Dr. Laura McGuire of The National Center for Equity and Agency joins The HR Risk Podcast to discuss why corporate relocations can be harder, and riskier, for some employees than others. Subscribe to The HR Risk Podcast on iTunes/Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your favorite podcast app!

Jennings: Welcome to The HR Risk Podcast, the show where we talk to experts about the things that can go wrong in the workplace and how to avoid them. This podcast is presented by Ekdesk, the software that helps employers prevent harassment and spot talent inside their organizations. After the show, learn more at Ekdesk.com. But for now I’m your host, Andrew Jennings.

Jennings: Our topic today is HR risk and challenging relocations. Any employer that’s managing a team across different locations may sometimes have to ask an employee to make a physical move on the job: maybe to another city, another state, or maybe even another country. Oftentimes relocation is an opportunity for employees to advance in their careers. But they can be stressful for anyone and if an employee has a family, it can be even harder on partners and children. But I wondered if the stress or risks associated with relocation affect all employees and their families the same, or if they’re more difficult for some employees than others. Joining me today to talk about challenging relocations is Dr. Laura McGuire. Dr. McGuire is a nationally recognized trainer, subject matter expert, and inclusion consultant. In 2018, she founded The National Center for Equity and Agency as part of her mission to address structural inequalities that can lead to interpersonal violence and marginalization. Dr. McGuire, before we get started, can you tell us a little more about your background and the work you’ve been doing?

McGuire: Yes, definitely. I am the founder of The National Center for Equity and Agency and we are a consulting firm that focuses on sexual misconduct and diversity and inclusion, particularly LGBTQ inclusion. And my background really comes from working in education and also in the scholarly perspective from the field of sexology. So I study a lot about human sexual behavior, how that intersects with accessibility, marginalization, and then what the solutions are to some of the problems that we see coming from these arenas.

Jennings: At the start of the episode, I raised the question whether some corporate relocations are different or more difficult for some employees than others. What do you think, or what’s your take on that?

McGuire: Yes. It definitely is more difficult for certain employees and I think one of the things that people often do, which is a huge part of my work in diversity and inclusion, is there is a belief that if something would be easy for me or something is easy for five employees or something is acceptable in one office that makes this true for every office everywhere and every employee. And there is just as kind of general lack of mindfulness around the fact that people with different backgrounds and experiences and things that maybe they haven’t shared with you will affect all aspects of their job, including how easy it is to relocate.

Jennings: What are some of the backgrounds or experiences that might make a job relocation more challenging for some than for others? And what are the challenges, or what are some of the challenges, that somebody might face that are maybe different or that stand out as compared to others? Because it can be a stressful thing for anybody, but maybe it affects different people differently.

McGuire: Definitely. One example is the safety of the location to where the proposed move is. If somebody is coming from a state that has a lot of protections for people, whether it’s because of accessibility or because of LGBTQ identities or racial identity or even an immigration status, there are some places that, whether it’s a state or a city or both, they have more protection on the books. It’s written down as law and there are places where that is just not the case. And so to ask an employee to move there means that their physical and emotional safety may be in jeopardy. And again, if somebody just doesn’t have an identity that intersects in that way, they may think, “oh, it’s different, but it’s not bad.” But they’re not forced to consider that on a day-to-day basis, so it’s just not something that necessarily comes up for them and that they need to consider.

Jennings: What are some of the risks for an employee or for an employee’s family in making one of these challenging relocations or considering it. I mean, there might be risks involved with making the move and there might be risks involved with deciding not to make the move, too. Could you describe some of those?

McGuire: Well, I think that’s a really good question. And the fact of the matter for people who belong to marginalized communities, and again, that can mean a lot of different things, but if somebody identifies as part of that spectrum there, it’s already often difficult to find employment. And we know that from a ton of research that people who are minorities on any level, much less if they have compounding minority identities–so for example, somebody who is physically disabled and a person of color, or somebody who is LGBTQ and an undocumented immigrant, that it’s hard enough for them to get a job. And so to then say “your job’s on the line if you don’t take this move,” well that’s going to give them a lot of incentive and pressure to do whatever the employer is asking of them. Right?

