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Immigration and your business: how to hire and integrate international employees

Blog / June 12, 2024 / with Christoph Drebes
A man wearing glasses and a business shirt is greeted by a diverse group of his new colleagues. All are smiling.


How can your business integrate international employees? 

The US is facing a labor shortage. In May 2024, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that their data showed 8.8 million job openings but only 6.4 million unemployed people. Even if every unemployed person currently living in the US were to get one of the available jobs, there would still be almost 2.4 million open positions. 

Part of this is due to demographics: the number of Americans participating in the workforce full-time has been in decline for decades. In May 2022, the reasons given included higher retirement rates, a higher number of young people in education or training, and a percentage choosing part-time work. Mothers were particularly likely to fall out of the full-time workforce due to high child-care costs and the likelihood of them depending on another family member for financial security. 

So, with fewer US citizens participating in the workforce, where will the labor come from? One obvious answer is overseas. However, the path to hiring and integrating international employees isn’t always straightforward. 

How immigration laws impact hiring

Net international migration to the US is currently at a low point. Between 2020 and 2021, immigration's impact on US population growth dropped by 76%. While part of that drop was surely caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the complexity of the US immigration system doesn’t always inspire companies to sponsor visas. 

This is due to the following issues: 

  • Limited availability of visas. The number of visas handed out every year is limited. This is particularly true for unskilled or lower-level professional roles. 
  • Unpredictable timings. Even when you’ve submitted all the relevant paperwork well in advance, it can take months to process. And if you’re unlucky and the quota of visas has already been reached for a country, you may get an unexpected rejection.
  • Additional costs. The Society for Human Resource Management has shown that it costs companies at least $4000 to submit all the paperwork and documentation required for an H1-B visa, and complex cases can cost far more.
  • Complicated administrative requirements. The process of applying for US visas can be complex, and a clerical error, misplaced document, or missed deadline can derail the entire process. This can be very challenging for companies with limited or inexperienced HR resources to manage alongside their regular tasks. Paying a law firm to handle visa applications on the employer’s behalf adds further costs.
  • Changing regulations. Immigration policy is a hot topic in the US, and decisions from high-ranking politicians mean that the system and lottery allocations can change from year to year. Keeping up with the latest developments can be a huge challenge for already busy People & Culture departments. 

The benefits of hiring from overseas

The list of challenges might seem daunting, but there are plenty of excellent reasons to make the effort of sponsoring visas. 

An image of text summarizing the six benefits of hiring international employees, which will be discussed in the text that follows.

  • Get the experts you need. We’ve already discussed the worker shortage and skill gap in the U.S. Hiring employees from overseas allows you to fill the roles you need with experts and specialists in their field.
  • Add diverse, international perspectives. International employees bring their experience from working in different countries. This can be a huge benefit to a company, as they can spot roadblocks and opportunities that those with only American market experience might overlook.
  • Grow your global organization. International employees can be the key to your organization's success when it expands overseas. Their insight and language skills can make market entry easier.
  • Unlock more innovation. In 2019, a study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and the Technical University of Munich revealed that diverse companies are more innovative. The study analyzed 1600 companies from eight countries based on gender, nationality, age, and industry.
  • Improve your employer branding. An authentically diverse company can attract a wider range of talent. Being openly proud of the number of nationalities employed and languages spoken can encourage applications from people who might not feel welcome at less diverse organizations.
  • Gain a competitive advantage. A McKinsey study found that companies with the most ethnically/culturally diverse boards in the world are 43% more likely to have higher profits. This means that skilled workers from abroad can become an absolute competitive advantage. 

The main immigration laws you should be aware of

In the US, there are several different laws that affect how employers engage with their non-US citizen employees. Here are the most important: 

Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) 

This federal law covers many scenarios, including how to become naturalized and how refugees can enter the US. However, the most relevant pieces for employers are the descriptions of the visa categories and their requirements. This is the law you will need to reference when considering whether you can sponsor an applicant for a working visa. 

This act is also important because it establishes that once a non-citizen is employed, employers can’t discriminate against them in either pay or treatment.  

Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 

This act is relevant whether you are sponsoring an international employee to enter the country or not. It requires employers to check that all their new employees are legally permitted to work in the United States. This act created the I-9 form, which employers and new hires must complete regardless of the new employee's citizenship. 

Civil Rights Act of 1964 

The Civil Rights Act covers many different areas of discrimination at work. For example, it protects workers from discrimination based on their race or gender. It also reinforces the Immigration and Nationality Act by stating that employees cannot be discriminated against on the basis of their nationality. 

The Immigration Act of 1990 

This Immigration Act created the H1-B visa category, which is dedicated to highly educated workers. This is the most relevant visa program for scientific or technology fields. This visa doesn’t allow workers to stay in the US permanently. 

The 1990 Immigration Act was amended in 2004, with additional requirements placed on employers. To employ someone under an H1-B visa, an employer must now be able to show that they are not displacing a US worker and that they tried to find a US citizen for the role. 

What to consider before making an offer to an overseas candidate

At this stage, you may have a great candidate from another country to whom you want to make an offer. If relevant to your case, you've also checked that there are no similarly qualified US citizens available for the role. 

At this stage, it is important to make sure that both the candidate and the hiring manager understand what the process requires. You need the candidate to be completely transparent and reliable during the visa application process. You also need the hiring manager to realize that this process can’t be completed overnight. It takes patience and a lot of work. 

Here are some tips for this period:

  • Stay on top of deadlines. Add calendar reminders in advance of any key paperwork or meetings so that you and the candidate are both fully prepared.
  • Manage expectations. Don’t over-promise to either side. You can’t give more than an estimated start date to the hiring manager, and you might have to disappoint them if the visa is eventually denied.
  • Try to gauge team fit. If possible, bring the candidate to the office where they would be based and give them a tour of their new potential hometown. After meeting in person, either side may decide that it wouldn’t be the best fit and end the process before spending too much time and energy. If you can’t bring the candidate in person, consider a virtual shadowing day. 

Onboarding your international new hires

Once you’ve made it through the red tape, it’s time to welcome your new employee!  

A great onboarding experience can make a huge difference. We’ve written about the importance of onboarding for retention and productivity in the past. However, it’s important to remember that international employees might need additional support before and during onboarding. 

A woman checking off items on a list as she packs up her home in advance of an international move.

Here are some things you should consider when onboarding employees from overseas: 

Offer practical support 

Many international employees need assistance with relocation. Ensure that you offer a sufficient relocation budget and consider how you can support them in other ways. For example, you can connect them to local real estate agencies that can help them find a new home. If you regularly ask employees to relocate, consider investing in relocation services. 

Prepare the existing team 

When hiring someone from another country, your existing employees might have a lot of questions. Explain why this person has been hired, which unique skills they bring to the team, and a few personal details about them. 

Onboard in groups 

Solo onboarding can be lonely. If you’re hiring regularly, try to align start dates so that new employees begin with a circle of people at the same level of newness. This can also give them a small network of acquaintances in different departments, helping them build their own understanding of the company outside their team. 

Set clear expectations 

As with all onboarding processes, explain what you expect from a new employee in the first week, month, and six months. For international employees, it’s also helpful to explain the often-unspoken expectations in your workplace. That could include communication norms, meeting behavior, and whether they’ll be expected to work longer hours around key deadlines. This is sometimes referred to as cultural onboarding. 

Use a buddy system 

Buddy systems are very popular during onboarding processes. They pair a more established colleague with the new colleague so that the new person has someone to whom they can direct more informal questions.  

Buddy systems can be designed in various ways depending on an organization's size and complexity. Sometimes, it’s best to pair someone with a colleague in their own department who can also help them with some of their daily tasks. Other times, it can be best to use the buddy system to match the new employee to a different business function so that they can see how their work connects to others. 

Go above and beyond 

If your employees are relocating, they might move to town with just a suitcase and no social circle at all. It can be very meaningful if their manager and team go the extra mile to help them get settled in. 

It could be a gesture as small as compiling your team’s favorite local restaurants or giving advice about local schools or gyms. It could also mean being flexible with their working hours while they go through the administrative tasks of moving to a new place. You could also celebrate their milestones at the end of their onboarding, welcoming them not only to your company but to your wider community. 

