Foreign Relations

Article excerpt

Your new foreign employees need more from you than just the right visa. HR can help them understand the American approach to meetings, deadlines, and why It's OK to call the boss by her first name.

You've noticed a difference already: more and more foreign workers in U.S. companies, large and small. In fact, if you don't already have several employees from other countries working in your organization, you're likely wishing you did have them to help ease your labor shortage.

Staistics tell the story. Given an unemployment rate that hovers around 4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, experts agree that immigration and expatriation of talent into the United States are crucial to a continuing supply of ready workers, and to fueling our economic machine.

"It has certainly been a steady growth," says Bill Sheridan, director of International Compensation Services for the the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC). "It is driven by the need to find technology-based people, but it's not only IT people, although that is probably the most obvious functional area. A lot of our member companies have people coming in, maybe for 12 months and under, for training or management development assignments."

In fact, the "2000 Global Relocation Trends Survey," by Windham International, the NFTC, and the Institute for International Human Resources (IIHR), indicates that 34 percent ofAmerican multinational companies cited the US. as the second most active destination for expatriates. Add to that the firms headquartered in other countries that open operations in the US., and you have thousands of workers inbound to America annually. The September 5, 2000, edition of the International Herald Tribune puts the number at 15.7 million immigrant workers (approximately 5 million are illegal immigrants). And the influx of foreigners for jobs as diverse as technology specialist, farmer, and hotel maid is likely to increase.

You can't overstate the challenges of managing foreign workers. From immigration issues to policy and cultural matters, savvy HR managers prepare for the adventure.

Know the legal issues

It might sound obvious, but it's surprising how many HR people are unaware of the rigors, regulations, and time requirements inherent in the visa and work-permit process. One of the big problems is the amount of time it takes to secure a work visa in the U.S. It depends on which category the individual qualifies for, and the region of the country to which the person is going. If companies try to get the immigration process in place as soon as they know there is going to be an assignment, that would help ease problems.

"The important thing is that everyone has to have legal status," says Austin Fragomen, co-managing partner in the New York-based firm Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, PC. "What a company doesn't want to do is to hire persons who are in the U.S. on a visitor for business visa or work visa for other companies and have them actually start working for them. Whether they pay them off the books or whatever they do, they definitely can get in trouble. They can be fined, and then the workers can actually be removed from the United States and barred from re-entering.

"As a general proposition, companies have to treat the immigration rules and regulations very seriously and make sure they are really in compliance," says Fragomen. "A lot of companies have experience with US. workers abroad, where there are differences. In the U.S., they are under greater scrutiny, and that will increase even more as the Immigration Service, through technology, has greater entry and exit control with people going in and out of the U.S."

Consider managing workers a little differently

Managing foreign workers requires an investment of time and capital, and an interest in how they are faring. "Many companies fall short when it comes to providing for their international employees, whether it is cultural training, language, or having enough staff members that speak the language who can support them," says John Wada, vice president, Recruiter Toolbox. …