McGuire: And to not even bring up concerns because what they don’t want most of all is to be unemployed. But then on the other side, to ask them to move to a place–and I again, I think a lot of people are unaware of the gravity that location brings with it as far as safety–for example, if somebody is forced to move for this job to a location where their housing can be taken away because they have a same sex-partner. So you know that the company might help them move there, but they might not necessarily be giving them housing or any guarantee of it. And then that housing, they might have trouble once there finding a landlord that is accepting and two, even if they find one, that landlord can still change their mind and kick them out. And the landlord in many states is protected in their right to do that. So you can imagine the conflict that that employee will be going through.

Jennings: There’s a lot of risk for the employee, but it’s a two-sided transaction in a way. There’s the employee and the employer. What are the risks that employers have when it comes to asking employees to make these kinds of challenging job relocations or what are the risks for an employer of a relocation that just isn’t successful? Maybe because there wasn’t work done on the front end to make sure that it would be successful or to support it being successful?

McGuire: I think one of the biggest things that when I’m working with businesses is on the forefront of their mind is retention and the bottom line, you know, making money. And moving an employee to a situation where they and their family do not feel safe is going to one, definitely impact their ability to be productive. If they’re thinking about, “I wonder if I’m safe as I across the street,” or “I wonder if my housing could be in jeopardy,” or “I simply just don’t have a community anymore and I feel isolated,” that’s going to affect how they perform at work. Two, if they were harmed, or you think of it this way, too, those locations often come with offices who may have a very different cultural climate than the one they’re coming from.

McGuire: If there’s an office in New York City versus one in the Midwest, the people who might be working in that office, who are from the area, might suddenly have an issue with somebody’s identity where the other office didn’t. And so then you think also about retention, that they may now find that they are at a hostile environment, whether it’s in the office or outside of it, in the community. So they just give up that job and move on and find something that’s a better fit because they were not asked if this was a good decision from their personal perspective and their and their career perspective. And to the employer, they’re going to see a high turnover; they’re going to see low activity and they might even see lawsuits for harassment. That can add up very quickly. So it is in the benefit of both the employer and the employee to be having these conversations and making sure that it’s in the best interest of everybody involved.

Jennings: So employers, I mean, they need employees to be willing to relocate. If you’ve got different locations, you need to be able to move people around sometimes just from a strategy perspective, just from a managing your team perspective. And you want those relocations be successful. But, as we’ve discussed, that that can be more challenging for some employees than others from a practical standpoint. How should HR leaders and business leaders be thinking about how to mitigate these risks on the front end, both for themselves as a company that’s looking at the bottom line and also for their employees who they want to be happy and who themselves want to be secure and happy in their living situation and their employment?

McGuire: I think one of the first things is just simply that kind of awareness that what we’re talking about today, the fact that relocating is not something of, “oh, I just like the weather here versus there.” There’s a lot more factors that go into whether someone feels comfortable to relocate to a specific location. And so I think it’s important for those people in the decision-making role to educate themselves and to have the awareness that there’s a lot of implications to this person’s life that we may not be immediately thinking of, but we need to take into consideration and then to have that open dialogue with an employee. And to try as much as possible to not have somebody’s job on the line contingent on whether they take a relocation or not, to try to give every single person options. And I think that’s also something that will be a good strategy for the business when they want to hire people. If they are a business that moves people around a lot to say, “we take into consideration your personal needs, your preferences. This is not going to be something where we hold your hands to the fire and you can either be unemployed or move somewhere you don’t feel safe.” That you know we are a business that cares about our employees enough to make sure that their needs are considered in all these steps. So I think that’s the most important thing, to build that awareness upfront.

