With immigration policies being tightened and visa requirements increasing
the world over, formal immigration programmes must be created to help employees
being sent on international assignments break through the red tape, write Lance
Kaplan and Don Bentivoglio
Navigating international immigration requirements has never been simple. And
after the terror attacks in the US on 11 September and the current heightened
state of alert in Europe and around the world, visa applicants and travellers
are being scrutinised far more aggressively.
More than ever, countries are reviewing and revising their immigration laws
and regulations to close potential loopholes for ‘undesirable’ foreign
visitors. Compounding this is the fallout from the current global recession and
rising unemployment. A number of countries – specifically certain member states
of the European Economic Area – are tightening their immigration policies to
balance often conflicting requirements: being part of the global economy,
protecting their own economies and workforces and ensuring the availability of
a qualified workforce. Immigration laws therefore change regularly.
The challenges facing most organisations are to keep pace with the world in
which they operate in terms of their immigration policies, procedures and
practices and to ensure an uneventful and seamless – and at the same time,
compliant – flow of worldwide talent.
HR professionals in global companies know the drill. Typically two weeks
prior, if they are lucky, they receive notification that a key employee is
about to begin an international assignment. This usually initiates a frantic
search through paperwork, with an underlying hope that the line organisation
had the foresight to ensure the necessary work permits and visas were applied
for – as well as received. More often than not, the response to the visa
question is "What visa? I thought that was something that HR did." At
that point the race is on.
Facts and information must be gathered, consulates or visa service providers
must be contacted, and in most cases a plan B must be developed because two
weeks is simply not long enough to obtain the necessary work authorisations for
most international destinations.
Changes in the immigration landscape
But now, the immigration issue is no longer about simply getting someone a
visa in time for them to catch a plane. The ramifications are far greater, and
the risks of non-compliance to employers and employees are real and
Since 11 September, immigration departments of most countries have felt
pressure to be more restrictive and more accountable. Not only are the recent
threats of global terrorism driving this expectation of greater accountability,
but so are the subsequent economic consequences leading to layoffs and
Local communities often cannot distinguish between a foreign temporary
worker (specialist or professional) whose skills are in short supply in a
country, and a foreign-born person who acquires permanent residence in a
country through family ties or even as a refugee. "Foreigners" are
often seen as "foreigners", with no distinction as to the potential
levels of contribution they may make to a society.
Unlike the late 1990s, many countries are not experiencing the same level of
acute skill shortages which led to relaxed immigration regulations. All signs
now confirm that in many countries, employers who bring in foreign workers can
expect greater monitoring and scrutiny and ultimately a tightening of temporary
and permanent entry programmes.
This includes immigration departments monitoring of employers sponsorship
undertakings, verifying employers are paying what they say they are and not
just importing cheap labour, and requirements to scrutinise and verify an
individual’s right to work in that country.
Each point leads to significant ramifications for a company from a
compliance perspective, and while these concepts have existed in the US, the UK
and Australia for a number of years, they are being increasingly emphasised and
implemented in more countries than before.
What does this mean for HR?
International assignment programmes (IAPs) tend to be very detail-oriented
so little is left to chance or capriciousness. In fact, a critical objective of
having a formalised IAP is to minimise decision-making and enhance
While global organisations generally give significant thought to seemingly
minor elements within an IAP (for example, shipment of pets, reimbursement for
car leases, providing property management fees and so on), it can’t be said
that the same amount of thought is generally given to immigration planning and
execution. This is significant short shrift, because none of the IAP’s other
elements will come into effect if the assignee ultimately cannot obtain the
right to work within the host country.
To avoid this, ensure your organisation has a formalised immigration
procedure that is an integral component of the international HR programme. This
is important because in addition to the standard compliance aspects (such as
the application process), an integrated immigration programme also touches on
such HR issues as career management, assignee selection, and mobility
considerations – not to mention the compliance issues above.
For example, while certain questions are generally not asked in the course
of ‘normal’ HR considerations (such as whether or not an individual is
‘legally’ married or what their sexual orientation is), such issues may become
relevant to the immigration process depending on the host country’s customs and
Some countries will simply not allow the company to sponsor such employees
in the same manner as a more ‘traditional’ member of staff. Such situations can
directly affect assignee selection.
While they are not automatic deal breakers, such situations point out that
unexpected issues can further delay an already lengthy process. It is far more
preferable to uncover relevant issues sooner rather than later and a formal
immigration programme that includes a planning element will help ensure the
company is prepared to deal with unexpected events and circumstances.
Planning and involvement
Clearly, it would be advantageous to all concerned if HR were involved in
the earliest phases of assignment planning, to guarantee there is enough time
to gather the necessary information to apply for the correct work and family
authorisations. Since this may not always be possible, the challenge to HR
becomes a question of how to inject itself into the process early rather than
wait to be invited. Line management will typically invest the proper amount of
time in planning for their own staffing needs, but their planning is generally
focused and tactical and often doesn’t include HR.
