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Kid's-Eye View

Kid's-Eye View | Human Resource Executive Online Relocating can mean a better job, better salary and increased responsibility -- but for children, it can mean disrupting school, friendships and activities. How can companies help turn those negatives around?

Sunday, February 1, 2009
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After Steve Rogers found out he was being relocated from suburban Wilmington, Del., to Ponca City, Okla., his company's HR representatives provided information about his new job responsibilities, told him about the new community and set him up on house-hunting trips.

One issue -- actually three -- that he had to figure out on his own, however, were the soon-to-be-altered lives of his daughters Christie, Annie and Caitlin -- then 7, 5 and 2, who had plenty of questions.

Will I ever see my friends again?

Where will I go to school?

Can I bring my toys?

The year was 1987. Rogers, a relocation manager at Wilmington-based DuPont Co., was being relocated to Ponca City to work for Conoco Inc., owned by DuPont at the time.

 

Rogers and his wife, Lucy, made sure not to "break the news" to the kids, but rather to tell them in a celebratory manner and take an upbeat tone of voice. They even went so far as to make it a family event, bringing all three children together for the announcement.

"We tried to focus on the positives," Rogers says. "[We highlighted] the excitement of a new place to live, a new house and it meant new rooms for the girls."

Rogers also made sure his children came along on house-hunting trips, so they felt like integral parts of the process. The girls saw the schools, helped pick their new home and got to spend time in their new neighborhood.

At the time of his move, DuPont's relocation program did not offer specific assistance to help ease the transition for kids, he says, but by staying positive, the change went smoothly. (DuPont has since initiated an extensive program for relocating children.)

While Rogers did not go so far as to bribe his children to go along with the move, he did illustrate that the family would be in a better financial position after moving.

"I related it to things they would understand -- give them more toys, give them more clothes, let them do more dance classes," says Rogers. "Whatever it is that would trigger an emotional, positive result."

Working today as a relocation specialist in the HR department at CITGO's headquarters in Houston, Rogers is eager to offer advice for transitioning employees with children. He believes programs, such as allowing the whole family to hunt together for a home, pay big dividends.

"I think that's an excellent approach and it doesn't cost you that much to send the kids on a house-hunting trip for what you get out of it, family-wise," says Rogers.

Since the cost of relocation is high, companies today are doing all they can to make sure domestic and international transfers are a success. Experts say forward-thinking companies will offer advice on easing the transition for children.

And considering the demographics of relocating employees, it only makes sense. Six in 10 transferees have dependent children and three of four are married, according to a study by Worldwide ERC, the Washington-based membership organization for the relocation industry. Childcare assistance during the move is provided by 40 percent of respondents and almost half said their companies provide school-finding assistance to transferees.

"A little investment in ensuring that the family acclimates successfully can save a failed move," says Suzanne Murdoch, relocation manager at The Impact Group, a global relocation company in St. Louis.

Helpful Guidelines

Companies that offer assistance seem to handle the issue in one of two ways: Either HR helps employees ease the stressors of the transition on their children or they contract that work to a consultant, says Murdoch.

If handled by the company, HR departments may utilize their employee-assistance programs or set up sponsorships, in which families already living in a community will help welcome a new family.

If handled by a consultant -- which is by far the more popular option, according to Murdoch -- HR's role is not just to coordinate the family and consultant connection, but to be there to handle any troubles the family might be having.

"It's not that HR outsources it and never sees them again," says Murdoch. "[Employees] still come back to the company to handle repercussions of a failed move or a family in distress."

If an HR department is looking for a consultant to deal with family-and-children issues of relocating employees, Murdoch says, its staff should be sure to look at independent research and talk to their relocation management company (which most companies have).

When they do make a decision, HR should be specific in what it wants from a consultant.

"Companies can structure that according to their needs and say, 'This is what we're looking for,' " she says, "because every company is different and every population is different."

Whoever does the counseling should encourage relocating parents to first identify their own feelings about the move, because if they are not fully on board, a child will pick up on it and begin feeling the same way, says Murdoch.

One of the most important questions parents have is when to tell kids that the family is moving. Murdoch believes kids should be told "as soon as you are ready to give them a positive message."

Anne P. Copeland, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Interchange Institute in Brookline, Mass., says parents should give kids as much time as possible.

"I'm in favor of more time rather than less time" says Copeland. If kids are just given a short amount of time to prepare, "that would feel like having the rug pulled out from under [them]; they might then go through life wondering what else is going to happen suddenly."

Copeland says HR should advise employees that children -- just like parents -- need time to say good-bye and set themselves up for the move by having a going-away party and creating an e-mail contact list.

If kids are going to be upset or sad about it, it's better for them to do that in the host location, she says, while they are still in their friendship network.

Copeland also says companies successful in relocations often match a relocating child with another worker's child who is roughly the same age and living in the destination location.

"They can e-mail ahead of time and get some of their questions answered," says Copeland. "Not all kids take to that, but that can be helpful."

If companies want to make sure children go along with the move smoothly, HR should be sure to have a wide-ranging spousal-assistance program.

"You know the saying, 'If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy?' I think children are particularly vulnerable to an unhappy parent; sometimes, they take on the symptoms of an unhappy parent," Copeland says.

Organizations should also have what Copeland calls "family-friendly policies," such as offering some time off after the move so the family can get settled or making sure the relocating employee has -- and takes -- vacation time with family.

