Getting staff to relocate is one thing; getting them to stay put is another matter. Arabella McIntyre-Brown.
You're going to Newcastle. Having lived in London your whole life, suddenly the company decides that you're going about as far oop noorth as you can get without invading Scotland. Your neighbours will call your wife 'pet', wear clogs and whistle Fog on the Tyne.
The boss has told you. Now you have to tell your wife. She's going to be seriously unhappy. What about her £25,000-a-year job? And what about the kids, doing GCSEs next year? And then there's the house ...
But what option do you have? Get up north or get lost. The company is quite prepared to enforce the mobility clause in your contract or it might just make you redundant, and at 49, how easy will it be to get another job?
Up to 100,000 people find themselves in this cleft stick each year. And as mobility clauses get tougher, the track record of corporate compassion isn't good, says Jeremy Stanyard at PA Consulting Group: 'Most companies treat corporate relocations as a real estate issue. If they think about the other components - people and technology - they do so only in terms of logistics.'
For companies, the cost of moving a staff member is almost always lower than making an existing employee redundant and recruiting someone local to the new plant or office (total recruitment cost runs at approximately 50% of first year salary). Yet in any relocation programme, employers are well advised to make some provision for relocation drift, that is, employees leaving the new set-up to go back to what they regard as home.
This homing pattern has changed in the past five years, however, which should come as welcome news to employers. For at the height of the property boom, the rush to leave London and the south-east had a heavy fallout, with around one in five relocated staff trekking back to where they came from. To compound matters, corporate naivety at the time often led to badly designed relocation package conditions, like those devised by one oil company leaving the south-east. It decided to establish six months as the cut-off point for a loyalty bonus which was to be handed out to anyone who lasted the course: lo and behold, around 20% of those whose jobs were relocated in the move simply left the family where it was, rented a place for the prescribed six months, then took the money and walked into new jobs back home. These days not only are qualifying periods usually longer but claw-back provisions are also tougher, with periods and proportions varying from the lenient to the crippling; how enforceable they are is another matter, however.
In post-property boom Britain, the extent of any relocation fallout seems to come down to two factors: the width of the culture gap between the home location and the eventual destination, and the employer's efforts to minimise moving pains. 'It is crucial to manage perceptions before the event so that there are no shocks,' says Andrew Finney of Hambro Countrywide.
The single largest problem for relocating staff is the disruption the move causes to their partner's life. 'The fact that a company even thinks about its employees' families earns it brownie points,' says Finney. 'Over half of relocating staff are part of a dual-income unit, which causes strain immediately. Around 52% of staff have children at school, yet five out of 10 companies offer no help to find school places. Even fewer (38%) try to help the relocating partners find jobs.'
The resistance by partners and families to moving is often based on fear of the unknown or at least uninformed prejudice. Misconceptions are usually overturned on the first visit to the new location - if there is a visit, that is. London Electricity is not atypical of mobile companies in that, although it is trying to move staff from the capital up to its new customer service base in Sunderland, no effort has been made to introduce the new location to existing staff. All but a handful of employees have so far refused to consider the move.
Somewhat to the south west of London Electricity's new base, first-time visitors to Liverpool find a lively city centre and beaches or mountains within an hour's drive. Even so, the jump from south London suburbs to Toxteth must have taken some sweet talking by Jeremy Hamer, MD of marzipan producers JF Renshaw. Back in the early '90s Renshaws moved to Liverpool from Mitcham to consolidate the company's three factories, Liverpool being the best commercial choice.
Hamer had to deal with all kinds of prejudices and difficult personal circumstances in persuading staff to move. 'But it was less difficult because I was moving too,' he says. Hamer's wife, a Londoner born and bred, was against the move, but now 'can't think why she ever thought London was so marvellous'. 'Everyone loves it here,' says Hamer, 'with the exception of one person who, ironically, is Liverpool-born'.
Renshaws was generous with its relocation package, covering 'every cost imaginable, including weekends for staff and families to come up to Liverpool and look at the area'. In the end only one of the staff who relocated has left; he and his family loved the North West, but a job offer he received elsewhere was one that was simply too good to turn down.
The switch from glossy Oxfordshire to wild north Wales proved rather more problematic for Euro-DPC which had outgrown its premises in Witney and, for lack of any suitable local alternative, moved to the slate village of Llanberis under the looming mass of Snowdon.
An excellent location for Euro-DPC's business purposes (Euro-DPC has trebled in size since the move), the perception of those who moved was that Snowdonia may be great for artists and climbers, but that Llandudno and Colwyn Bay offer precious little to do. Oxfordshire it's not.
To the parent company in Los Angeles Euro-DPC's was a move '200-odd miles up the road - little more than commuting distance.
They could not understand the fuss, until we explained it was like them moving to Alaska,' says Dr Alan Swift, one of the 17 key staff who relocated. Be it the reality of life in rural Wales or the lack of company support for them during an inevitably traumatic time, the move has been too much for most of those who moved; the operation now employs 200 people but only six remain of the original Witney contingent.
Comparing private sector constraints with the leeway a government department can afford is probably unfair, but the Inland Revenue's move from London to Nottingham does appear to be as good as it gets. The planned relocation of 1,800 staff was announced in 1989, and the move took place six years later; in between came family weekends to Nottingham, a relocation newsletter, an information room in London, guaranteed sale of houses, reimbursement of costs of moving, help in finding school places for children and in circulating career details to recruitment agencies to help partners find new jobs.
Lynn Simpson worked on the relocation project for four years: 'We were asked to find out about radon levels in Nottingham and the availability of allotments - and we did. We couldn't guarantee school places or jobs for partners, but we did what we could. I know of only one or two who asked to come back because of personal circumstances; others have come back to take promotion.'
The lessons are clear. Coercion doesn't work, unless the hidden agenda is to cull staff. Relocation means persuasion, even seduction - less of the employees themselves, than of their families. Cut corners, and companies may have to pay twice - once for the relocation and once, when the unhappy employee has cut and run, for a new recruit.