Counseling Clients Who Relocate

by Sunitha Narayanan

Relocation is a complex issue for most families and it requires significant compromises from all involved in the move. When the relocation is international, many factors influence the success or failure of the assignment. The cost of an international relocation can range from $1 to $2 million dollars. If a relocation does not work out, these staggering costs include loss of employee productivity, premature termination of assignments (30 percent) and loss of employees within three years of repatriation (50 percent). (www.branchor.com)

Pre-departure planning helps families handle challenges as culture change, financial issues, opportunities for accompanying spouses and children and eventual repatriation concerns. Often, however, the reality of the move may not "hit" the family until after the initial excitement of the settling in phase. Some issues faced by families, especially "trailing" spouses include sudden loss of career identity, feelings of isolation, and cultural differences in the workplace. Recent research findings shared in the 2005 Trailing Spouses Survey conducted by Yvonne McNulty supports that one significant reason for assignment failure is "derailing" of the accompanying spouse's career path. Not being able to find paid employment in the host country complicates this further, resulting in feelings of helplessness and disappointment.

"Intentional conversations" is one important service a career consultant can provide clients facing "expat blues." For example, encouraging reflections with the client about the move, suggesting ideas to make proactive plans to handle change, celebrating small gains and laughing at mistakes can help clients recognize that change can be positive. Another strategy to explore is volunteering. Volunteering has long been considered an effective tool to explore career direction, network and find job leads. When a client faces the predicament of visa restrictions, volunteering often becomes the only viable career exploration and job search strategy.

When working with these clients, how can consultants share both the inspirational value of volunteering as well as the outcomes for professional development and potential employment? The following suggestions might help:

      1.As a consultant, become aware of the variety of potential volunteer opportunities: public schools, civic clubs, and retirement homes; museums, art galleries and community theatres; social service organizations; historic restorations, national parks and battlefields; virtual volunteering where you can complete tasks at home.


      2.Start with basics- a self-assessment, linking values, interests and skills to possibilities. Many times this discussion offers the client "permission" to tap into interests and skills they have ignored because of the demands of full-time employment. One expat client commented, "I would have never pursued my interest in writing if I wasn't in this situation." (Visa restriction).


      3.Identify and research opportunities as you would for a paid position. Identifying the fit between the culture of the volunteer organization and their unique talents helps the client recognize "emotional salary," follow the traditional job search process closely and set measurable goals. In one situation, researching three different organizations helped the client identify reasons why she would choose one particular agency. This step surprised the client until it was pointed out that many skills and traits for success remain the same in both types of environments---- opportunity to strengthen current skills, learn new skills, develop work relationships, and enjoy work. For this client, her volunteer opportunity resulted in a short-term internship. Maybe the employer would be willing to sponsor her for a work permit? Volunteering did help in tapping the hidden job market for this client.


      4.Assist client in pursuing and accepting a volunteer position. An example would be planning a schedule without over committing, asking for tasks that refine skills and add other marketable skills. Another example is setting benchmarks for evaluation, maybe three months into the assignment. For one client this process resulted in expanding his responsibilities from helping in the front office to streamlining office procedures and developing brochures for funding agencies. An exciting outcome for this client was being able to see how the"new" skills he was developing would help when he repatriates to his home country.


      5.For clients overwhelmed by cultural differences, language barriers, and social expectations, a consultant can help by understanding the client's concerns, reviewing current strategies and relating it to volunteer/work opportunities. A client worried about her language skills, shy personality, and fear of starting over in United States was matched with an organization that provided community services for people from her country. In this organization, she started with tasks that required minimum contact with "American English." Within six months she was willing to consider handling phone calls to partner agencies. She also became the translator for written documents from her native language into English, realizing that her skills in written English were strong even though she was still hesitant to speak the language. This experience helped her address real and perceived challenges in her relocation, build self-confidence, and expand her social circle.


      6.Help client update resume and organize a portfolio of completed work. Seeing accomplishments on a resume allows the client to celebrate successes, recognize how to link outcomes to employer needs, and gain self-confidence. A client also learns the cultural differences in presenting information on a resume, becoming a more prepared job seeker.


    7.Encourage clients to discuss the pros and cons of volunteering. Even the committed client might tire of this process and it is important to address the burn-out, if and when it occurs. And for clients who are reluctant and see this strategy as a time-waster, ongoing discussions will encourage them to discuss their concerns with the consultant.

No matter what strategy the career consultant employs, it is in the best interest of the client to not ignore the significant impact of the relocation. Potential positive outcomes such as professional development and career satisfaction are at stake.

Sunitha Narayanan has masters degrees in counseling and higher education administration. She is in private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio where she works with clients on career exploration, global transition and career management issues. She has published in Mobility magazine and H&R Corporate Relocation News. She can be reached at email a.narayanan@fuse.net

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