Matters Column

International human resources: a piece of pie

April 21, 2017
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It’s as simple as a piece of… For most Americans, the completion of the statement is “cake.” Often stated as a “piece of cake” when referring to a foregone conclusion, these idiom phrases, which are not literal translation of the words, still are clear to most people. Idioms can be confusing to people new to a language or culture — not surprising when they substitute a wrong pastry in the phrase above. However, in today’s business climate, maybe “pie” is really a good alternate term, as it really isn’t that simple anymore and few things can be taken for granted. It takes a lot of knowledge, effort, planning and a few other ingredients to make the human resource cake come together effectively.

The various aspects of the mixture continually have gotten more complex, especially as the international element has intruded on business and organization operations. Now, many folks are probably thinking, I don’t do international stuff, so no problem. On the surface, that may be true, but if you dig a little deeper, you may find there are multiple aspects of the international world showing up in your business practices.

International activities and your organization

For example, if you have employees, you are supposed to keep records of their ability to work in your organization legally; it is called an I-9 form. Completing this form correctly and maintaining it correctly requires following stringent procedures, and the documents that you review and copy have to be valid. If they are not, it may be the beginning of a number of issues. Most HR staff is very aware of the emphasis being placed on not employing “illegals.” But many people in the organization do not know what to do or lack the knowledge of how to respond to an audit or investigation by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) section of the Department of Homeland Security, including those responsible for HR matters. Clearly, this is a training requirement.

In fact, the increased efforts of this agency may impact your operations, even when they are not calling on your company. It may be at another organization or through a different type of event. A family member of your employee may be subject to deportation as a result of ICE actions. If so, your employee’s attention will not be about doing your work. Figuring out what you should do in these cases gets very complicated.

If you have a mixed culture workforce, discussions of getting rid of illegals and saving jobs for Americans may result in tensions and limit cohesions of your workforce. You may be doing a terrific job on employment backgrounds, but meeting other employment requirements, such as getting certain documents prepared in a language other than English, creates costs and some employees may resent this. They often forget the reason these non-English speakers, or English as a Second Language people, are in the workforce is because they have some skills or good working habits that others don’t exhibit. In fact, the labor shortage of employable staff is getting worse and will further require effort to attract and retain the right employees regardless of background. No matter what some people may espouse, we are not going back to a white-male-dominated workforce. Communication regarding the workforce mixture needs to be a conscious process. People with the right skills will be sought wherever they are.  Employers will bring them here, send the jobs to them or replace them with automation. Taxation methods, walls or heavy-duty police enforcement efforts are not going to solve the alignment of required skills with organizational operating needs. 

What is next?

If we want a country that prospers and is competitive, we have to recognize we are part of an international environment. We need to know how we can repatriate our employees and their families to oversee our efforts in foreign countries or seek out resources in various parts of the world that can be part of our products and services. It means we also need to take advantage of knowledge and experience from people outside the United States. It requires effective utilization of various visas, assistance with complex tax, immigration and customs practices, knowledge of U.S. and foreign laws, and regulations and access to people who will know the local languages and idioms. Pay, benefit, employment practices and social settings are part of the picture we must address when your workforce comes from or goes to a new location. The list of requirements just keeps getting longer. 

Addressing all these matters requires an active effort to juggle all of the balls. That means it takes someone who leads or is part of the organization’s strategic thinking to be looking down the road and observing what is happening outside one’s immediate operating environment and considering how change will impact the goals of one’s organization. A well-regarded organization strategist suggested a critical process is to start listening to the “weak signals” at the edge of change. These weak signals may not actually be so weak when you figure out they are not just coming from your typical sphere of operation. It is imperative to pick out the vibrations that are growing faster than the rest. Then anticipate how you will plan for and utilize the advance knowledge of what is changing; followed by initiating changes in your organization to maximize its effectiveness to deal with the new and often internationally shaped world.

Change never stops

Once you think you have identified the things that need to be addressed internally, don’t stop there. You have to keep being vigilant, because others also will begin to react to the changing environment of technology, market demands, competitor innovations, government regulations and the labor force changes. It is a constantly evolving picture.

Don’t be fooled by thinking we can isolate ourselves, go back to the old ways, create the $35/hour auto assembly jobs for people who are warm bodies. It is not a piece of cake, or even a piece of pie, to get the same results by using the same old ingredients. Something is always different. The flour might not rise the same just due to climate change; I forgot, that really doesn’t exist. Maybe, the best strategy is to foster a culture that embraces change, international or otherwise.

Ardon Schambers is principal at P3HR Consulting & Services.

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