Global InpatsDon't Let Them Surprise You

June 1, 1996
A computer company is preparing to introduce a new type of European software into the United States. Sales potential amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars—if the company can be the first to launch the product. All it needs is to find a specialist in this new type of software.

But qualified candidates are hard to find. After strenuous efforts, the HR department can locate only three. None, however, are interested. The HR manager is at the end of her rope. The company is on the verge of making millions in sales, but it will lose its edge if the search takes much longer.

Fortunately, the HR manager has an idea—if the software was created in Europe, why not recruit someone from Europe? Responses from qualified applicants pour in. Unfortunately, now HR has another problem—choosing the best inpat. How can HR be sure about personal backgrounds, work history and educational credentials? How do HR people research the backgrounds of foreign workers, and how do they compare their credentials to those of U.S. workers?

Some of these issues will be familiar to those who hire nationals overseas. But most are unique to the United States. They are questions a lot of HR people don't stop to ask until they're embroiled in a frantic international candidate search—when they need to know the answers already. Take the time now so you can be ready when the call comes—because even if your firm doesn't dabble in international employment matters today doesn't mean it won't have to tomorrow.

Sometimes the best—or only—candidates are found outside the United States.
It's true that few companies go out of their way to hire foreign workers. It's generally easier to hire domestically. There are numerous costly and time-consuming immigration restrictions to clear when hiring outside our borders. For one thing, the Department of Labor (DOL) encourages U.S. companies to hire U.S. citizens whenever possible. To be approved by the Attorney General for importing a foreigner as an "H-2 worker," (the label for a temporary employee) a petitioner must apply to the Secretary of Labor for a certification that:

  • There are not sufficient workers who are able, willing and qualified, and who will be available at the time and place needed, to perform the labor or services involved in the petition, and
  • The employment of the alien in such labor or services will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers in the United States similarly employed.

If you want to hire an employee permanently, you must jump through even more hoops. To hire anyone who is an immigrant, you have to first bring that person to the United States on a temporary visa.

If the person isn't employed with an affiliate of the overseas company, the employer must also show that U.S. workers aren't qualified to take the job. Basically, the only way a company can prove this is by making a dramatic—and expensive—effort to recruit U.S. citizens. If the organization can clear that hurdle, the foreign candidate still must be interviewed for permanent residence status by Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS)—a process that in jurisdictions such as Chicago are backlogged more than a year.

So why would a company put itself through this rigmarole? Sometimes foreign nationals are simply the best—if not the only—candidates for certain industries. High-tech and computer-software firms are prime examples. Even when they can find qualified domestic candidates, those candidates may not be willing to leave their current jobs or homes.

Allentown, Pennsylvania-based Air Products and Chemicals Inc., an international manufacturer of industrial gases, chemicals and environmental and energy systems, hires a small number of foreign-born entry-level scientists and engineers from American universities. Approximately 2% of the company's new hires last year required special employment authorization because of their immigration status. "Many of the people looking for technical jobs are foreign nationals," observes Valerie Moyer, immigration administrator. "Foreign nationals are hired [only] when we can't find suitable U.S. citizens because it can be a grueling process."

International Computer Services, in Houston, also uses immigrant workers. Because the companies it serves are largely international, the firm sometimes needs people who have experience with European software. Obviously that talent pool is deepest in Europe.

So how do organizations that must regularly hire foreign employees conduct their screening? To tell the truth, a lot depends on the situation and the company. For International Computer Services, the screening process is a thorough one. "I look for people with skills with certain software," says Teryle Morrow, director of client services and contract employment. "We do preinterviews, technical interviews and reference checks," she explains. "We verify employment history and degrees. If they'll be working with our clients, they may go to client offices for personal interviews. They'd know better [than us] whether each candidate would be doing a specific project onsite, and what skills that may require." These clients have the final say as to whether the candidates will fit the jobs or not.

Since family members of foreign employees may not be happy with the move, Morrow says her HR department also explores the ramifications of that possibility. They talk to the family, particularly each candidate's spouse. Some, for instance, may reveal that they won't join their spouses to avoid uprooting the children from their own school systems. "Because we're aware of things like that, we try to learn everything we can about each person's life-style, such as whether they're able to travel," says Morrow. That way the company knows the issues its candidates are dealing with and can proceed accordingly.

Like many companies, Air Products depends partly on government criminal and medical background screening of foreign nationals seeking permanent residence. "During the application process," says Moyer, "applicants are asked about convictions in or outside the United States. They're also required to submit medical exams and fingerprint charts. That's part of the process of getting a green card."

