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Recruiting international employees

  • Written by Dave

I’ve written about international recruiting before. However, as I get more involved in recruiting I’m discovering that many companies don’t have a clue how to go about it. It can be a difficult task, so don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you need advice.

Recruiting employees internationally breaks down into two parts: recruiting and retaining. You can’t retain employees you don’t recruit and recruiting an employee who leaves a few months later is a huge waste of time and money. Today, however, I’ll focus on recruiting.

Why should you listen to me when I write about how to move abroad rather than focusing on recruiting? Because even though I'm just a software developer for booking.com, I've found that I'm bringing in more referrals than some of the professional recruiters we work with.

Recruiting Internationally

If your company wants to recruit internationally, this is probably because you simply can’t find enough local workers. At this point, you might want to ask yourself if it’s worth recruiting local interns or entry-level personnel and training them. You could contact local universities about upcoming graduates or possibly arranging intern time for students that earns them work experience and college credits. You could also look into retraining your current staff who may work in different areas and are willing to switch. You could also consider opening a remote office or allowing workers to telecommute. There are many ways to deal with domestic labor shortages, but not all are appropriate for your needs.

Know your immigration laws

That being said, you may not be in a position to do this. If you’ve exhausted all opportunities and you want to try recruiting abroad, your first step is to learn your country’s work permit laws inside and out. Some countries make it easier than others and, at least when I was hired in the UK, there was a slightly different process for companies who had never sponsored a work permit before (they had to prove they were a legitimate company and not formed merely to provide someone with a work permit). If you find an international candidate you want to hire, you need to provide them with extremely clear expectations of the timeframe and process. They won’t be happy quitting their current job only to find out they have an extra four months to wait before they can move.

In the process of researching the work permit laws, talk to specialists in this field. I met a gentleman who was staying overnight in an airport hotel because he was being refused entry to the UK to accept the university professorship that he had received a work permit for. This is because he was the first international recruit for the university and they didn’t know that a work permit wasn’t enough. He also needed entry clearance to move to the UK. You don’t want to trip up potential recruits by missing out on key portions of immigration law.

Know your target market

You're probably recruiting experienced professionals in a field which requires specialized skills. The people who will mostly likely jump at the chance to live and work in another country are younger, more adventurous individuals who are less likely to have the skills and experience you are searching for. The older, more experienced worker is more likely to be married, have an established social circle, own their own home or have any of a number of reasons why they can't move to another country. I've had so many excellent candidates tell me "I would love to but my spouse won't move" that I've joked about hiring divorce lawyers.

So if you’re at a trade fair and you’re trying to recruit someone, one of the first things to find out is whether or not they’re willing to move abroad. If they’re not, nothing else matters. If they are, this is what you focus on first. Why? Because you’re trying to attract skilled workers who’ve heard plenty of job pitches and words like “agile, autonomy, fun working environment” tend to make their eyes glaze over after a while. Buzzword Bingo is a mockery, not a selling point. I’ve had plenty of jobs where UML was listed as a requirement but I’ve never used it professionally. I’ve learned to ignore this in job adverts. Potential employees have learned to ignore a huge amount about job adverts. What they haven’t heard is “we will pay you to have an adventure in another country.” This is what really sets you apart from your competition.

Case in point: I was recruiting people move to Amsterdam and the booth next to us on the trade show floor was doing the same thing. We heavily, heavily pitched the "Amsterdam" angle and they pitched the "job" angle. We had plenty of qualified applicants. They had none. They seemed like fun people and the job sounded great, but you really had to look hard to know that they wanted you in Europe.

Evaluating candidates

This is hard. It's particularly difficult because you have a higher risk than normal, but most companies don't do a great job of assessing a candidate's suitability. Personal references are rarely helpful. The only time I've received interesting feedback from a personal reference was from the candidate who accidentally provided me with the phone number of her lover's wife. I did not schedule an interview. Work references are also often useless. Calling previous employers is difficult as they often are not willing to provide much information due to the risk of lawsuits.

Education can also be problematic as at least one study found 10% of candidates lying about their education background. Diploma mills can make this even harder to sort out. Does your company verify (or care about) education? Do you accept a photocopy of an applicant's diploma as proof?

The interview process is also abysmal. Most interviews I've been in have been informal "chats" with hiring managers. Admittedly, I'm fairly well-known in my field, but sometimes these "chats" are idiotic.  I was once asked if I carried a knife (excuse me?)! A far better strategy for hiring is the structured interview. It helps to minimize bias and focus on your company's specific needs. A structured interview tends to weed out candidates faster, but you really want more false negatives than false positives here. Hiring the wrong candidate, particularly for international recruiting, is expensive. If you don't have good results interviewing domestic candidates, it will be even worse for international candidates.

Offering a job

You know your labor laws, you know who you're trying to hire and you've found a candidate who you want to hire. You need to pitch the job. You'll need to remember that their primary motivator could well be "move to another country." Ironically, this is probably their biggest fear. They don't know how to find a place to live. They don't know how to open a bank account. They don't know how to find a doctor. They don't even know how they're going to move over there! You need to make saying "yes" as painless as possible.

You're going to tell them how to do all of this. Due to the skilled labor shortage here in the Netherlands, the government has created the Expat Center. They can help the new expats with the various legal requirements for getting integrated into society, right down to advice on finding a veterinarian or buying a car. Assuming your country doesn't offer anything similar, designate (or hire) someone in HR to assist in these matters. If you're trying to convince a candidate to move to Barcelona and they're afraid of the hurdle of reading bank documents in Spanish, it's good to have someone on hand they can turn to. Of course, this is a very sensitive position and must be handled by a very trusted employee. Helping translate a medical document could be a humiliating experience.

You're also going to pay their way over. In fact, if you look at the cost of paying a recruiter to find someone, if you do it yourself, paying for someone's relocation and putting them up in a short-stay apartment for a couple of months might be extremely cost-effective. Also, consider paying for language lessons if appropriate. Even here in Amsterdam where everyone speaks English, the paperwork is invariably in Dutch.

You might also consider a clause in the contract asking them to pay back a percentage of relocation costs if they voluntarily leave within a set amount of time. Getting a work permit to move to the UK is hard, but once you have it, switching employers is often easy. Having a repayment clause might scare off candidates, but it's worth considering.

Where do I find these people?
You'll know your business better than I do. New Scientist magazine has many "help wanted" ads aimed at scientists. Many tech companies send recruiters to conferences. Ask your current employees who they could recommend. Buy advertising on Web sites your potential employees will likely read. Make a good pitch on a relevant linkedin.com group. Many times you'll find specialty web sites like jobs.perl.org which are free and cater to exactly the market you are looking for. There is no magic formula for finding international candidates and my experience with professional recruiters is very hit or miss. Be creative! Make a video about how wonderful your city is and what a great work environment you have and put it on Youtube! Really take the time to understand your industry and what your potential employees read or do and you'll find out how to get in touch with them.

My next post is about retaining international employees.

Dave Lister

The world's most sought-after consultant on international tax planning, investment immigration, and global citizenship. Dave has personally lived this lifestyle for over a decade, and now works with entrepreneurs and investors who want to live free.

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