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How to Manage Expectations for Successful International Relocation Programs

Danger: ExpectationsA few years ago, I was working with a client who was transferring an employee from Chicago to Amsterdam. The employee was moving from a 10,000 square foot house and decided to take most of their belongings with them.  We found them a luxury villa, which was a very standard 4,500 square feet.

The family didn’t realize how small living quarters are in Amsterdam relative to the states. The company had no idea either. We put as much furniture in the house as possible and stored the rest, but the family was very upset.  Eventually, they dropped the lease and rented a house on the main canal with four full floors that cost $10,000 Euros a month. The company ended up paying for the rent increase for the remainder of the assignment, as well as storage fees for the furniture and additional shipping fees to send some items back to Chicago.

This was a very clear case of misguided expectations and the fallout could have been avoided by setting expectations before the relocation initiated. Below are three steps global mobility managers should take with every transferee:

Research the family.Too many companies do not properly vet their employees prior to initiating a relocation. If you don’t understand your employee’s personal situation from the beginning, you will never be able to manage their expectations because you won’t know what they need to make the relocation work — or if the move is even feasible.

In the grand scheme of things that could go wrong, the situation above is relatively minor. But, there are many other critical issues to address, especially when it comes to international assigments:  Are children involved? Does the child have special learning needs? What about custody issues? Does the family have dietary restrictions? A live-in au pair? Allergies? Handicaps? An elderly parent?  The list goes on and on. These are not issues that you want to solve on the fly when the family arrives in a new country.

Third party relocation companies often suggest that companies do pre-decision assessments on employees prior to committing to the move. A thorough assessment is a great tool to help HR understand the employee’s situation so that an educated decision can be made about whether or not to move forward.

Know the destination. Busy managers rarely take the time learn about the destination before approaching an employee about relocating. This is a big mistake. If the company doesn’t understand the situation that the employee will be facing, how can they possibly present the relocation accurately? You cannot manage expectations in a vacuum – it’s absolutely essential that relocation managers take the time to speak with their destination partners about what the transferee will experience while living there.

To save time, gather intel about your employee before calling your service provider. This way, you will not only learn about basic living conditions at destination, but you will also have answers for your employee about any special circumstances they need addressed.

Avoid a harsh reality check when they land. Once you understand the family and the destination, you will be ready to discuss details. The culture in the U.S. is such that people tend to shy away from anything that is considered rude or unsavory, even if it’s honest. It’s uncomfortable, but don’t beat around the bush. If you know that your employee’s child has a disability and that the handicapped are not well served at the destination, then the move probably won’t be the best fit for that employee and it’s your job to say so. "To raise someone's expectations and then not fulfill them is worse than mediocrity" - Seth Godin

Whatever you do, do not make it sound nicer than it is – this just sets the stage for a major expectation mis-match. The truth is going to come out eventually, so it’s better that everyone is prepared in advance.

It’s important to remember that the destination is what it is. You can change suppliers, increase budgets and compensate for living hardships, but if expectations aren’t set properly, the relocation is bound to fail. In almost every case like the one above, it’s the element of surprise that infuriates transferees more than the actual situation.

How do you manage employee expectations for international relocations and assignments? Do you do the same for domestic moves? Share your tips and experiences below. 

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VP, Client Services

VP of Business Development Northeast Region


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