Many companies set up a time line for their search process. This may be a very short period, or take several months, depending on the intensity of the screening and the position being hired for. For instance, if a company needs to petition the INS for employment authorization for a prospective employee, the process can take two weeks to two months, depending on the type of authorization needed. A "J" visa status—used to admit business trainees—generally is obtained within two weeks. An "H" status—used to admit people in specialty occupations—can take as long as two months because approval must be obtained from both the INS and the U.S. Department of Labor.

As far as your actual screening goes, it can be as intense as you want, if you know how to conduct it correctly. For companies who need to dip into the foreign-employment pool, the screening process can be boiled down to three areas:

  • Educational verification
  • Work-experience verification and criminal checks
  • Culturally effective interviewing.

Screen a candidate thoroughly in these three areas, and you're that much closer to a good hiring decision.

Know the ABCs of checking educational credentials.
When hiring a person from the United States, you'd want some verification that your candidate really did graduate from the school he or she stated, with the degree stated. Likewise, you should check foreign employees' educational backgrounds.

For companies such as Air Products, the screening process is often easy because many candidates are recruited from U.S. college campuses. "Hires must have at least the equivalent of a bachelor's degree," Moyer explains. "If their course work wasn't equivalent, then we'd need to evaluate their experience. But we haven't had to do that yet." For applicants holding degrees from foreign universities, the company has the candidate's credentials assessed by an outside credentials evaluation service.

To get around overseas educational idiosyncrasies, Fairfax, Virginia-based Mobil Corp. conducts its own screening tests. "Where we feel educational standards are different, we develop our own tests and use them to select people," says Derek Harvey, manager of planning and administration for corporate employee relations. "[But] you have to normalize the tests for the culture you're dealing with." For instance, Mobil developed a test specifically for a project in Indonesia, because there was no other method of gauging candidates' mechanical aptitude or their ability to learn. "To do that in Indonesia, we went to experts at the American Psychological Institute and to Cambridge University in England to help us," says Harvey. "If you want a test to do what you want, you need to construct it appropriately in the first place. And if you don't have a valid test, why use it?"

But Mobil has had extensive overseas experience—and Harvey admits the company rarely has to screen because of its general practice of hiring from affiliates. So how do more mainstream companies like Air Products and International Computer Services screen and compare educational credentials? With some assistance. Researching and evaluating the educational backgrounds of foreign applicants is more complex than evaluating those of Americans. That's why these companies, and others like them, usually turn to outside educational consultants.

Educational evaluations address several fundamental questions. First, is the applicant telling the truth about his or her credentials—did the candidate attend the institutions and earn the degrees indicated on his or her resume? Second, is the institution comparable to American institutions of higher education? Finally, how does a university's overall training compare to training in the United States? Were courses comparable? Did the applicant take an ample number of liberal arts courses? How do the grading systems compare—is an A in France comparable to an A in America? Is a bachelor's degree from Burma comparable to the same degree in the United States?

New York City-based World Education Services Inc. evaluates the educational credentials of foreign-born job applicants on behalf of universities, corporations and immigration attorneys. "This has become a large field," says Nancy Katz, director of the Midwest office, in Chicago. "There are approximately 500,000 foreign students in the United States. Our immigration numbers for employment allow approximately 140,000 people to get nonimmigrant working visas. A lot of them study in the United States and continue to work here."

The organization's services can also be useful for companies seeking employees licensed in fields such as physical therapy, teaching, chemical or medical technology, architecture, engineering or other fields requiring certification. "For example, civil engineers in California need to have certain courses before they can be licensed," Katz explains. "They may need courses in earthquake technology. [Universities in] some countries may offer that, while other countries don't. So we look into that."

Katz evaluates each subject's credentials in depth, determining whether the degree is equivalent to a bachelor's, master's or a Ph.D. "We also try to determine document authenticity. You can ask potential employees to have transcripts sent from their universities to their prospective places of employment. But someone from India, for example, may only have a certified copy, or something that doesn't look like a transcript. Potential employers may wonder about its authenticity. Our job is to find out. If we have questions, we'll write to the home institution."

Corporate clients that seek Katz's help do so because they lack both the time and the special resources necessary to do the job properly. For instance, the organization has a library of a few thousand books about foreign educational equivalencies—not to mention experts in the foreign education field. Katz herself recently co-authored a book on the educational system in Thailand.

Erika Popovych, director of Evaluation Service Inc. in Albany, New York, provides similar services, including in-house translational capabilities. She offers HR departments several precautions in undertaking an educational background check. First, she warns against using translators who are unfamiliar with the technical idiosyncrasies of education. "The translation profession tends to be creative," she says. "Educational translation requires an understanding of its very own language."

