International immigration compliance – an HR headache of global proportions

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Non-compliance with regulations could lead to operational, financial and reputational risks

We are operating in a global climate of increasingly protectionist and pro-domestic immigration policy. Governments across the world are introducing more and more regulations. Travel-related data sharing is becoming the norm between nations. Border controls are getting stricter.

For organisations with multinational workforces, the challenge for HR functions is to keep pace and ensure organisational policy and programmes are compliant with these relentless changes. But in doing so, HR faces a number of practical issues that threaten to affect the organisation’s ability to meet its international compliance duties.

Common areas of immigration compliance risk

Headquarters versus overseas branches HR teams based in UK headquarters are struggling to stay in the loop with changes within overseas branches. A local branch, let’s say in New Zealand, updates their business operations in line with new regulations. Cascading this back to HQ in the UK is usually highly problematic.

Headquarters versus UK branches HQ formalises a policy regarding the types of visas migrant workers in the UK should be on. They then discover that local mangers have circumvented these directions by using visitor visas as a ‘quick fix’. While the motivation may be to save time, cost and effort, the resulting compliance issues are likely to cancel out any savings made.

Enforcing consistency While HQ may manage and operate compliance processes, it is extremely difficult to check everything is being done to the same standards at a local level. The resulting reality is that HQs are relying on branches telling them something has been done.

Footing the bill Done properly, immigration compliance does require some investment. Yet organisations continue to debate who should bear the cost. After being passed around from department to department, the expenditure usually ends up at the door of HR, who in most cases do not have the budget.

IT systems The majority of organsations currently use systems such as SAP and Work Day. While these offer many operational benefits, they are also limited in their ability to be updated in response to every change in international immigration regulations.

This has the effect of fuelling bad practice across branches. As HR teams devise their own work-around solutions, different systems emerge along with hundreds of spreadsheets.

Speed of change The UK Home Office is at liberty to introduce new regulation or legislation as they please – as are all other governments. Staying atune and responsive to these changes across global branch networks is time consuming - but critical.

Language and interpretation Interpretation of the law, particularly when it is not in English, is an ongoing source of inconsistency and risk. What the law says and what people think are all too often worryingly different.

Risk management strategies

What can HR do to overcome these challenges and manage international immigration compliance?

Overseas audits Compliance auditing is best practice. UK branches should be used to this approach as part of their Tier 2 sponsor licence management. Formally extending this to cover overseas branches can provide essential insight and regular dialogue to ensure standards are being maintained and risks managed across your network.

Employee training During any downturn, training is always one of the first things to be cut back on, and we have seen immigration suffer before other areas such as health and safety.

But if your organisation is serious about controlling the risk of business travel and mobility, all employees involved with overseas travel and deployments – HR, assignees, line managers, PAs etc - should be equipped to understand their compliance duties through for example webinars, e-learning and regular modular training.

HR systems The reality is most organisations operate legacy systems which are unable to integrate with other systems, either within HR or the wider organisation. As big data comes to the fore in driving global mobility programmes, we are seeing employers reconsider future-proofed technology solutions to support their immigration needs through automation, real-time updating and systems integration.

Local accountability In the UK, Tier 2 sponsor licence holders are required to nominate key personnel to undertake the organisation’s compliance duties. Replicating this approach across your overseas branches will provide a task-centric framework of roles and responsibilities, ensuring consistency and proactivity in processes and standards, progress updates, training and changes in local rules.

While access to the global talent market and mobility of key personnel remain fundamental to organisations’ talent strategies, international immigration compliance will continue to create business risk.

For HR departments charged with ensuring compliance, the only relief will come through proactive and consistent strategies that promote consistency and communication across global networks.

Anne Morris is managing director of DavidsonMorris Solicitors

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