Culture of Reality

Aug 01, 2005


The realities of relocation are sometimes not as they first appear to be. And, certainly, some perspectives of reality require flexible interpretation.

Bright-eyed, well-scrubbed twenty-somethings vie for a career ticket to Trump Tower. Motley millionaire-wannabes starve themselves in the wild as they try to elude primitive social rejection. Tone-deaf teens parade cracking voices before music industry mavens who eviscerate egos with unabashed candor.

There is a potent entertainment phenomenon called "reality," for lack of a better word, playing on a television near you. And whether you, like millions of others, have found yourself tuning in, the cultural ripples are impossible to ignore. Who hasn't heard the Donald's catch phrase, "You're fired!"? (Yes, you can still say it without owing a royalty, if not unemployment benefits.)

However, reality TV is often anything but real. Careful casting, deft editing, and scenarios designed to elicit favored outcomes create an unreal "fudge factor," leaving little to chance and less to imagination.

As a prelude to the 38th Atlas Forum on Moving, the Amplifier spoke with some of the event's corporate guests to get their thoughts on the "culture of reality" in their organizations. We looked for parallels to reality TV in corporate culture. If there are parallels, how might they affect relocation? What do we think of as real that, in actuality, isn't? Are the realities changing? How? Why?


"Long, long ago in a business environment that was very, very different, employees felt that they were on the Orient Express with plush expense accounts and benefits," says Elizabeth Carter, CRP, Household Goods Specialist with XRS, Inc., a subsidiary of Georgia Pacific. "Then the economy went into a tailspin...corporations turned into survivors by cutting costs and benefits."

On the surface, it appeared that advances in technology would give companies extraordinary gains in productivity and profit, making it possible to work faster with fewer employees. But the consequences created a different reality, a "Catch 22" for employers.

"Companies were downsized, just like the last round of American Idol," says Elizabeth. "Even as jobs were being cut, employers were competing for technical talent and highly skilled executives."

So how can a relocation manager balance tightening budgets and the need for qualified people?

"One way we acknowledge that fine line between cost and service is by using a tiered policy," says Elizabeth. "The tiered policy provides cost containment while basing the benefits on the employee's grade level."


Does a tiered policy ever become a tired reality? For some relocation managers,flexibility is a stairstep to talent acquisition.

Does a "tiered policy" ever become a "tired reality"?

"The old reality–here's the policy and here are three tiers–no longer works for us," says Mardi Montague, Manager of Talent Acquisitions with PETCO, a leading specialty retailer of premium pet food, supplies and services. "Our relocation solutions have to be creative, customized, and offer choices. I can only think of a few cases in the last six months where we followed the guidelines exactly. Exceptions are now the reality."

In response to the new reality, PETCO is looking at adopting a five-tiered policy with cafeteria style options and caps that do not exceed a percentage of total compensation. Within each tier are guidelines that give the talent acquisition team flexibility to tailor the relocation benefit, which typically differs for each associate.

"The talent recruiter now spends up to an hour with transferees to learn what's important to them," says Mardi. "People's needs have become more diverse. They are better informed about what to expect, they are savvy enough to ask for options, and they tend to drive the process."

Beyond Borders—Beyond Tiers?

One might argue that nowhere is the need for discretionary policy felt more acutely than in the international arena.

As Global Mobility Manager with Flextronics International Ltd., a global company headquartered in Singapore, Kathy Curtis is responsible for approximately 100 U.S. interstate and international relocations a year. She says that the word "policy" is inadequate to meet her reality. Instead, Flextronics relies on "guidelines."

"We recognize the need to be flexible," says Kathy. "Our guidelines are designed to give us the latitude to answer individual concerns."

As do her peers, Kathy sees that those who relocate are increasingly knowledgeable about the relocation process.


"I see less need for hand-holding," says Kathy. "It's not that personal contact isn't still important; rather, our transferees are generally self-sufficient. They are used to going online for information. For example, our new hires undergo their orientation online."