Popovych also discourages harboring any false assumptions about educational institutions. "Take Harvard," she says. "Some departments are sterling, and others are coasting along. You have the same situation in other countries. Therefore, you can't say that because you have a degree from a certain country, that it's a superior degree. Although most foreign educational systems are patterned after U.S. institutions, some bypass liberal arts and are more specialized. So education isn't necessarily superior, but different."

Work-experience and criminal checks round out the screening.
Consultants are also useful in areas outside of educational-credential screening. Again, because they have greater resources and experience, they can complete work-experience and criminal checks more efficiently than most companies. For instance, Fairfax, Virginia-based Knowledge Company evaluates work-related experience of immigrant job applicants, using university-based experts who are published scholars. "We require a detailed evidentiary record that can be corroborated by colleagues from abroad about work projects and the problems they solved," says Irving Spitzberg, president. "For example, we'll ask an engineer to submit drawings and plans, and our experts will use that information to compare their knowledge with that of an American university graduate."

Spitzberg says that he's amazed more corporations don't use screening services. "Whether I were hiring at a Fortune 500 corporation, or for a Mom and Pop business, I'd want to know the applicant's exact qualifications."

Employers—or their authorized representatives—can encounter certain unique problems in the process of verifying background information on foreign-born job candidates. For instance, Paul Barada, president of Barada Associates of Rushville, Indiana, who specializes in employee background checks for his corporate clients, says that language barriers can be a common problem. "Most of the time," he reports, "we find that people seeking employment in this country are bilingual, and they tend to provide references who are fluent in English. But the trick is often getting past the receptionist who doesn't speak English."

When language is a problem, Barada taps into a broad base of local language experts who service his needs from time to time. "They may get us past the gatekeepers who don't know English. Or sometimes it may become a three-way phone conversation."

Nadine Stollenmaier, president of the Honolulu-based Dunhill Professional Search of Hawaii, says that existing laws sometimes present her with a problem when she screens foreign applicants. "We can ask about languages [candidates] speak fluently, but that's [legal] only if it's a bona fide occupational qualification," she says.

Other unlawful inquiries include:

  • The applicant's nationality, lineage, ancestry, national origin, descent or parentage
  • The nationality of parents, spouses, or maiden name of applicant's wife or mother
  • What language the applicant commonly uses
  • If an applicant is able to read, write or speak a foreign language not directly related to the job.

"Be sure to follow guidelines for pre-employment inquiries," Stollenmaier urges. "Be aware that foreigners know they can sue U.S. companies."

So how does Dunhill Professional Search screen foreign applicants? "The same way we screen American citizens," Stollenmaier replies. "I recently interviewed a woman from Japan who was here on a student working visa. I contacted her former school and employer in Japan, and spoke to someone who spoke English who could send relevant documentation."

After educational and work-experience screening pan out, HR people still have one more area of inquiry: criminal background. HR professionals should know about law as it pertains to foreign hires, advises immigration lawyer Scott Cooper, partner with Chicago law firm Fragomen, Del Rey & Bernsen.

The criminal screening may be the trickiest part of the process, due to lack of sources. For one thing, there's no requirement for a police or security check on someone who comes on a temporary visa. Secondly, even if an agency does conduct a check, that doesn't guarantee all undesirables will be screened out. "The INS has a lookout list containing hundreds of thousands of names," says Cooper. "A number of agencies feed information into that database, which is then accessed by U.S. embassies and consuls abroad, or by the INS at a port of entry. [But] anybody who hasn't been arrested and convicted won't be caught." Also guaranteed to slip through criminal checks are people who are convicted of a crime overseas that wouldn't be so regarded here—for example, someone convicted of treason for criticizing their country's dictator.

However, the main problem with these criminal background checks, says Cooper, stems from the dearth of information that the United States has on crimes committed in foreign countries. "We don't have that much information exchange on criminal activity, except with Canada. So that lookout list is intended to deal only with serious criminals from the few countries with whom we do exchange information."

Another problem in checking criminal histories is that certain countries may maintain poor records or may impose legal restrictions. For instance, the United States maintains an open exchange with Canada on criminal activity. This isn't as helpful as one may think, however, because Canadian law forbids employers to question candidates on criminal backgrounds. So if a foreigner is hired by a Canadian company, that company won't know of any criminal background that employee may have. "I've seen situations in which people are hired by Canadian companies that can't ask questions about criminal background," says Cooper. "Then when they're at a U.S. port of entry, immigration officials don't let them in." If a U.S. company hires a foreign employee from a Canadian company, the firm should conduct its own criminal check.

Foreign nationals who seek permanent residence, Cooper says, are a different matter. "They would go through an arrest record check if they were in the United States for any time. If they haven't been, then most must present letters or police certificates from the countries they've lived in for six months or more."

