Hey HR! Here’s What Employees and Families Really Need When Relocating Internationally

Guest Author:
Rachel Yates – Definingmoves.com

[Editor’s Note:  We are very excited to share with you the assignee’s spouse perspective on international relocation, from someone who has lived through five such moves.  Rachel Yates edits a website, Defining Moves, devoted to assisting relocating families around the world. ]

I read the post from May, 2011 by Warren Heaps about global mobility policies for the 21st century on this site, and found it to be fascinating, mainly because I am part of the changing demographics Warren described. On paper, we are the traditional relocating family; husband as assignee, spouse as the accompanying partner, and two dependent children. We have relocated through three continents over the last 10 years, and we have struggled. And we are most definitely not alone.

So what do relocating individuals and families really need from HR?

Realistic Expectations
Until you have physically lived somewhere, you have no understanding of the challenges and pitfalls that lie ahead, and you often make the mistake of assuming that the HR department does. Yet very comparatively few people working within HR have experienced international relocation firsthand, so there is a significant gap between the policy theory and practice. This only becomes more commonplace as the diversity of both relocating personnel and locations increases.

In an ideal world, there would be a creative element to every relocation policy, which would allow a flexible approach to dealing with issues that were unforeseen by either the employer or the employee. However, in the interim, better access to information for both the transferee and the family is essential at the initiation of the process, rather than simply using cultural orientation packages to ‘mop up’ any concerns. Information needs to come from as wide a range of sources as possible; firsthand accounts from returning expatriates (whether within the company or from a wider professional network), from both corporate and independent expatriate websites and from destination service providers. All can assist in making assignment planning proactive, rather than a reactive approach which is far more difficult to manage.

It’s Not About the Money
Very few assignments are accepted for financial reasons alone – in many cases, families lose income generated by the accompanying partner. Research has repeatedly shown that families accept assignments most often for career development and the opportunity to experience new places and cultures. When location issues become so challenging that family quality of life is negatively impacted or the original goal of global experience is not being met, unless HR are responsive to the needs of the family as a whole, the only option left open is to terminate the assignment.

This has more than cost and productivity implications – it also reduces employee confidence in HR’s ability to manage assignments effectively, and potentially compromises their willingness to be globally mobile or at worst, stay with the company. The issues that create this situation are not exclusive to expatriate life: illness, security, education etc all require time and effort to resolve in the home environment, but when in a host location lack of established sources of support and information magnify the impact. The efforts of HR in partnering to find solutions and in promoting the role of informal support services such as expat networks, online resources and reliable service providers are the critical factors in the decision of the family to stay or leave.

Bear in mind the goal is to get the employee into location, into role and productive in as short a time as possible, and the most effective way to achieve this is to support their family in establishing a stable home life.

Most policies recognize the importance of acclimation, but few recognize that while the employee is fully occupied with adapting to their new professional role, it is the partner that carries out the lion’s share of life necessities. The accompanying partner is a valuable resource; statistically, they are an educated, professional and motivated group, so channeling all the essential relocation information through the already overloaded ‘working’ spouse is an extremely inefficient way of getting things done. Direct dialogue with the accompanying partner does more than ensure effective communication and appropriate use of services; it also conveys a sense of respect for their commitment, and appreciation of their efforts.

So as an expat partner, I have three wishes. And none of them cost a penny.

  1. I wish we had access to resources purchased by the company as soon as we know we might be relocating, so that while my partner is defining his role, I can define the reality for the rest of the family.
  2. I wish for HR to be an equal partner in making the expatriate assignment successful, who recognizes that people are more important than money, and that supporting the former saves the latter.
  3. I wish HR would recognize the accompanying partner as an integral part of the move and communicate with them directly rather than through the partner. When excluding them from the process means that their only input is whether to stay or go, you have a significant chance of assignment failure.

More About Rachel

Rachel Yates is the editor and publisher of definingmoves.com, a website that provides information and inspiration for relocating individuals, partners and families with the knowledge, experience and warped humor of expatriates and locals from all over the globe.

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