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Foreign Relations

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.

November 1, 2000
Related Topics: Immigration, Diversity
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 severalemployees from other countries working in your organization, you’re likelywishing you did have them to help ease your labor shortage.

Statistics tell the story. Given an unemployment rate that hovers around 4percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, experts agree thatimmigration and expatriation of talent into the United States are crucial to acontinuing 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 National Foreign TradeCouncil (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 obviousfunctional area. A lot of our member companies have people coming in, maybe for12 months and under, for training or management development assignments."

In fact, the "2000 Global Relocation Trends Survey," by WindhamInternational, the NFTC, and the Institute for International Human Resources (IIHR),indicates that 34 percent of American multinational companies cited the U.S. asthe second most active destination for expatriates. Add to that the firmsheadquartered in other countries that open operations in the U.S., and you havethousands of workers inbound to America annually.

The September 5, 2000, edition of the International Herald Tribune puts thenumber at 15.7 million immigrant workers (approximately 5 million are illegalimmigrants). And the influx of foreigners for jobs as diverse as technologyspecialist, farmer, and hotel maid is likely to increase.

You can’t overstate the challenges of managing foreign workers. Fromimmigration issues to policy and cultural matters, savvy HR managers prepare forthe adventure.

Know the legal issues

It might sound obvious, but it’s surprising how many HR people are unawareof the rigors, regulations, and time requirements inherent in the visa andwork-permit process. One of the big problems is the amount of time it takes tosecure a work visa in the U.S. It depends on which category the individualqualifies for, and the region of the country to which the person is going. Ifcompanies try to get the immigration process in place as soon as they know thereis 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 tohire persons who are in the U.S. on a visitor for business visa or work visa forother companies and have them actually start working for them. Whether they paythem off the books or whatever they do, they definitely can get in trouble. Theycan be fined, and then the workers can actually be removed from the UnitedStates and barred from re-entering.

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

Consider managing workers a little differently

Managing foreign workers requires an investment of time and capital, and aninterest in how they are faring. "Many companies fall short when it comesto providing for their international employees, whether it is cultural training,language, or having enough staff members that speak the language who can supportthem," says John Wada, vice president, Recruiter Toolbox. "It’s agood idea for both managers and foreign employees to become culturally aware ofthe other’s customs and ideas."

In other words, it’s equally important for you to learn something about thesociety and people that will be working in your operations. Learn about thedifferences in the way people feel about work teams and competition betweencolleagues. Find out how they function with schedules and deadlines.

For example, is it a "high time culture" like the U.S. and northernEurope, where we believe that time is a controllable commodity, or is it a"low time culture" such as Latin America, where time is approached asif it were uncontrollable, like the weather? This will help you avoidunrealistic deadlines and other behavior that will be unnecessarily demotivating.

Moreover, your overseas employees should learn about working with Americans.What are your expectations and how might that be different from ones in theirculture? How do you expect them to relate to you as their supervisor, forinstance, and is that interaction strange for them? Furthermore, some peopleneed much lots of information in order to be effective, whereas others canfunction well with a simple once-over.

"One good thing to consider is to establish a platform, a commonalitywithin the organization, for both foreign managers and foreign employees aboutthe expectations in that company," says Wada. "It may be differentfrom one company to another if it is a foreign subsidiary."

For example, a German company and a Japanese company might have managementstyles that are more similar to each other than they are to an American company’s.

"Clearly both sides -- employees and managers -- need to understand whatare the commonalties and how things are going to be managed. Employees need tounderstand performance expectations, to have clear guidelines for thatparticular company and what is going to make that company unique within theenvironment, taking into consideration all of the laws, all of the issues ofdiversity that managers and employees need to know," he says.

One way to help alleviate problems with communication, even with skilledlabor or executives, is to put communication in writing. "Rather thanalways being verbal, there should be something that is very clear andstraightforward so people don’t get confused simply because of oral languagecapabilities," Wada says.

Create a culturally sensitive environment

One global firm that constantly grapples with these issues is Molex, Inc., amature technology firm headquartered in Lisle, Illinois. "There are anynumber of instances where a little cultural sensitivity and common sense go along way," says Malou Roth, vice president of human resources, training,and development.

Molex, which employs significant numbers of foreign-born nationals in theU.S., is committed to treating international employees in ways that make themfeel valued and accepted. For one thing, compensation packages and allowancesare figured on a global basis, built on home-based calculations. Expats, whethercoming into the U.S. or going to other countries, also have the choice ofprivate schooling for their children.

However, some of the other, intangible issues are more challenging. Culturalsensitivity doesn’t always come easily to the Americans who are the hosts.

Meetings are a good example. If you remember that foreigners are likely to bespeaking in a second language, then you’ll realize how difficult it is whenmany people talk at the same time. No one can hear -- or understand -- what’sbeing said. Cultural differences are magnified in groups such as these.

"Germans tend to be uncomfortable with the amazing familiarity we havewith one another, for example. I think it is very disquieting to them to see usteasing our president and calling him by his first name. It doesn’t occur inour German entities," Roth says. "There is much more formality. Theyhonor that and respect hierarchy. If you are the senior quality engineer and youhave the quality manager as your boss, you are not necessarily expected to popin on meetings and give your opinion on everything."

Asian employees present another set of issues. At home, they might not beexpected to speak up at meetings. "What happens here," says Roth,"is they are kind of hammered for everything -- being quiet and also theirlevel of English. In many cases, although their comprehension and writing isfine, their speaking may be a little weaker, they are a little more shy aboutthat. Suddenly they are expected to talk...and their whole culture says you don’tdo that. They think, ‘There are four levels of management in the room; why arethey asking me for my opinion?’

"It sounds Pollyannaish, but I think the biggest thing that Americans dowrong is assume that this is just the most terrific, wonderful place to live,that no one could find any fault with it -- or have difficulty adjusting toit," says Roth. "If you want to give yourself a reality check, listento the local news one night as if you were a foreigner. It is scary!"

Beyond the difficulties here, the newcomer would also say to you, "Imiss my mom, and I miss my sister, I miss my food, I miss my newspapers. I misseverything from home." As you would say if you worked overseas.

Employing foreign workers is crucial in meeting today’s business demands.It is just as critical to understand the complexities of managing them.

Workforce, November2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 50-56 -- Subscribenow!

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