How to Decide Whether to Relocate for a Job
by Rebecca Knight
Sometimes the perfect job isn’t down the street, but rather thousands of miles—or perhaps even an ocean—away. If you’re offered a job in a different location, how do you know if it’s worth relocating? Who should help you make the decision? And, how do you weigh the potential upsides like money and opportunity against costs like the impact on your family or the loss of your existing network?
What the Experts Say
Whether or not to relocate for a new role is a big decision both professionally and personally. “There are so many factors to consider,” says Jennifer Petriglieri, an associate professor at INSEAD and author of Couples That Work: How Dual-Career Couples Can Thrive in Love and Work. “What’s the opportunity? What’s the longevity [of the job]? And what’s the family situation?” Indeed, the decision is especially complicated if you have a partner and children, says Matthew Bidwell, an associate professor at Wharton whose research focuses on patterns of work and employment. “It’s not just, what does this mean for your career, but what does this mean for our family?” he says. Relocating for a job can often be “great for your personal and professional development,” but it’s also “a risk and a leap into the unknown.” Here are some ideas to help you think through whether the move is right for you.
When you’re wrestling with a big decision, “there’s a temptation to get out an Excel spreadsheet and weigh the pros and cons,” says Petriglieri. But this is an instance where Excel comes up short. “When you’re choosing one life over another, it becomes an identity choice: Who do I want to become? What kind of family will we be?” The job is only one piece of the puzzle. Consider your “holistic happiness and satisfaction.” Think about the lifestyle that the new location affords or lacks. Are you suited for small-town life? Or do you prefer a big city? Do you want to spend your weekends traveling? Or do you want to feel rooted in a community? The answers to these questions will help you uncover what this “move means for you, your partner, and your children,” she says. “When it’s a difficult choice, it means that no option is clearly better than the other.” Try to think beyond the immediate move, suggests Bidwell. “Ask, What is best for us in the long-term?”
The most important person in this equation is your partner, says Bidwell. “The big issue is what does this move do to your partner’s career?” Will they be able to find meaningful work in the new place? If not, how big of a setback will it be? “There’s quite a lot of research showing that people suffer from putting their career on hold,” he says. If your partner won’t have a job in the new location, “the move brings up other issues because you’re taking them away from their support network.” He points to a certain unhappiness known as trailing spouse syndrome. “You have a new job, new office, and all sorts of new people to meet; your spouse has been dropped in the middle of nowhere and knows no one.” Petriglieri notes that trailing spouses often bear the brunt of move-related household tasks. “It’s tough,” she says. “Whenever you move, for the first six months, you are in the trenches.” And it takes a huge toll. “Research on why relocations fail always points to the unhappiness of the trailing spouse,” she says.1
. . . And talk to your kids a little
“It’s possible to move at any time with kids, but certain ages are more difficult than others,” says Petriglieri. Many people, for instance, are reluctant to move when their kids are teenagers; when kids are younger than eight, the prospect of uprooting them is much less daunting. Petriglieri says that while obviously you need to speak with your children about a potential move, she cautions, “there is a danger of consulting them too much because it brings up a lot of anxiety unnecessarily.” Children, she says, “have a harder time imagining what their life will be like” in a new place. They might become resistant to move, which will make things much harder on you. Bidwell concurs: “The kids may complain, but they will adjust.” Keep your eyes on the prize. The relocation “is a potentially enriching and stimulating experience.”
Consider your development
Moving to a new job in a new city is a surefire way to help “round out” your skills and experience, says Bidwell. “You’ll get to know people from different parts of the company; you’ll be exposed to new ideas; you’ll be able to build a broader network.” And if you’re relocating overseas, you’ll gain an “understanding of a different culture.” Indeed, in many organizations, “some form of international experience is necessary to get that top job.” But recognize that the relocation poses “long- and short-term trade-offs” to your development. For instance, “the new cultural context you’re learning comes at the expense of your loss of network back home.” To keep that from happening, “make sure you’re on the radar screen” with your home office “having conversations with all the right people on a regular basis,” Bidwell says.
Find out what’s next . . .