But Cooper suggests that HR also should be aware of potential legal problems concerning the criminal backgrounds of foreign candidates. Even if an applicant has no official arrest record, there could still be problems surrounding some of his or her actions. For instance, HR people should know not just whether a person has been arrested or convicted of a crime, but whether he or she has admitted to the essential elements of what would be a crime here. One example would be a violation of the American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars U.S. entry of foreign businesspeople who might have bribed government officials in their home countries—even if that isn't against the law in those countries.

Other rules can also bar someone's entry. For instance, a person can be excluded if he or she admits to something for which the potential sentence is more than a year imprisonment. Cooper offers an example: "A president of a company subsidiary in Canada, who was to be transferred to the United States, took some wood from a construction site trash pile for his trellis. Canadian police arrested him for taking $40 worth of wood. The man returned the materials and [ended up] paying a fine. But because the potential sentence was more than a year imprisonment, he was inadmissible to the United States forever. Luckily he was married to a U.S. citizen, and they could waive that kind of minor crime."

What can a company do if something minor like this bars a candidate's entry? Unfortunately, not much. That's why it's important to do pre-hire checks, so you don't end up with a costly fiasco—a new employee who never will be allowed in the United States.

Keep cultural differences in mind when interviewing.
Cultural considerations also can be an important—and complicated—area in the screening process. "You may have language barriers," Morrow notes. "They may speak English, but when they get into technical situations with clients, it can be hard to be sure they're comprehending instructions. You can lose some things in translation." To avoid this problem, Morrow recommends bringing the technical managers into the interviewing process. Project managers or supervisors are better able to tell during the technical interview whether the candidates know what they're talking about.

Because cultural differences may also affect work methods, HR departments should evaluate work style during the screening process. Employees conduct themselves very differently depending on their cultural orientation. For instance, some cultures don't communicate much. The employees might come in and put their heads down to their work. Americans often want to get more feedback from people. Just recognizing cultural differences can smooth potential problems. You can sit down with the candidate pre-hire, explain the U.S. work culture, and see if he or she will be able to make the necessary adjustments to be functional in the workplace.

Experts also warn HR professionals to be aware of cultural barriers that may keep the screening process itself from being effective.

For instance, human resources professionals should be aware that some interview questions considered standard in the United States may be completely taboo to foreign-born candidates. "You should know about the interviewee's culture before you do the interview so you know what's inappropriate," advises Randy Chastain, HR director for Ball Corporation's packaging division, in Broomfield, Colorado. "But also, you should preface your interview with the point, 'I'm doing this from an American perspective, so if I say something that's inappropriate, let me know.'"

Chastain also urges HR professionals to do their homework. One of the best ways, he says, is to consult those who are experienced in dealing with foreign-born workers. Chastain, for instance, talks with human resources managers in the areas in which the company is recruiting. He asks them how they interview, what some of their experiences have been and what to watch out for.

Ian Payne, vice president of global services for Prudential Relocation of Shelton, Connecticut, urges HR managers to make no assumptions about other cultures. "For instance, there's more similarity between British and Chinese culture than between British and American," says Payne, who is a British national in residence. The assumption that the two countries share similar lifestyles probably leads to the fact that U.K. and U.S. transfers statistically suffer the highest failure rate. "The important thing about culture is that what you perceive as right or wrong, good or bad, is perceived differently around the world," warns Payne. "As a result, you find both attitudinal and behavioral differences. You need to understand what drives those differences. Then you'll have insight into why people think and act the way they do."

A final word of advice: Keep it all legal. "It's essential that judgments about education and work experience are carefully crafted to follow the requirements of the law," Spitzberg comments. "Many evaluations are done by people who... don't know immigration law, and don't understand learning systems in other countries."

Human resources people who aren't specialists in evaluating foreign job candidates can stay on the right side of the law by seeking advice from people who teach or work in the field or from professional societies. "Generalists are not qualified to evaluate experiential learning," says Popovych. "Contact your nearest college and consult someone in the department related to your applicant's area of specialization. These people are professionals and should know variables in the field."

Stollenmaier also urges HR managers to use outside assistance in the screening process. "HR professionals have to worry about many other things. These agencies can be helpful because they're specialized in this kind of work and can provide a second line of defense. You'll have two sources screening the applicants, instead of just one."

So what ever happened to that computer company and its European software launch? Well, the firm whittled its list down to several foreign candidates. HR conducted educational, work-experience and criminal background checks. The company invited the finalists in for culturally respectful interviews—and hired a new employee in time to launch the line. By following its lead, you can have a similar success story.

Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, pp. 54-64.