Jennings: We’ve talked about the take-it-or-leave-it scenario: “we need to move, we need you in this location. You have to move there or you can’t keep working here.” I wonder about maybe a little more gray zone iteration of that where it’s not, “you need to move, you have to move,” but maybe for career advancement opportunities, it’s expected that you move or maybe there is a position that’s available outside of the city that you’re in that would be a big step up in terms of seniority or compensation or any of those things that go into a career progression. How should employees and their employers and HR leaders and business leaders be thinking about that career advancement aspect of it?

McGuire: I think again to the conversation of the different kinds of structural inequality that go into people being able to be successful long-term. If you are making it so that an employee has to move to a certain location that may come with certain risk factors or they’re not going to move up, or not going to be able to meet all their ambitions and goals, that’s something for the company to really consider moving toward redefining as part of their company culture. Because how inclusive are you if things like that are a non-negotiable factor? Two, I think if it remains that there is nothing they can do about needing certain employees in certain offices and there being potential risks to say, “well then what do we need to put in place to make sure that transition is as safe and easy as possible?”

McGuire: “What kind of community resources exist in those areas that we can connect employees to? What kind of screening can we do for their housing to make sure that it’s an inclusive landlord who’s going to be respectful and going to provide a safe and equitable living environment? Are there resources within our business? Do we have support groups? Do we have different cohorts that they get together and support each other through transition or through navigating different aspects of identity.” Right? So there’s a lot of things that the business can do if they cannot change that situation to tell the employee and to actually show them that they do care and they are going to put things in place upfront to help them and to listen to their needs and concerns throughout an adjustment to make sure that they’re served and that it’s a good experience.

Jennings: I think that’s a really good point that the way that you address challenging relocations isn’t necessarily not to do them. It is to try to mitigate some of the potential risks that come with it as much as possible. And I think you’re hitting on several really good best practices that employers can do to make sure that those transitions are successful. Let’s say that a transition has happened. What are some best practices for employers to monitor, to make sure that those transitions are being successful or, if a relocation isn’t working out, how should a company address that situation?

McGuire: One of the things that people need to do with any of the challenging topics, that they are resistant to do sometimes, is to be proactive instead of reactive. Do not wait until your employee is in tears in HR saying they cannot take living there because they do not feel safe or their children aren’t safe or whatever is going on. That’s the worst time to address it. Instead, again, put things in place, including providing somebody that can mentor them and can check in with them who they can have honest conversations with and let them know, “I’m facing this challenge right now moving to this area, and I don’t know what to do about it.” So that then the organization can provide those services upfront before the problem escalates. And again, I feel a lot of pushback sometimes where I’ll say, “have you checked in with that new employee because you know, that supervisor for example, has had a lot of trouble retaining employees in their department. They have a lot of issues with their management style and they’ll say, “it hasn’t been, they haven’t come to us, so I’m sure they’re fine” And I’m like, “but you know their history with that situation is that there might be issues there. Why don’t you approach them first, check in with them and then even if they say everything is fine and maybe it’s not, now you initiated the conversation and they’re more likely to come forward and tell you something is wrong and I need support.”

Jennings: There’s sort of the dynamic that if you’re not proactive about it and you take the view that, “oh well, we haven’t heard anything, so things must be fine,” it might be the case that the first time you hear something is when you get the two-week notice from that person because the employee has decided to move on.

McGuire: Yes, exactly, and it’s very hard for most employees to come forward, whether it’s to a supervisor or HR. It can feel embarrassing. It could feel like, you just don’t know if they’re going to say you were at fault. That’s really scary. You know that people have had bad experiences trying to get support and it’s going the opposite way, so again, let the initiative be on the people who are in those powerful positions versus the people below them. It’s important.