Age-Related Issues

HR should also warn parents that children of different ages will have different issues. Young children may be upset about having their daily routines interrupted. They may also be unsure what exactly will come with them once they move, such as toys and other possessions. Pre-teens and especially teenagers seem to be most worried about leaving behind friends and social networks, or even romantic relationships. And the older they are, the more attached they tend to be to their hometowns.

"Friendships are getting to be especially important and starting to compete with family in terms of importance," says Copeland, "and you're pulling kids out of that network, so that can be a real challenge."

Companies can also help parents by telling them that they should be sure to show they understand why their child is resisting the move. "When they resist, you don't want to push back immediately. You must show you understand their concerns," says Murdoch.

When helping relocatees at CITGO, Rogers suggests parents use the Internet to show kids information and pictures of the new town, new house or new school.

Another question relocating parents seem to have is whether or not to relocate during the school year. Rogers not only supports moving while school is in full swing; he favors putting kids into a new school on the first day at the new location. Rather than moving during the summer, when children can languish around the house with no friends, they should be thrust right into school so they can acclimate quicker.

At shipping giant UPS, relocation is not just a chance to work in a different environment, it's the company's primary way of promoting employees, says John Saunders, vice president of human resources at the Atlanta-based company. UPS creates a list of people who are willing to relocate, and whenever a transfer assignment presents itself (usually in conjunction with a promotion) it may be offered to a qualified candidate on the list.

"Relocation is one of the critical forms of development for us, so we have a very rich relocation program," says Saunders.

In 2008, the company did between 550 and 600 domestic moves, he says, noting that the company works with relocation consultant Cartus Global Consulting, based in Danbury, Conn. For such occasions, UPS allows children to go along on house-hunting and school-hunting trips -- even if they have to go twice -- says Saunders.

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UPS also provides time off for employees to move and settle their personal affairs. Without those family-driven benefits, he believes a relocation has a much greater chance of failure.

"There are situations where the relocating family moves and it doesn't work out well," says Saunders, "and then . . . you end up with employees who, at best, are distracted because they get home from work and they're walking into situations that are not settled."

UPS employees can remove themselves from the list either permanently or temporarily if there are personal issues that would hinder a relocation, such as children who are in high school.

For international assignments, UPS' program is much more extensive. International assignments, which Saunders says numbered roughly 60 to 70 in 2008, most commonly involved sending workers to Brussels, Toronto or Singapore -- where regional offices are located -- as well as a handful of other locations around the world.

Once selected for an international assignment, the employee and spouse fly to the company's headquarters for an interview with HR to make sure that, from a family perspective, there are no issues that could hinder the move, says Gina Haesloop, corporate relocation manager at UPS.

If all goes well, Cartus and UPS give the assignee and spouse a "cultural assessment," so any potential red flags can be identified. After that comes a family trip to the new location, where employees -- and children -- can pick out houses and schools, and get a sense of what life is like in that area. During that trip, they are introduced to everything from medical centers to supermarkets. They can then decide to accept the assignment.

Before leaving, the company provides cultural and language training to the child as well as international school benefits.

With Cartus attending to the relocatees day-to-day, Haesloop and Saunders are there to deal with any employee issues that can't be resolved by the consulting company. For example, if an employee sells a house for $250,000 after buying it for $300,000, Haesloop and Saunders would try to help the employee deal with that loss, including deciding if he or she deserves a loss-on-sale benefit.

An Easy Transition to China

Though Steve Rogers says he was forced -- back in the 1980s -- to figure out single-handedly how to ease the transition of his cross-country move for his children, things have since changed at his former employer.

In the summer of 2005, DuPont -- by then the proud providers of an extensive family-relocation program -- was looking to move Tim Read and his family from Wilmington to Shanghai for a three-year assignment. His 11-year-old son, Douglas, seemed torn. Sure, it would be interesting to live in such a far-away region, but he would be leaving his friends and classmates behind.

"He was not happy to be leaving his friends," says Tim's wife, Sherry. "He was nervous about going to a new school and meeting other kids."

His parents thought that -- along with being positive and excited about the move -- a few "bribes" might help sway him toward the move, so they got him a Playstation Portable video-game system and his first cell phone.

DuPont also brought the entire family to Washington for cultural training, including a session specifically designed for Douglas. The program is intended for families with potential major issues that could stall, or even halt, the relocation assignment, says Kathy Walz, DuPont's HR consultant for global rewards.

The sessions provided Douglas with some basic language lessons and cultural information, and he was even introduced to some girls his age who were also living in Shanghai. They attended the program while they were home visiting during the summer.

"It helped him, being able to talk to people who are his age, to ask what Shanghai was like and what living there meant to them," says Sherry Read, who believes that without the program, Douglas would have had more anxiety about the trip and less of a sense of security.

As Walz puts it, "we're trying to get people educated to set expectations [about] what it's going to be like living, working and going to school in any particular country."

She also notes that many relocation issues for children can be handled by the company's destination-service provider, which can introduce the family to others in the region and help pick out the right neighborhoods and schools. Once in a location, a family can contact the company's EAP to get help with any child-related issues that may pop up.

Like many experts suggest, the Read family had a going-away party with about 15 or 20 friends. Tim and Sherry also showed their son photos of the new house and neighborhood, another thing most experts advise.

Though his first year was tough, Douglas adjusted well during the final two years, wandering the streets with friends, traveling by taxi and going to cafes. As for his friends back in Wilmington, he kept up with them using the social networking site Facebook and the voice-over-Internet program Skype.

"He knew everybody at the school [back in Wilmington], even though there were some he never actually met [in real life]," says Sherry Read. "Now he uses Facebook and Skype to keep in touch with his friends in Shanghai."

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