Immigration and HR


Modern technology has made travel easier than it ever has been. I can buy an airline ticket today and be in Australia by tomorrow. When I was interviewed for a job in Germany I boarded an aeroplane in my native Britain, flew to Berlin, spent several hours with the team I would be working with, and then flew back home again, all in a single day. Before I made this trip I had several initial interviews remotely via Skype. When I was offered employment I gave serious consideration to working here, staying here during the the week, and then flying back to the UK for the weekend, such is the ease of travel that being able to cross several hundred miles and a few countries every week is simple and easy.

“Recognise yourself in he and she who are not like you and me” – Carlos Fuentes

Given that people are the most valuable and indispensable component of any successful company or institution, whether in the public or private sector, it is foolish to pass up on the opportunities afforded by ease of travel to recruit from a much larger pool of talent. Limiting yourself to hiring only from the local workforce will in turn limit the potential capability of your workforce and therefore possibly harm your productivity. This ultimately makes your business less competitive – a completely unnecessary burden. Furthermore, hiring from afar has other benefits beyond improving the chances of getting the best people. People from different backgrounds have often been educated in a different way, have learned different techniques and methods of doing tasks, and are able to think differently. They may also have particular knowledge that is useful to an organization. For example, if a company is looking to open up fresh operations in a new country, the advantages of having a few people from that country in the workforce are obvious.

People from different backgrounds have often been educated in a different way, have learned different techniques and methods of doing tasks, and are able to think differently. @EineKatzeZuViel Click To Tweet

But in spite of the advantages of immigration, the history of human migration, and the ease of modern movement, immigration has become something of a controversial subject in many countries over the last few years. Perhaps the ease of movement is a factor in this? Perhaps our societies and workplaces are becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse, and the rate of this change is outpacing our collective capacity to keep up? Globalisation has altered the economy of the world so that goods, capital, people and services cross borders far easier. Not only are businesses serving customers internationally, but many of the old industries which traditionally stayed in one place (car assembly, ore refining) are have become global enterprises with international supply chains meaning a product may cross many borders before it is ready to hit the market. The modern globalized economy is concerning itself less and less with the nation state.

Plane as a symbol for immigration


“The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress” – Charles Kettering

As far as the workplace goes, HR has the central role in handling any challenges created by immigration. In an age of unprecedented exchange of people, cross-cultural fluency and the ability to integrate foreign talent into the workforce without friction is a new and vital role in the modern workplace. To do this the people in HR need to not only be thoroughly knowledgeable about the laws, cultures, and typical working practices within their own country, but also acquire knowledge and awareness of the HR practices in other nations as well. Sadly this is something often overlooked on modern HR courses which are very country specific. To excel in this area HR professionals need to step outside of the traditional norms for the industry and create an international network of expertise. Perhaps we should start a HR Erasmus project?

@EineKatzeZuViel: Perhaps we should start a #HR #Erasmus project? Click To Tweet

Some industries are struggling to adapt to this brave new world. In older industries such manufacturing there has always been a tendency to recruit locally. Jobs were often given to family members or friends and you could even find three generations of the same family working at the same plant or facility. This means that these types of industries have historically seen fewer immigrants, and may have a hostile view of international labour. If this is the case, from a HR perspective, we need to embark on an educational program which focuses on inclusion and diversity. Such programs should look at the whole life cycle from understanding our internal biases for example when recruiting or creating succession plans to creating a welcoming workspace in which ideas and views can be exchanged without causing friction. A major culture shift in how immigration is viewed and how immigrant workers are integrated needs to come from the top. Leadership and management need to be coached in the benefits of migrant labour, as well as what is acceptable and what might be considered discriminatory.

“Diversity: the art of thinking independently together” – Malcolm Forbes

By contrast, the tech industry is younger, more culturally diverse and aware. In technology and other emerging industries the HR challenges with regard to immigrant workers can frequently be radically different to those in other, more established industries. The very nature of many technology products, such as videogames, apps, or digital services and media, means that cross-border support and localization (such as languages or local currency adaptation) are necessary, which in turn means that there is a need to recruit people with international knowledge and expertise. So many if not most tech companies already have extremely diverse workforces without positive discrimination or diversity targets being applied. But this can create its own set of problems. There are people from 44 separate nations in the company I currently work for, and I’ve heard at least 9 separate languages spoken in the coffee lounge alone. People arrive from all over the world, and depending upon the the host nation’s arrangement with their native country they may need different types of visas, eligibility to work checks, or they may have to meet income requirements etc. Another challenge for these sectors can actually sometimes be to prevent immigration of the workers they have. Tech experts are in great demand all over the developed world, so talent retention should be the goal of HR here. Again, cultural awareness, and using cultural awareness to offer a work environment and benefits which enable people to feel at home in the organisation can be a major factor in retaining the best people.

Using cultural awareness to offer a work environment and benefits which enable people to feel at home in the organisation can be a major factor in retaining the best people. Click To Tweet

Immigration is, by all available independent metrics, beneficial to both societies and businesses. Hostility to immigration and isolationism can be toxic. It’s objectively clear, if we want our societies and business to be prosperous and successful we should embrace immigration. However, it does come with some challenges. For businesses and organisations to thrive they must overcome these challenges. The HR department must step in now to see that they do.

About the author:

Author Sarah MurrayI’m a HR professional, currently in Germany and formerly of Britain, and I’ve worked in many businesses across multiple sectors, though mostly in tech, manufacturing, construction, and engineering sectors, as well as dabbling in law. I’ve cut a swathe through a multitude of companies, leaving restructured, merged, and smoothly running and efficient departments in my wake. I’m also on a quest to put the “human” back into HR, and to build HR departments that are not just seen as a tool of the management but as a department which ensures that people have as positive a journey as possible throughout their working life. I work in Berlin, and live in Hohen Neuendorf with my family, cats, and an abundance of giant wasps.

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