Jennings: That’s a good best practice. It may not be obvious for an HR leader or for a manager who is looking at an employee for potential relocation or talking to the employee, it may not be obvious that it’s going to be a challenging relocation and partly because the employee’s concern may not be about him or herself. It might be about a partner or child. How can managers be sensitive to those types of family concerns, but still avoid prying into somebody’s personal life?

McGuire: I think that’s again a really important point, because we don’t want to say, “hey, do you have anyone you love who might be bothered by this move,” because that’s definitely not the way to go. Instead, it’s really about not needing a “why.” It’s needing to know, how does that person really feel about this? If they tell you, “I’m not sure about going there, I’m not sure if I feel,” it doesn’t matter what the reason is and they don’t have to pry. They can simply say, “for whatever reason they have communicated to us that this is not something they feel comfortable with and we’re gonna respect that.” And then, and try to find again, alternative support services, whatever it takes. So that I think, that that’s the biggest thing. You don’t need to know what you don’t need to know. All you need to know is the person is communicating that something isn’t a good fit for them and adjust accordingly.

Jennings: Data is increasingly a kind of, the key to the realm within the HR world. How can data be used to mitigate risks along the lines of the type that we’ve been talking about, the risk of a challenging relocation? What metrics should HR leaders be keeping on this score? How should they be using those metrics to de-risk the process both for the employee and for the organization?

McGuire: Right. Two things, doing anonymous–and it’s very important it’s anonymous–both surveys about people’s experiences with relocation and also company culture, climate. So you want to know, do your employees feel comfortable sharing their concerns? Do they feel comfortable sharing their identities? If that, if you get research that tells you no, people don’t talk about their lives and they don’t feel comfortable talking to anyone around them, then that’s going to flag to the business that this is something we need to work on because there’s a lot of risk then. Because you’re not going to know in that situation upfront that somebody is dealing with something. You’re just, like you said, you’re going to find out when you get their notice and so there are definitely things that can be done long-term to change that dynamic and to change that kind of climate, but you want to be aware of it upfront and then put a plan in place of, “well, this is not good, this brings with it a lot of risk and so this is something we need to change immediately.”

Jennings: Is there like a management level that you can look at from a data perspective? For example, if I see in City X that people who relocate to City X have a higher turnover rate as compared to other cities or other relocations–or their performance reviews or their performance in the business, however, we measure that, has started to go down–at some point, if you see those kinds of outliers you think that “well, maybe there’s an issue with the local management.” And maybe that’s kind of a more systemic thing that you have to address.

McGuire: What we do know from some organizational psychology is that it really starts at the top. If the head executive creates a culture that, again doesn’t want to know how you’re affected by something, doesn’t encourage people to be open and honest about their experiences, their identity, if communication has a lot of barriers that come with it and people feel like they’re always bothering someone, if they want to talk about something, that usually starts at the top. And if those people, if you researched, the managers for interacting with the executives and you see right there that that kind of culture is present, you’re going to see it throughout because then those managers are going to communicate to the people under them. “Don’t bother me. Don’t tell me certain things. I’m not here to help you because that’s what I felt. And so that’s what you’re going to feel.” Versus the opposite. So I think looking at first how all of the employees view the people who are in the most powerful positions and then kind of trickling down, down to the contracted employees at the very lowest level because again, all of those different tiers are going to give you more depth to the picture of where that company really is, culture-wise.

Jennings: It’s kind of strange in some regards to think of turning, reviewing culture from the lens of data, but I think it’s something that’s sort of out there in the open that can really be harnessed if it’s collected and considered the right way. Dr. McGuire, if guests want to continue the conversation after this episode, how can they reach you or learn more?

McGuire: Yes, they can reach through my company’s site by visiting EquityAndAgency.com. All of my info’s on there!

Jennings: Okay, great. I’ll also include a link to that in the show notes. Our guest today has been Dr. Laura McGuire, the founder of The National Center for Equity and Agency. Dr. McGuire, thank you for joining us.

McGuire: Thank you so much!

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