All the Right Moves

The thought of a job transfer has you in a panic? Relax. There are ways to sweeten a relocation deal, and even turn it down tactfully. Here's how.

Congratulations. You've been tapped to head your company's fastest-growing sales division. There's just one catch: It's halfway across the country.

Employee transfers, once a fact of life in corporate America, may have slowed. But the moving trucks are still rolling. According to the Employee Relocation Council, large corporations planned to relocate an average of 194 current workers in 2002. With the slow economy and tight job market, a transfer can send anyone into a panic. Accept and you face a mountain of worries: Will you have to shell out for a new house in the overheated real estate market? What if your spouse can't find work? Refuse and it might hurt your career. Polly Ehlers, 47, a marketing specialist at the chemical company BASF, found herself in just that bind last winter, when she was asked to move to BASF's New Jersey headquarters from her suburban Chicago office, which was closing. Neither she nor her husband wanted to move, but saying no was tough. "We were really wrestling with whether I should accept, because the job market isn't good, and what if I turned it down and lost my job?"

What should you do if a transfer offer lands on your desk? Take a breather. You can make relocating worthwhile for both you and your company or, conversely, get out of it without being blacklisted. You just need to know what to ask for — and how to ask for it.

Start with the relocation package your company has offered. Chances are, the provisions aren't so generous. "There's no question that companies aren't paying for relocation the way they used to," says Richard Morse, a consultant at the Cambridge, Mass.-based negotiation and conflict-resolution firm ThoughtBridge. You might get two months in temporary housing instead of four or less money for movers. If you want your company to beef up the package, you'll need to do some research.

To get a sense of what you can ask for, call human-resources departments at your company's competitors. Explain that you work at a similar company, have gotten a transfer offer and are trying to find out what the norms are for transfer packages. Many people will candidly answer you, says Morse. You can then compare what you're getting with the industry standard. Double-check whether reimbursements for such things as movers and temporary housing are adequate by calling multiple companies for quotes.

If you have special needs, don't be afraid to bring them up. It's almost always less expensive for the company to relocate an employee than it is to hire someone new. Say you have three school-age kids. It's understandable that you'd need extra days to visit schools.

A couple of things that experts say you should definitely ask for are job-search assistance for your spouse and a severance package in case things don't work out. "Most employees do not realize that if they ask for job-search assistance for their spouse, their company will often, if it's not in the standard policy, make an exception," says Laura Herring, president of The Impact Group, a relocation assistance firm in St. Louis. Ask if your company will pay a job finder's fee or let your spouse use its HR department's network of contacts. To get insurance for your own job, negotiate a severance package that will cover you if you end up jobless in an unfamiliar town. "Maybe the company is negotiating to sell off a division, and the next thing you know, you're working for a different company," says Taunee Besson, president of the U.S. board of the Association of Career Professionals International.

Once you're ready to discuss your wish list with your boss, couch the requests in terms of boosting your productivity and minimizing distractions during the move. A few good openers: "I don't want the stress of a house that won't sell to distract me from my new position," or "I'll be more productive if my family can get settled as quickly as possible." It's an effective tactic whether you're negotiating a transfer as a current employee or a new hire. Just ask Cathryn Gabor. A year and a half ago, the 39-year-old HR executive landed a job with a financial-services firm in Birmingham, Ala., which required her and her husband to move from their home in Richmond, Va. "I said, 'In order for me to come prepared to jump right in, these are the things I need,'" she says. Gabor got extra house-hunting trips, two additional months of temporary housing and furniture storage, and job-search assistance for her husband.

Of course, sometimes a relocation simply won't work. Perhaps your kid is finishing up her junior year in high school and you don't want to disrupt her life. In that case, how do you turn down an offer without jeopardizing your job? "It's critical to find an alternative solution when rejecting a relocation," says Morse. Work with your boss to come up with another way to achieve the company's goals, whether it means regular trips to the other office or a temporary move to get someone new up to speed. It worked for Polly Ehlers, the BASF employee. Ehlers told her boss that she and her husband couldn't afford to move when they were temporarily losing one income. She suggested instead that she continue her job from home. Eventually, she got BASF to let her work out of a different Chicago office from the one she was in before. "My commute is 40 miles instead of four, but I'm keeping my job," Ehlers says. "In this job market, I consider that a great solution."