By Laurie Ruettimann
Forbes recently published a list of America’s Fastest Growing Cities, and Raleigh, N.C., is number two. The metropolitan area—which includes Cary, Durham, and Chapel Hill—has good weather, a relatively low unemployment rate, and an academic environment that nurtures a pipeline of corporate innovation. The art scene is thriving, Google is considering expanding its high-speed broadband program to the area, and the restaurants really are good, too.
I moved to Raleigh in 2008 because my husband works in the pharmaceutical industry. We have relocated three times during our marriage—and he relocated several times before we were married—and we have always been offered a relocation package that included the basics: general consultation, financial guidance, a list of preferred moving providers. We were also lucky enough to receive concierge-like services that helped us to acclimate to our new community.
Moving is tough for anyone—single, married, couples with kids, bloggers with cats—and searching for answers on the Internet doesn’t offer much comfort. It is always helpful to have a team of experts who can answer questions about school districts, civic organizations, and finding the best grocery store with the area’s biggest selection of gluten-free products.
Not everyone who relocates domestically has these benefits. Relocation services can be expensive, and many companies have streamlined the process by simply offering a lump-sum payment and a list of preferred providers. Otherwise, employers expect workers to do their own research and make their way to new communities across America. They expect their people to acclimate to new neighborhoods—and new cultures—upon arrival, with little disruption to their professional lives.
Good luck with that. Some relocations are easier than others. Here in Raleigh, immigrants from far-flung places such as Trenton and Omaha are entering the housing market; unfortunately, affordable housing and afterschool childcare are difficult to find. Our local infrastructure is taxed; roads are under construction. Finding a shortcut through the traffic can be tough if you don’t know anyone. And I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “I love the weather, but I still can’t find a good slice of pizza in this town!”
If you manage employees who are considering a domestic move, be prepared to think about the concept of domestic culture shock—a feeling of confusion, doubt, or nervousness caused by living in a place that looks like your hometown but is very different from your expectations.
According to Lynda Lescault, director of client services at Dwellworks, a global provider of destination and relocation services, an often-quoted information bite is that relocation is the most traumatic experience that people can go through apart from death and divorce. “Although a domestic move seems simple,” she says, “there is still a huge amount of stress. There are many tasks for the employee and family to complete within a short amount of time. Companies can help offset the stress by offering resources of interest to the family, including introductions to the community and assistance with settling into the new area.”
Too bad that the concept of domestic culture shock is so far off the radar screen for many leaders that it often doesn’t warrant serious consideration. That should change—because unless businesses address the issue, they risk their people failing in new roles as a result of struggling to acclimate to their new surroundings.
“Domestic culture shock is a fairly common condition that most HR professionals should watch for as a consequence of their talent-management strategies,” said Jerry Funaro, VP of global marketing for TRC Global Solutions. “Relocation is often considered successful when it is timely and on budget. As long as an employee is in place on a specific date and there is no major trauma with goods, supervisors and the local HR team are generally happy. But those metrics can be misleading. Relocation can fail if companies don’t address the personal needs of the employee and her family. And a failed relocation costs an employer more than the actual cost of transporting goods across state lines.”
Whether you offer a lump-sum payment or ask a relocation company to manage the process, a move from Lansing to New York or San Francisco to Huntsville can be deceptively complicated. If there are children or a trailing spouse with his own vibrant career—and if there are credit issues, relationship issues, or problems with the real-estate transaction—the entire process can shift an employee’s focus away from the new job and back on to one’s personal life.
And then what happens when everything sort of looks the same in your new town but is totally different? For example, Raleigh looks like the suburban enclaves surrounding Philadelphia or Trenton—and we have our fair share of iconic brands such as Walmart and Starbucks—but this town, like any place in the United States, has its share of quirkiness and preferences. Relationships are built on a mix of alma maters and churches. There are preferential and fashionable neighborhoods. And many northerners have seen the movie Lincoln but move here and forget that North Carolina was part of the Old Confederacy. And although the producers of Homeland film many of the Washington, D.C., scenes here in Raleigh, this town is nothing like Washington. For a newly relocated employee and the individual’s family, the change can be disconcerting and unsettling.
So what can leaders do to help transplanted employees adapt?
A successful move starts with a clear understand of the process. Lessault says, “The relocating employee and family should feel that both the logistics of the move as well as their personal needs are being considered. There should be a framework for asking questions and getting clear, fair, honest answers without thinking ‘everything they might want or need’ is available to them as part of the move.”
Merry Lee Lison, senior director of HR at TRC, believes that your local HR department should stop worrying about risk and consider treating employees like actual human beings. “Go above and beyond. HR could do so much more to reach out to the family and look at their needs. Think about the employee as the whole employee. Focus on activities outside of the office. Ask your employee about her interests. How does her family have fun?”
But before the move even happens, talent-management professionals can use relocation-assessment tools as part of the candidate-selection process to determine fit, flexibility, and potential conflicts with the localization of the employee. Employers already commonly utilize such assessment tools—measuring attributes such as initiative, patience, sociability, and openness—during international relocations. They should do the same domestically, because the risk of making a mistake by choosing an inflexible, impatient employee can have big consequences.
Still, I wonder what responsibility falls on the shoulders of the transferring employee? All things being equal, shouldn’t people know that different parts of the country have diverse and unique qualities? Shouldn’t your workforce bear some responsibility for being nimble and adaptable? When a relocation fails, is it always because the company did not address the holistic needs of an employee?
“Employees do have to choose their attitude,” Lison says. “Although financial and career decisions are important, it’s important to think about your family, your kids, and your spouse.”
I like that response. Whenever a newly transplanted Yankee tells me that he can’t find a good pizza slice in Raleigh, I push back and offer to take him to a local diner. If you want a good slice, go back to Manhattan. If you want to meet your neighbors and learn a little more about American history, join me over a plate of black-eyed peas, okra, and mac and cheese. And if you ever stop complaining, I might just take you to my favorite pizza joint in Durham.