When relocating employees, a transparent, flexible and well-communicated relocation policy is a must. Helen McCormick reports.
Dos and don’ts for a successful move
- have transparent and fair policies for all your staff
- ensure policies actively address all stress factors
- gear benefits to getting your employee back to work and productive as quickly as possible
- anticipate how each family member is affected (working spouse/partner, school-aged children, even pets)
- attend to the details
- plan the return (repatriation) with the same level of detail.
- think every move is so different you don’t need a policy
- cut corners on a relocation and undermine your overall investment in your employee
- expect hard-working HR staff to become successful property negotiators overnight
- ignore issues with a long-term impact (tax differentials, pensions etc)
- underestimate the impact of culture
- underestimate the stress that relocating can place on your employees.
Stephen Moir, director of people and policy at Cambridge County Council, underwent a smooth relocation two years ago, and can sum up why in three words: flexibility, clarity and communication. He believes that if HR departments bear these basic principles in mind when designing a relocation policy, a move can be a positive experience for everyone involved.
“I have moved around the country quite a bit in my career [he was at South Tyneside Council before he joined Cambridgeshire], and this experience compared extremely well,” he says.
“The [Cambridgeshire County] Council relocation policy is very broad, offering a number of options including travel expenses, legal fees when buying a new property, and payment for temporary lodging and for fixtures and fittings when you move.
“This high degree of flexibility is one of the most important aspects of any relocation policy,” he adds.
Cambridgeshire County Council handles most relocations internally, and the service is used regularly because it recruits graduates from around the UK, although it will use the services of an external relocation consultancy in more complicated circumstances.
“We occasionally bring people in from overseas, and in those cases we have used third parties as there are all sorts of issues to bear in mind when moving across international borders,” adds Moir.
“I can also see the value of smaller companies using the services of a relocation firm, as one of the issues for them will be cost, so budgeting is important.”
The HR department’s needs vary hugely depending on the size of the organisation and the frequency of relocation. Chris Catchpole, client services manager at consultancy Sterling Relocation, explains: “Global corporates that move personnel around on a fairly regular basis are likely to have dedicated in-house departments, capable of handling almost everything.
“They may only call on a firm like us to provide specific destination services to help the family settle, such as finding schools or language and cultural training, which are essential to allow the employee to concentrate on their new role,” he adds.
HR professionals at smaller firms who relocate staff on an infrequent, ad hoc basis may seek much more comprehensive assistance.
“They may not be aware of the specific immigration laws, and where the responsibility lies for checking this,” says Catchpole.
“This may seem fundamental but it is the sort of thing that can slip through the cracks surprisingly often.”
Budgets must be carefully researched and stuck to, and include a contingency. Also, records must be carefully kept to ensure taxes are up to date. Costs are not inconsiderable, but it is still often cheaper to relocate someone than to make them redundant and recruit someone new.
“For an ex-pat relocation, take their salary and triple it, and that will give you a fair estimate of how much it costs to keep them on assignment,” says Catchpole. “Even domestic relocations are an expensive exercise, especially the taxes involved, so budgeting is extremely important.”
While overseas relocations often last just a few years, domestic moves are more likely to be permanent, so extra support is needed for employees who will be leaving their friends and families behind in the long term.
If you do decide to use an external consultancy, set out clearly how you wish to communicate with them about the progress of the case.
“This requirement also varies enormously between different HR departments,” explains Michele Bar-Pereg, who has worked in international relocation for more than 20 years, and lectures on a range of related issues. Until recently, she was president of the European Relocation Association, and is writing a best-practice guide for the EU.
“Some [HR departments] want to know every detail, others ask for daily or weekly updates, while others only request a report at the end of an assignment,” she adds.
So how does an HR department go about setting up a relocation policy? Stuart Mitchell, senior partner at consultancy Business Moves Advisory Centre, says the policy must be absolutely clear about what everyone is getting.
Keep it clear
“Policies with more generous or different rules for senior staff invariably hit problems,” he warns.
“An employer doesn’t want to over-compensate, but the employee doesn’t want to be out of pocket or move grudgingly with an ongoing, potentially disruptive sense of resentment,” he explains.
Requirements will also vary depending on the number of employees to be moved. Moving a single person is in many ways more straightforward than relocating a whole family, as the needs of a spouse and children are not a factor.
“However, a single person will have a far greater need to network and meet new people,” points out Catchpole.
Scott Sullivan, senior vice-president at GMAC Global Relocation Services, warns that if a company does not communicate information directly to its employees, this can easily lead to inaccurate information being circulated.
“In a group move, it is essential that communications are handled quickly and accurately by the company – and long before a rumour mill has time to ‘create the information’,” he says.
Catchpole believes HR departments must ensure they fully understand why there is resistance – for example, people being relocated from London may worry that leaving the capital will damage their career prospects and leave them unable to afford to return, so they may opt for redundancy and look for another job in London.
“HR departments should conduct a survey to find out any concerns and if there is any way to overcome them,” he suggests.
“For example, if an employee’s main concern is that their children are about to take exams, it may be possible to delay the move, or have the children board for that year, or for the employee to work away from home for part of the week. A negative situation can be turned into a positive one, and the employee will feel valued.”
To make that possible, you must build flexibility into your relocation policy, and communicate it to employees and their families – their spouse in particular must be fully behind the move if it is to succeed.
Remember that, however closely HR and the relocation company get involved, the individual and their family need to remain in control of the process.
“Do not make decisions for the transferees,” stresses Bar-Pereg. “Offer guidelines, but remember that the final decision should be theirs.”
Sense of control
Stuart Duff, partner and head of psychological development at Pearn Kandola, agrees: “Often in relocations there isn’t a great deal of choice in the decision, but what is most important is that the employee feels that they have a sense of control over elements of the move,” he says.
Moir sees his own experience as a benchmark. “Having experienced relocation personally, the key elements for me are flexibility, clear policies and procedures that people will understand, and really good communication and support, including proactive, named contact points for key stages, such as sorting out accommodation,” he explains.
“Management of expectations is vital throughout, especially for people coming in from overseas. The last thing you want to do is sour the experience for the employee. One of the most stressful things a person can do is move house, so the more stress the organisation can remove from the employee, the better.
“They will then feel positive about the new job and be productive straight away,” Moir adds.
The legal pitfalls
- Does the employer have a mobility clause allowing it to request this particular relocation? An unclear clause will be construed in the employee’s favour. Also, watch out for any potential indirect discrimination against women and/or disabled people as they may find it harder to relocate.
- Any relocation to a new office may be a redundancy situation under UK law. Be careful to comply with the statutory procedures in relation to dismissal when effecting a relocation and to consult with the employee.
- Is there a contractual entitlement to relocation expenses? If not, consider the impact on the employer’s duty to act fairly and reasonably if you refuse to provide assistance with such expenses.
- In the case of a secondment, you should ensure that any secondment agreement with the employee dovetails with the employee’s contract of employment.
- If you are relocating an employee abroad, you should also bear in mind these points:
- Are any visa or other immigration approvals needed?
- The employee will likely be covered by the employment laws of the destination country, but if the employment contract expressly provides that English law is the governing law of that contract, the employee may also be able to claim breach of contract or other claims under English law.
- If you are relocating or seconding employees to a member state of the European Union, you must comply with the Posted Workers Directive.
- Tax implications: the employee may be liable for UK tax and National Insurance contributions on worldwide income, depending on the period spent abroad.
Robin Jeffcott, partner, and Kate French, trainee, in the employment team at law firm Reed Smith Richards Butler