The beneficial combination of flexibility and more informed employees is further abetted by a positive change outside the company.

"Business expansion has brought progress to regions that were once underdeveloped," says Kathy. "Whereas it used to be cumbersome to relocate people from the U.S. into China, it's now much easier. There is an infrastructure to support expatriates, and going there doesn't seem as scary for them as it used to."

For others working with expatriate relocation, the reality is far different, and underdeveloped regions are the rule.

John Palien left a corporate career three years ago to join Catholic Relief Services, one of the world's largest and most respected humanitarian agencies. As Director of Human Resource Operations, John now deals with a totally different reality than the one he once worked in.

"The expectations of our expats are different than expectations in the corporate setting," says John. "Our people may be going from Abuja to Quito, or from Sarajevo to Nairobi. They know the locations are difficult. They understand the time it takes to receive their belongings may be measured not in weeks, but in some instances, up to six months or longer."


No one denies the need for flexibility in international moves. But the concept takes on added significance at CRS, an organization that responds immediately when reality is catastrophically altered for people.

"The past year has been extraordinary," says John. "Besides the tsunami, there have been famine and genocide in Darfur, and flooding in Central America. And my job is to respond with people. Whereas we typically recruit 100 to 150 people a year, this year I will move an additional 100 people."

John walks a fine line between cost and service, just as managers must in the for-profit realm.

"CRS is one of the top 3 aid and emergency development organizations in the world," says John. "People put their trust in us as stewards of their funds, a responsibility we take seriously. A dollar in Darfur can feed 10 to 12 people for a day...every dollar spent on relocation services is a dollar that does not go to the poor and disadvantaged."

But despite these major differences, John's culture shares the objectives that are essential to reality in the corporate world.

"I need my people to receive their belongings in a reasonable amount of time and in the condition they were packed," says John. "And I need the service to be cost-effective. These are tough to balance, and they are tough for vendors to balance."

Careers Not Measured in Money?


Compensation has long been a factor in an employee's decision to relocate. But while there is a tendency to think of compensation in terms of dollars, for some the reality is quite different. Intrinsic rewards can be weightier than monetary rewards. For example, John says his decision to join CRS was in answer to a personal "calling."

At PETCO, Mardi finds individual needs often play a deciding factor in an employee's career. "People are looking for the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution," says Mardi. "They are delving into a company's culture and looking at the leaders and their vision. They want to know: what does the company stand for? Does it live up to its beliefs and values?"

To create a culture where animals come first and people make it happen, PETCO builds on performance initiatives: integrity, partnership and affirmation. These ideals are central to the company's recruitment process – a process that is being reengineered to better attract people who will thrive in PETCO's unique culture.

"We are using technology to cast a wider net and attract a better, more qualified pool of candidates," says Mardi. "We plan to introduce a new recruitment model in August. All recruiting will be done online...if someone visits a store to inquire about opportunities, they will be directed to an in-store kiosk to complete a profile and to take our customized assessment which includes animal empathy questions."


The Amazing Race

According to TV's grandiose portrayal, untold enchantment and excitement await the new employee once he or she hears the phrase, "you're hired." But what is the reality?

"The recruitment process turns into 'The Amazing Race,'" says Elizabeth. "The employee is expected to hit the ground running and make it to the new location (around the world) in 67 hours instead of 80 days. The relocation department is the employee's 'Dr. Phil.' We offer advice, facilitate and coordinate the relocation process."

Perhaps the greatest common denominator between reality TV and corporate reality is the drive for ratings, i.e., shareholder return. Whether measured in earnings per share or satisfaction per dollar donated, corporate reality is tied to performance. Relocation managers know this too well.

"Reality shows are cheaper to produce than a television series, so the networks have managed to contain costs yet still increase revenue by obtaining a large market share with these shows," says Elizabeth. "To survive, corporations are merging and creating 'super-sized' companies in order to increase their market share by containing costs and by efficient use of their resources – technology, people, capital."

Images in this article ©2005 The M.C. Escher Company - Holland. All Rights Reserved.




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