People Movers

Dispatching workers around the globe is more than HR can handle. So a new industry has sprung up

Last year as engineers, technicians, and others worked to get an Intel chip plant in Israel up and running, the company called in another, equally important group: immigration specialists. About 800 Israelis had to visit Intel factories in Arizona and Oregon to learn the ropes, so Intel began planning their travel months in advance, even visiting the U.S. Consulate in Tel Aviv to explain the need for so many visas. "We want to make sure we're in 100% compliance," says Margie Jones, U.S. immigration manager for Intel, one of a dozen people at the company working full-time on such issues.

One of the thorniest tasks of managing a global workforce involves logistics: ensuring that the right employees are in the right place at the right time. But as governments get tougher on immigration, it's harder than ever to move people where they're needed. "This isn't something you just leave to the human resources people in each country," says Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council of International Personnel. "You need to be much more strategic."

To do this, companies are turning to a coterie of outside firms. The biggest may be U.S.-based Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Lowey, which has 32 offices around the globe and employs some 1,200 attorneys and staffers. Littler Global, part of national employment law firm Littler Mendelson, has emerged as another big player, and accounting and consulting firms such as Deloitte and KPMG also have practices. These companies arrange visas, monitor the immigration status of customers' employees, and even keep teams on call 24/7 in case clients run into trouble at the border.

Fragomen and Littler say about 80% of their work entails getting foreigners into the U.S., a process that can be full of frustration. UBS, for instance, tells of efforts to hire a fixed-income expert away from Lehman Brothers (LEH) in New York for its own U.S. operations. UBS had to park the British national in London until a new visa could be arranged. "He ended up leaving before we could even transfer him back," says a UBS staffer. "That's the worst thing about this."

Getting employees into other countries can be just as bad. Some nations require AIDS tests and registration with local police, and regulations are often applied capriciously. Last summer an American client of Littler wanted to post seven Indian IT professionals temporarily to Romania, something it had done before. But Littler staffers were told the application couldn't be processed because rules were being revamped. It took four weeks to resolve. "The cost to the client," says Littler attorney Belkis Muldoon, "can be tremendous."

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