Selling relocation used to be easier than this

Short-term assignments offer an alternative to employees who balk at a permanent relocation. Either way, good planning helps HR answer tough questions from employees considering an international assignment

Here is the kind of frustrating scenario that more and more organizations are facing when they need to send staff to work abroad:

“It’s an opportunity that most people would give their eye teeth for,” the HR manager said. “A chance to travel, a chance to experience a new country. And it would give your career a tremendous boost.”

The employee shook his head. “I’d like to but it’s just not going to work. There are too many complications — the kids, the house, my wife’s job…”

His voice trailed off. The HR manager looked at the young man, trying to gauge his reaction. After 25 years in human resources, he knew when to push and he knew when to back off.

“Why don’t you think about it?” he said. “Talk it over with your wife. Let me check out some options and we can take it up again next week.”

It’s a story being played out with increasing frequency in boardrooms and HR offices across the country. And the timing couldn’t be worse. Just when companies need as much flexibility and mobility as they can muster to compete in the global economy, employees are becoming increasingly reluctant to uproot themselves and their families in pursuit of the corporate dream.

Contrast that to 20 or 30 years ago when employees relocated quite happily with few questions and even fewer demands. Why, then, are there so many barriers to relocation today?

The reasons why employees don’t want to relocate are as varied and individual as the employees themselves. It could be a concern about their children’s education, the need to look after an ageing parent or the conflict of dual careers. But fundamentally, there has been a shift in attitude. The implicit contract between employer and employee has disappeared. Employees no longer expect a company to look after their interests from cradle to grave. They have to look after their own futures and they’re not shy about making demands to ensure that their interests are met.

Meeting those demands can be costly and time-consuming but in a global economy where firms need mobility to take full advantage of the skills and knowledge they have in-house, there may not be much choice.

While virtual offices, videoconferencing and instant communications can forestall some of the pressure to relocate employees, it is unlikely that modern technology will ever fully replace the need to have capable, well-trained and knowledgeable employees on the ground working with local employees. And like an army deploying its troops, companies want elite employees (and when you are spending thousands of dollars on an employee, you’d expect that employee to be in the elite ranks) to take up their new responsibilities as quickly and with as little distraction as possible.

That leaves HR managers with two options. Either concede to the employees’ demands or find a way to avoid having to meet those demands.

The permanent relocation

If employees are less shy about making demands, they have every reason to be. Modern life is simply more demanding than it has ever been.

Employees have to deal with their lives outside of the corporate mandate. People are supposed to have amazingly talented children, balance careers and marriages, and look after the elderly in their care.

There are also new concerns in a post-9/11 world. People feel safe at home and are increasingly apprehensive about moving to a new community — even to locations and countries that would previously be considered secure and stable.

The answer lies in a comprehensive relocation policy that provides a new cradle-to-grave proposition that supports an employee in all aspects of his life.

That, of course, can be an expensive proposition with no guarantee that all of the relocating employee’s demand can be met. The question for employers is whether the benefits of moving a family outweigh the costs. The biggest barrier to permanent relocations may be the increasingly stringent budgetary constraints that HR managers have to meet.

And it may also be the reason that so many HR professionals are considering temporary assignments as a viable alternative.

The temporary assignment

For employees unwilling or unable to take on a permanent relocation, there is an alternative that allows employers and employees to sidestep many of the barriers.

Companies can use temporary assignments and short-term contracts to deploy the talent needed (at considerably less cost than a permanent relocation) while still allowing employees to maintain the lifestyle they want.

Companies are increasingly using short-term assignments, with small but highly mobile parts of their workforces, to accomplish important projects and start-ups. A couple of months in Vancouver may be followed by five or six months in Colorado. Companies don’t want star performers to get rooted; they want modular teams and task forces that can mobilize quickly, solve problems and move on.

And short-term assignments are a much more economical alternative, as well. Since in most cases only the employee is relocating, all the costs involved in a family move — selling the home, finding the spouse a new job, enrolling the kids in private schools — are avoided.

But the planning and procedures for deploying people for temporary assignments are quite different from those of permanent relocations. The need to get people on the job is much more urgent. Managers need to move people from city to city and country to country as quickly as possible and with the least amount of effort. Timing is critical as is having the appropriate technology and systems to expedite and track moves.

At the same time, these sorts of short-term assignments can take an incredible toll on employees’ personal lives, which is of particular concern because many of these highly mobile people are star performers. If the company is going to get the most out of its people, it must have a well-thought-out assignment program that takes these issues into account.

Human resources professionals and personnel consultants still need to help employees on temporary assignment find accommodation, make the move, settle into the new temporary home and neighbourhood, manage expenses and deal with any tax implications involved with the relocation.

Finding suitable accommodation for employees can often make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful posting. In fact, the growth of temporary assignments has spawned a whole new industry, usually referred to as “corporate housing,” to provide employees with fully equipped and furnished accommodation. By 2003, corporate housing had become a $170-million-a-year industry in Canada.

Temporary assignments can be extremely effective and an acceptable alternative, both for the employer and the employee, to permanent relocations. But companies are starting to realize that if they want to retain the employees that give them a competitive edge, they cannot treat these short term postings cavalierly.

Donna Bergles is the resident international expert at Royal LePage Relocation Services. She can be reached at [email protected] or (416) 510-5619. Robert Peterman is the national director of Royal LePage Assignment Solutions, a division of Royal LePage Relocation Services. He can be reached at [email protected] or (416) 510-5748.

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