On dogs and unwanted moves

This unwanted family move taught me a lot about the qualities I must hold as a Relocation Specialist. Their complicated situation called my abilities as a negotiator, a therapist, and a consultant. I had to maintain my support through the family’s pain, while still keeping my loyalty to my main client, the sending company.

Family DogPeter and Diane Thompson* have been expats for what seemed like the whole of their adult lives. Soon after their marriage they were already stationed in Hong Kong, and when the kids were born, they moved to Singapore and then to China. The corporate in which Chris was gradually being promoted, had been taking good care of the family, and their relocations were always cushioned with high pay and great supporting services.

The family’s last relocation to Beijing was no different. Almost 6 years into the relocation, they both felt that China was becoming part of them. Enjoying their expat lives to the most, the sense of belonging was slowly setting in. Their lives have succumbed into a comfortable routine and their home became a constant and familiar ground.

It was then that with rising school fees and the slow escalation in cost of living, that the couple decided their benefits were not as luxurious anymore. And with the strong feeling of permanency granted by 20 years of employment at one place, through moves and relocations, Peter has called the stakes and threw the threat – better benefits or…

What has happened then remained perplexing for the Thompsons. So sure of the answer Peter was about to get, they never for once stopped to think of the other option at hand. And just as big as their sense of security and comfort was their sense of surprise when Peter’s boss came back saying, well… then – not. And on Christmas eve Peter and Diane, expats for 20 years, Chinese residents for more than 5 years and loyal employees for who knows how long, were shown the door. And with that, the way back home to Australia.

It was then that I met the couple. Two weeks after his employer’s reply, Peter’s case has reached my desk with a clear message – repatriation, an unwanted one, VIP employee, handle with care.

Full of questions and a bit worried I approached our first phone call. The guy who answered was cheerful and calm. Peter didn’t sound too worried and we immediately drifted into an exchange of relocation stories. Saying goodbye I was happy to conclude that this will not be a hard case after all, as all the family needed was house moving. I was not notified of any more benefits that would be granted and except for a half-smiled warning that they must have accumulated a lot since their last move, nothing came up in our conversation to suggested any challenge. Carrying that half smile with me I sat to write down my summary email. I added a cheerful greeting and sent it to Peter and his wife, inviting them to call or write to me for further information.

Checking my mail over the weekend in search for any warrying signs from my first VIP assignee I didn’t see any response to my message and so had no preparation to what was waiting for me at 9am Monday morning. Answering the phone at my desk I was flushed by the angry voice of a frustrated woman. It took me a minute to calm the caller down and understand who she was. ‘I called on Friday and no one answered!’ the lady on the other side of the line was yelling as I was gently calming her down, explaining that after 6pm we all leave the office. ‘In your letter you promised we’d have the move at the beginning of February. With no one coming this week for a survey, there’s no way we’d be able to make this deadline’.

And that was my first introduction to Diane. Calming her down and explaining that the House Hold Good survey would in fact be performed at any time she wishes, same as the move itself, I could feel her angry walls starting to melt down, and with them, the frustration of the rushed move painfully crawling in.

It was in this long call that Diane has shared with me what will soon become the family’s main relocation hurdle. And it would not be until three days later that I will first see the photo of little Nika. A tiny fur ball of a dog, bright eyed and sweet female Fox Terrier cross.

Three months ago, feeling that after a long time of moving from one place to another the family finally got to a safe port, the parents surrendered to their kids’ requests for a dog. And as the opportunity came in the shape of a sweet little puppy, the Thompsons adopted it into their family. In no time Nika became a cheerful member, an integral part which now became a huge challenge, reflecting all the pain of the change and the unexpected, unwanted move back home.

Meeting again on a call two days later with the expected costs of shipping Nika back to Australia, Diane was now all teary and emotional. Apparently, as China is considered an unsafe import country by the Australians, the process of bringing Nika would be long, complex and highly expensive. The discussion of Nika’s journey was now fading into Diane’s emotional story as she was describing getting the message from Peter’s company on Christmas eve. Hearing about that night from her point of view I could almost believe that Peter was laid off. And even though I was familiar with the actual story behind the situation I could feel my heart clenching as Diane was uttering – “they changed our whole life on that Christmas eve, I would not let them take away my kids’ dog too”. And with that clenched heart I have now promised Diane I will approach Peter’s advisor, asking for an exceptional support for the dog’s move.

Calling Peter’s HR advisor I was confronted by a firm, uncompromising response. Peter quitted his job, the advisor explained. Doing so would grant him no benefits whatsoever. The company has come forward and supported him with a huge bundle, including full shipment of his house hold goods, and a generous relocation allowance. The advisor was very firm. To him, Peter has already got far more than he deserved as a resigning employee. No further benefits should be granted.

Trapped between my pity over the situation and my loyalty to the company’s policy I now had to call Diane. At first I was met by a furious rage that reminded me of our first call. Again, I absorbed the pain, fully understanding its origin, feeling helpless as I could offer nothing but a shoulder and an accepting audience to her anger. But then, it was Diane who after calming down came with a suggestion that would soon turn out to be the light at the end of this dark stressful tunnel. “How much is our air shipment?” Diane surprisingly asked me. And into my silence she quickly added “probably at least 10 grands?” I could not confirm or dismiss although the figure was closer to 13. “We can then exchange the benefit of air shipment with the transfer of the dog!” she offered, and there was the solution to our problem. Trying not to get her hopes too high I stayed very shallow voiced as I promised to look into the idea and share it with their superior.

Going back to HR I could now come up with an offer – air shipment, quoted at 13 thousand dollars, in exchange to pet shipment, valued at about 10. A cost saving for one side which will result in a happier customer on the other. A delicate win-win situation which may build a bridge between the two conflicting parties. The advisor needed some time for consideration. I was waiting anxiously for his response. On the other side, Diane kept impatiently bombarding me with a line of chasing emails – any word? Any decision?

And then it came. A positive and yet conditional response from the advisor. Yes, the company will cover the cost of pet shipment, however the Thompsons must forgo their air shipment with no change to their sea shipment and pay all costs of boarding and quarantine.

Agreeing with the advisor that this would be a good settlement for the company I now had to call Diane. Going through HR’s offer I knew it was all about the way I would present it. All cheerful and positive I called the couple, opening my phone call with the statement – “Yes, they will help you. Nika is going home”. From there, it was all details, and the spirit of the move changed into one of appreciation and gratitude.

Closing the last day of packing I had a strong sense of relief. I learned a lot from the case of the Thompsons. Mostly about the qualities I must hold in my role as a Global Assignment Consultant. The complicated situation created by little Nika called my abilities as a negotiator, a mediator, a therapist, and a consultant. Pushing my own feelings aside I had to be there to support Diane through her pain. Understand its roots, avoid taking any of it as inflicted on me, lend my shoulder and yet stay loyal to the system. While remaining warm and understanding I had to also keep my professional etiquette; watch the interests of my main client – the company, understand the full picture, and eventually come up with a solution that will satisfy both facts and emotions in this complicated situation. And the real perk of it? I could now come back home and be very confident as I explained to my own kids why we’re not going to have a dog as long as we ourselves are still expats on the move.

* All names and details have been changed to maintain the privacy of my assignees.

By Dr Taly Goren, a long time traveler between nations and continents,
relocation specialist, parents groups facilitator, mother of two adolescent TCKs,
and the wife of a Hi-Tech Expat frequent flyer.