Reading tip: More ideas and initiatives to support your onboarding process 

Integrating your international employees

While a great onboarding will go a long way toward making your international employees feel welcome, it’s just the first step in the process. It’s important to ensure that they have the tools and support they need to succeed not only in their new role but also in their new lives outside of work.  

Text summarizing the different initiatives an HR team can offer during the preboarding, onboarding, and integration  of new hires. All points have been or will be discussed in the body text.

Here are some ideas that can help you to integrate your international employees in the long term: 

Language courses 

Many people moving to the US have at least a basic grasp of English. However, if you’re recruiting for roles that don’t require English day-to-day, providing extra English language classes can help them integrate into the wider community. Business English classes can also prepare them to eventually move up the career ladder and into more senior positions. 

Alternatively, if you live in an area with a high population of Spanish speakers, you could consider offering Spanish lessons instead. ASL classes would also be a great opportunity to make your workplace more inclusive, and your existing workforce could probably also benefit from them. 

Regular networking 

If your employees don’t often look outside their own department for friends at work, they might be missing out on some great relationships. Implementing regular networking can help them bond with colleagues in other departments. 

A match-making solution like Mystery Coffee allows you to match employees based on their shared languages or interests. This kind of targeted matching can help you to make your international employees feel welcome and connected. 

DEI training for all 

With employees joining your company from different nationalities, cultures, and religions, it’s important that your workforce has up-to-date DEI training

DEI training can help all employees and managers identify their unconscious biases and better understand the kind of support and understanding that their colleagues might need.  

Flexibility in leave policy 

International employees often live far away from home, with their families hours away by plane. Connection with colleagues is important, but it’s also essential that organizations recognize that living far from family comes with its own emotional difficulties.  

One way to deal with this is to be flexible with your leave policy. If it takes over 12 hours and more than $1000 in flights each way for an employee to get home, be aware that they might want to take more than one or two weeks off at a time to make the most of their journey. Additionally, they may deal with jet lag when they get back, so it’s nice to be flexible with home office days as well.  

Some organizations also offer their international employees an annual stipend so that they can travel home. This gesture shows the company goes above the bare minimum for its employees. 

Celebrate cultural diversity 

It can be tough to step out of the rhythm of your own culture and into that of another. Holidays can be particularly lonely. A workplace can’t replace the feeling of family, but it can still be a safe space for employees to celebrate. 

Allow your international employees to celebrate their holidays at work – whether that’s by bringing treats or giving a short presentation to their colleagues about what they’re celebrating. You could even ask for their input for cafeteria menus or alternative holiday parties. It’s also important to respect more serious holidays, such as Eid or Lent, when workers may choose to opt out of some company activities.  

Companies that can may choose to allow employees to switch US public holidays for dates that are more relevant to their culture or religion. All of these accommodations can help employees from overseas to feel visible and valued at work. 

Tip: Some employees might not know where to start when it comes to making friends. You can help them to build their network by matching them for lunch dates

Integrating international employees: well worth the effort

Given the current labor shortage, it’s still surprisingly difficult to hire from overseas. Between extra administration, the time taken to wait for visa applications to be approved and relocation costs, many smaller businesses are simply deciding not to make international hires. 

However, for companies with the resources, international workers bring unique benefits to an organization. They have different perspectives, skills that are hard to find in the US, and a real drive to make their American careers a success. 

As the labor and skills shortage becomes more acute in the coming years, more and more companies will need to look abroad to fill their vacancies. And there’s no better time than the present to make sure that your company is ready to recruit, onboard, and retain international talent. 

Build networks via virtual coffee breaks. Mystery Coffee helps you to connect colleagues, foster collaboration, and improve cooperation. Learn more now.

About the author:

Christoph Drebes

Christoph is an entrepreneur from Munich and co-founded Mystery Minds in 2016. Mystery Minds' mission is to make the world of work more human by creating meaningful, personal connections between colleagues. The remote-only team already works with over 250 international companies, helping them to strengthen internal networks and overcome silo mentalities.

Originally published on June 12, 2024 at 10:00 AM, amended on June 13, 2024 at 9:38 AM


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