Henry Brookman warns that the stress of relocating for work can lead to family breakdown, and suggests how HR can offer support.
Relocating a family is a high-stress affair. It must rank close to the three Ds – death, destitution and divorce – in terms of life stress. As is well-known to HR departments, if the family is not well settled the valuable employee is not well settled. That's why relocation agencies have a profitable niche.
But often the family brings some hidden baggage with it. Sometimes relocation is seen as a means of leaving past troubles behind: sometimes it produces fresh troubles, as the employees and their spouses adjust to a new city, a new life, new friends. These pressures can be extremely damaging to an employee's effectiveness, and are all the more damaging because by their nature they tend to remain hidden.
Family breakdown is one of the most private events. As a lawyer I see many clients who have discussed it with no-one else. Very often they have not come to a decision themselves; they're looking at the "what if ?" questions. I see both sides, be it highly-paid and valued employees who have realised that they cannot deal with the problem in isolation, or their partners who are unhappy and bewildered at the deterioration of their relationship.
Because you are dealing with an international family, there are all sorts of cross-border complications. For example, the husband may be about to see his family depart on their summer holiday back to the home country. How does he know they will come back?
Frequently, too, there are international financial issues. For example the couple probably still have their family home in another country, they may have bought a second home in this country, and they may have a pension fund based abroad. The multiplicity of issues means that you need a practitioner with a wide base of knowledge. It can be difficult for employees to identify such people if they are outside their home country.
The employee's HR manager is quite likely to become involved, and in many respects the sooner the better. The HR manager can, of course, provide a range of appropriate advisers. The core advisers in a marriage breakdown will be a counsellor and a lawyer. From the lawyer's point of view, the counsellor is a crucial part of the process.
It has often been said that marriage breakdown and divorce are a process. An experienced lawyer knows that the anger and frustration being expressed at one point in the process may well change, and it is unwise for the lawyer to allow knee-jerk reactions. Referring the client to a reliable marriage counsellor and perhaps providing points of advice on the process can be beneficial.
Nevertheless, a marriage breakdown is an unhappy experience, and often a contentious one. Expatriate employees often make the wrong assumptions about their position, perhaps assuming that their home country's law applies when it does not, or that they have no options open to them.
A large part of the work of the HR department is problem-solving, and in that way the work overlaps a family lawyer's. A family lawyer ultimately has a problem to solve for a client, to enable them to keep their lives on track with the least damage and bitterness possible. How that is done, the timing and speed, should depend on the client more than the lawyer, but the employer needs to start in the right spot with the right advisers.
Henry Brookman, partner and founder of Brookman Solicitors