Enticing employees to go on relocation

Career prospects and family-support services can help convince reluctant workers to tackle foreign assignments
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/19/2009

As alluring and exciting as relocations might sound, they can also add up to a major upheaval for an employee. There are plenty of doubts and unknowns and HR may find a top performer targeted for a major assignment is not willing to take the leap.

Today the reluctance is even stronger because of the level of uncertainty that exists in the economy, says Stephen Cryne, president and CEO of the Canadian Employee Relocation Council. Add on the complications of housing issues and dual-career families and, all of a sudden, this becomes a much more complex decision to make, he says.

So how can an employer motivate a hesitant employee? Priority one is letting the employee know how the relocation fits into her career planning.

“As far as enticing the employee is concerned, it needs to be what impact it has on that employee’s career,” says Linda Ward O’Farrell, managing consultant with Ward O’Farrell Consultants in Montreal. “A lot of incentives really need to be intangible ones. The financial aspects have to be removed because those might be considered barriers, the personal issues as well, particularly if you’re trying to get the family to buy into going.”

With the economic downturn, it may be harder to give individuals the job certainty they had before, but at least employers should provide a road map, with details on consequences and options if things do not work out, says Cryne.

“Career is vitally important to people today. People need a clear path, to understand well before the assignment what’s going to happen, and many companies don’t give that the attention it warrants,” he says. “At least people know, and then they can make an informed decision. Nothing upsets people more than when they get into something and it’s not what they expected.”

To further quell any doubts and ensure an employee is the right fit for the job, an employer should conduct a comprehensive needs assessment. This can help look for any warning flags, such as an inappropriate personality or a very reluctant spouse, and the sooner these are addressed, the better, says Terri Oliver, director of consulting services at the MIGroup in Mississauga, Ont., a provider of relocation and assignment management programs.

Employers should also be prepared to deal with the reactions of potential candidates. Initially, it’s a very emotional experience to be assigned to an exciting location and be chosen for this rare career opportunity, she says.

“But after it settles in a little bit, you start thinking the what-ifs: ‘What if the company downsizes or my wife has to give up her career? What if the kids don’t adjust really well?’ For families, there’s so much they might not be thinking of when they first get that offer.”

This can lead to stress, anxiety and doubts so HR should keep its approach positive, dealing with the emotional, financial and logical sides upfront, and realistically setting expectations.

“It’s really (about) HR or a service provider trying to predict what those issues could be,” says Oliver.

The number one reason people decline a relocation is the family, says Cryne, and that relates to housing, spousal careers and support, schooling and even repatriation.

“The housing issues are more complicated today,” he says. “A double-income family moving from Toronto to London a year or so ago, they were probably feeling pretty optimistic. Today, they might not want to take that risk.”

A look-see or pre-decision trip is another way to, hopefully, calm nerves. The employee and his family can visit the intended location to take in the setting, the opportunities and the challenges, and make themselves more comfortable with what’s ahead. Supportive services are also commonly provided, such as school searches, and employers might decide to pay for the higher costs of tuition, uniforms, transportation, residence and boarding schools.

Spousal support is also higher on the radar, as employers can provide spouses with orientation programs or assist them in getting involved in volunteer work or getting appropriate work permits in the new location. Some companies provide re-employment assistance or top-ups to salaries for the employee’s partner in the new location.

HR may also consider shortening a longer assignment or offer more home-leave trips for the employee, so his family does not have to move.

“There’s a lot more of that going on, as there are more and more spouses who are reluctant to move, particularly for an assignment for a year or two,” says Ward O’Farrell. “The disruption sometimes is just not worth it.”

Total rewards

Another incentive is a rest and relaxation trip, one vacation per year, particularly for hardship locations such as Syria, Libya and Central Africa, she says. These areas also require considerable assurances when it comes to safety around environmental issues or local conflicts, such as evacuation programs, housing and a car and driver for school.

“All of that falls into the area of personal concerns. And corporations need to deal with that because they’re going to be very high on an employee’s and family’s list of ‘I can’t go because…’” says Ward O’Farrell

When it comes to compensation for relocations, employees do fairly well, says Cryne. Average salaries for overseas assignments start at $90,000, so salary is less of an issue than career and experience opportunities.

“I don’t think the compensation side of it is too difficult for people to get around,” he says.

The financial element is not necessarily what’s going to entice people to go but employers need to remove financial burdens that can be the barriers to taking on an assignment, says Ward O’Farrell. That means employers can help deal with housing costs at home and at the destination, either through employer rent top-ups or home country offsets.

“In some cases, for short-term assignments, to really give them that nudge to go, depending on the country, the market, the talent and skill they want to transfer over there, employers are more inclined to pay for the full rent out there, utilities, furnished accommodation,” she says.

Employees can also be lured by a bounty of benefits — such as settling-in services, school tuition and health-care coverage. Years ago, everybody was treated the same way and given the same package, but now there is a need to recruit specialized skills with specialized packages, says Oliver.

“Now I’m seeing more of a cafeteria-style program, based on a needs assessment,” she says. “And it’s a good idea, especially when there’s a limited budget.”

In some cases, there are also bonuses, for going and staying in a relocation, which can range from five or 10 per cent additional remuneration for every year on assignment, says Ward O’Farrell.

“In some cases it’s just to entice them to the assignment, in others it’s to compensate for the disruption to the employee and family. Sometimes it’s to compensate for ‘out of sight, out of mind,’” she says. “Employees feel if they’re away from the centre of the operation, they may not be there for potential career advancement if a job comes up.”

On the job

The promise of a mentor or colleague to support an employee on assignment can also reinforce the connection with head office. This person can explain what the move looks like on paper and how that compares to reality, says Oliver, though every person has an individual experience.

“In order that they not be forgotten while they’re away from headquarters, having a mentor back home, maybe who was an expatriate, is an excellent idea. It keeps the employee in touch with what’s going on here, and makes sure the directors of the corporation know that person still exists,” says Ward O’Farrell.

Most employees contemplating a relocation will also have concerns about the return home, which can often prove bumpy and dissatisfying — and lead to an employee’s departure from the company.

“Some corporations realize re-integration is important for family, so they offer counseling to employees and families,” she says. “Having been abroad for sometimes three to five years, it’s a whole other life, and people come back home and nothing’s the same.”

But through all of the cajoling, employers must be careful not to oversell or over-promise. It’s never a good idea to suggest to an employee the trip will “make them whole” or guarantee an executive position, says Oliver. “If that doesn’t pan out, you have to be really careful.”

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