One way to ensure early HR involvement would be to ask for it through formal
policy. Additionally, HR should continue to demonstrate to line management the
added value that planning and professional management brings to the process
(for example, time efficiency, cost savings, and operational effectiveness).
This can prevent situations such as delayed or missed assignments,
additional family trips to the home country to apply for the right documents,
heightened frustration for assignees and their families. This can be
accomplished through periodic communication that highlights successes and challenges.
An opportunity for professional management
Most international assignment policies provide the assignee with access to
professional service providers as well as reimbursement for related expenses.
However, ultimate responsibility for visa acquisition generally lies with the
international assignee, while the HR department remains on the sidelines
prepared to help.
Unfortunately, by the time HR finds out that the assignee needs help, it is
often too late to effectively resolve the issue quickly. If your organisation’s
approach to immigration issues follows this model, then it might be time to
conduct an audit of the current programme and formalise a process in which the
programme is managed professionally.
It is not a good use of a key employee’s time to be making phone calls,
queuing, photocopying documents and wondering if they are applying for the
documents they actually need. Having a service provider undertake these
activities saves time and money. Second, if your service provider has multinational
capabilities and presence, the process can be streamlined simply because it may
have a better grasp of local nuances in expediting the application and
understanding processing times. Even if it doesn’t have a physical presence in
multiple international locations, it is still a safe bet that it has more
experience with undertaking these activities.
Finally, there are just too many examples of assignees applying for and
receiving all of the documentation they think – or have been told – they need,
but upon arrival at a consular office, or even a foreign airport, they find
they are missing a required family document or a local police document.
You want the assignee to arrive in the host country ready to work, not be
held up by bureaucratic barriers. By having a professional services provider
involved early in the process and responsible for the final results, it ensures
there are no delays or surprises and it frees up the assignee to focus on other
aspects of the assignment for which they are better equipped to handle.
Additionally, a professional manager provides a single point of contact that
can be accessed by immigration authorities, assignees and their families, line
management, and the HR department in order to facilitate the flow of
information and to determine application status.
Getting there is only part of the equation
Management of the immigration process shouldn’t end once the assignee is on
their way to the host location, but must continue throughout the assignment.
Depending on the country and type of visa or work permit, certain
requirements must often be "tracked" throughout to ensure the
assignee doesn’t violate permit requirements in terms of how long they may
remain outside the country, renewal dates for the assignee and their family,
and the type of work the assignee may or may not undertake. If there is one,
two, or a very small handful of assignees, it may be possible to track the
assignment-related issues internally. When the international pool grows (both
inbound and outbound) the process gets more complex and requirement tracking
can consume considerable time. In the ‘old days’, many organisations had the
luxury of maintaining a staff of internal immigration specialists that looked
after such concerns. Today’s headcount-sensitive environment doesn’t allow
In considering the range of possibilities regarding the outsourcing of
non-core responsibilities, international assignment management is a logical
choice to turn over to a service provider that can provide professional turnkey
immigration services and free international HR professionals to focus on more
Compliance with immigration requirements is difficult and time consuming,
and it isn’t going to get easier. Being part of the solution as opposed to
being a passive and generally reactive participant can make your job a lot
easier, greatly reduce the stress for the assignees and their families, and can
ultimately add value to the organisation.
Donald R. Bentivoglio is a senior manager – IHR Consulting in Deloitte
& Touche’s New York International Assignment Services practice.
With more than 20 years experience in the international HR
field, he has consulted with profit and non-profit organisations of all sizes
on international, expatriate, and local and national HR strategy and policy
Throughout his consulting career, Don has conducted onsite
project work in over 20 countries in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South
America, North America, and Asia. E-mail [email protected]
Lance Kaplan is the global partner for the Deloitte Global Visa Solutions
practice of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.
He is responsible for formulating the strategic direction of
the 52+ worldwide immigration practices, including integrating cross border
liaison and services between country practices, formulating and implementing
processes and procedures, quality assurance programs, building client service
team capabilities in specific locations, developing proprietary software
specific to the practice, and more. E-mail [email protected]
Here are a few suggestions for upgrading your immigration programme’s
quality and effectiveness:
– Institutionalise HR involvement
early by revising policies to make immigration planning an integral part of the
international assignment process
– Periodically reinforce the
importance and necessity of immigration planning from assignment inception to
– Place the tactical responsibility
for visa issues in the hands of professionals and hold them accountable for the
results. Retain strategic responsibility for yourself. Work with the provider
to figure out how to improve on it
– Manage the overall immigration
process rather than being managed by it