them it is really difficult to relinquish control; others are used to having things done for them their whole lives and may lack the maturity to make important life decisions,” says Freeman from MoveCenter. “We work hard to understand these differences.”
Older transferees, on the other hand, have other concerns. Often they are anxious about selling the family’s current residence, particularly if the real estate market has suffered and the home’s value is less than what they initially paid. “There are ways to work through these issues if you attentively listen to them first,” McCain says.
Freeman agrees. “Sometimes this is just a matter of the employer anteing up more money,” she says. “In other cases, you can work with the client to reformulate the budget to address the new hire’s financial situation. Instead of 30 days of corporate housing, maybe two weeks will be fine, [and] the money saved [can be] shifted to something more important for that person. We work with the client to be creative in how the employee’s needs are addressed.”
She cites the recent example of a new hire that was flat broke and up to his ears in student loans, which the firm learned about during the pre-hiring consultation. “We didn’t want to embarrass him by pointing it out to the employer, which had set up payroll to reimburse employees for some of their relocation expenses,” Freeman says. “One of our owners actually deposited money to the transferee’s personal bank account up front of the move. When the receipts came in, we sent them over to the employer, which then reimbursed us.”
The other relocation management firms also are empathetic when it comes to the emotions that are involved in a new hire’s relocation. For example, the international assignment managers at MSI are all expatriates. “They understand the emotional highs and lows because they’ve all been there themselves,” Rabasca says.
Without this high level of care for the transferee, the relocation experience can devolve into employee disengagement and result in unproductive behaviors. “This is all about peace of mind,” says Rabasca. “Whether you’re going on assignment overseas or to Pittsburgh, you want to know what to expect and how to prepare. You want to know your family will be safe, the kids will be enrolled at fine schools, and the spouse will be happy in a new job. You also want to know that your own career will thrive—that the difficult decision to relocate will be worth it in the long run.”
The best means of acquiring this assurance is to hire a relocation management firm with a culture of empathy that extends throughout its supplier network. This is the case at Graebel. “Each partner must have the same dedication and heightened interest of care and attention to the family’s unique needs,” says Valdez.
O’Shea echoes the statement and notes how the firm rates success. “[We’ve done our job well] if a relocating new employee, when asked a year afterwards whether if he or she would move again or recommend it to someone else, answers, `I’d definitely do it again and recommend you do it,’” he says. “You only earn these votes of confidence by making sure to listen for signs of avoidable strife and removing the obstacles.”
Once removed, the relocation is a bon voyage for all.