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Leaving a job: Do you have to repay relocation?

Sometimes that dream job happens to be across the country. But they love you as much as you love them, so the company covers your moving expenses (or part of your moving expenses) and you load up your family and head out to parts unknown. And then sometimes, the dream turns out to be a nightmare. Then what do you do?

First of all, don't just up and quit. Finding a new job is much easier when you have a job. Even if your boss is a screaming banshee, you can probably tough it out for a little longer -- at least until you land something new. But, what about the relocation costs?

Depending on how much money the company kicked in for relocation, you may have signed up for two or three years with the company, or else you have to repay. This will all be spelled out in the relocation contract you signed. Find your copy and go over it with a magnifying glass to be certain what your obligations are. It may require partial repayment if you leave before the stated time is up, or it may require full repayment if you leave even one week prior to the end of your commitment. It's important that you know what it is you are facing.

With that information in hand, figure out the actual numbers. Sometimes, relocation help is a few thousand dollars and repaying it won't be completely financially devastating. Other times -- especially if the sale of your old house was involved -- the numbers can climb well above $50,000. You'll have to consider the latter situation much more carefully than the first situation.

If you decide you can easily eat the cost of relocation, then start looking for a new job; when you find one, resign, and write a check. If you can't, you either need to stick it out, or start negotiating.

How can you negotiate? Well, truthfully, if you are finding your new job to be a nightmare, it's highly possible that they aren't thrilled with you either. It's unusual for the employee to be miserable while the boss is simultaneously thrilled. Which means, they may be willing to eat the cost of the relocation. But you have to ask, and ask carefully. 

When you begin negotiations with your boss, be very careful to emphasize the fact that you are not resigning. Not yet anyway. If they can claim that you resigned, you'll be on the hook for whatever your contract said. So, be very careful about wording. You can even begin by stating, "I want to make it clear that I am not resigning, however, I've noticed I am not a great fit for this position, and I'd like to work out a way to make things better for all of us. It may be a re-allocation of responsibilities, or it may be best that we part ways. If you wish to go with the latter, I ask that you waive the requirement to repay relocation costs."

Now, if the reason you can't stand the work situation is that your boss is a terrible person, this probably will not go over well. In this case, you may wish to approach your HR department or your boss's boss instead of our direct supervisor. Understand, however, that a bad boss hates it when you "go over his head" in these situations and it may make your life worse than it was before. 

But, it's also possible that your boss will be relieved to get rid of you, and sometimes writing off the relocation expenses is an expense they are willing to pay to get rid of you. The point is, you should always ask. Remember, the worst thing they can say is no. 

But remember: Don't ask until you have another job lined up. Because the worst thing that can happen when you don't have a job lined up is that they not only say no, but fire you, and stick you with the costs of repaying the relocation. While most contracts only require repayment if you resign or are fired for cause (which generally means something like stealing or breaking big rules, not just for generalized lack of skills or bad fit), some require repayment if you leave for any reason -- including being fired.

Before you dig into this mess, though, consider that moving is hard, and give yourself additional time to adjust. It may not be the job that you hate, it may be that you're just homesick. And that takes time to get over.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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