You must also think about the opportunity within the context of your long-term professional path. “Most companies are not likely to offer you a relocation unless there’s something pretty big in it for you, meaning a significant promotion and raise,” Petriglieri says. But the question you need to ask is, “What’s the next move after this?” If, say, you’re an American considering a three-year stint in London or Paris, that question is less complicated. “It’s a no-brainer that you will probably return to the U.S.” But if you’re asked to “head up operations in Denver or Cleveland,” the calculation is a little trickier. And yet, while it’s important to think about next steps, you need to have reasonable expectations, says Bidwell. “There is a tension there,” he says. “On one hand you want to have a conversation about where do I go after this? But realistically, the company can’t give you a definitive answer.” And besides, “career paths tend to be haphazard for most of us.”
. . . And whether there’s an escape hatch
Worst-case scenario: You and your family are miserable. What then? “You need to think about an escape hatch if you don’t like it or if it doesn’t gel for your family,” says Petriglieri. It somewhat depends on the location itself. “When you are relocating to a hub city and it doesn’t work out, there are often other options, but if you’re moving somewhere more isolated, it’s harder.” The specifics of the role you’re considering are also key. Make sure you’re not professionally pigeonholing yourself “by taking on a specialist role,” she says. Another danger, says Bidwell, is “staying too long” in your adopted city. “There’s a risk that if you stay in a role for a long time, you become a specialist for that region,” he says. This is why he recommends “talking with your partner beforehand about how long you’re going for and agree on an exit plan.”
It’s often helpful to solicit input from others—with one caveat. “You want to talk with people who are not too close to the issue,” says Petriglieri. Your boss, for instance, may try to convince you to go. After all, there’s presumably “a business need” and a reason you’ve been asked to move in the first place. And friends and family members have a vested interest in your choice. “No one is neutral, and these conversations can become charged.” Ideally, she says, you should talk with “a group of trusted peers” who “have similar family issues and similar career aspirations.” These people can be “a good sounding board” as you evaluate your options. Bidwell agrees. He suggests seeking advice from colleagues who’ve done similar stints as well as others in your industry. “You need moderately unbiased views of what to expect.”
Request a tryout
If you’re uncertain, it may be worth asking your organization if you could do a temporary stint or job swap in the proposed location before making a big move, says Petriglieri. “Relocations are extremely costly,” she says. “Failed relocations are even worse.” She says companies are “increasingly willing to allow employees to do short-term relocations or secondments” to maximize the likelihood of success. In essence, your employer would be giving you a chance “to try before you buy.” Even if your organization does not offer this opportunity, “you can always ask,” says Bidwell.
Whether or not to relocate is a big decision—but beware of analysis paralysis, overthinking a situation so that a decision is never made, or one is made by default. Try to have perspective. “As you get older, there are very few decisions in life where you don’t feel some ambivalence,” says Petriglieri. “A career is long,” she adds. “We can all afford a few adventures, and we have plenty of time to experiment and explore.” However, don’t assume that this is your one chance at trying something new. If you’re miserable, you can course correct, says Bidwell. “You have to take risks in your career,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and so, you figure out what to do next.”
Case Study: Consider the Next Phase of Your Career
Anne Chow spent the first 15 years of her career at AT&T, earning promotion after promotion, at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey. “It was very easy to move around the company without geographically moving my family,” she says.
In 2005, after AT&T was purchased by SBC, Anne was asked to move to Texas, where the new company was based. At the time, Anne had young children, and she was reluctant to move away from her parents. She was also hesitant about Texas itself. “I am a Jersey Girl and East Coast through and through,” she says.
She declined to move. But by 2014, her perspective had changed. Her career was going well; her kids were older—middle school and high school; and her husband was retired. “I was questioning what I wanted to do next and what I wanted the next phase of my career to look like,” she says.
She briefly considered outside opportunities, but after 24 years at AT&T, she wanted to “double-down on [her] commitment to the company.” She broached the topic of moving with her family. “My husband was supportive, and my children were in,” she recalls. “I declared myself mobile to move to Texas.”
Shortly thereafter, the CEO tapped her to take on a new job leading sales operations and solutions. Once the relocation became real, her children changed their minds. “When we told the kids, they said we should go without them,” she says.
She and her family had many long talks. “We talked about who we wanted to be,” she says. “My husband had 51% of the vote. I was worried about his social infrastructure because it was his life that would change the most. The kids would assimilate.”
After three years in Dallas, Anne has already had three different positions. Today she is the president of the national business.
Despite her career success, she admits that the first year was difficult for her spouse and kids. “It definitely made us a stronger family,” she says. “But I don’t know if we’ll ever call it home.”
Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, December 3, 2018 (product #H04OBG).