Fishing in the Global Talent Pool

The world may be flat, but there's a learning curve to global IT hiring.

As a CIO at Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Jay Crotts knows something about recruiting IT talent on a global scale. The $26.3 billion company employs 8,000 IT professionals in 145 countries, including remote areas such as Iceland, Togo and Mauritius, a small country off the East African coast.

Shell’s goal is to hire the best IT person for every role, no matter where in the world that person resides, according to Crotts. And he’s a good example: Almost two years ago, he moved with his family from Texas to Shell’s London offices when he accepted the job of CIO of the global business-to-business and lubricants segments.

A growing number of U.S. companies — whether they’re global or domestic, small or large — are mimicking Shell’s approach. They may have job openings or skill needs in a particular country, but they don’t limit their IT talent searches to that location. And that makes sense.

Think about it: Some areas of the world are experiencing technology talent shortages — especially in key skill areas. Meanwhile, technology talent pools are cropping up worldwide, particularly in developing economies. No wonder many IT executives are casting wider hiring nets that reach into foreign waters.

New Rules

Hiring foreign labor is no longer just about H-1B visas and offshoring. Thanks to employee referrals, in-country recruiting firms, global job boards such as Monster.com and Jobster, sophisticated corporate Web recruiting sites and online programmer “marketplaces” like RentACoder.com or oDesk, there are more ways than ever before to communicate and collaborate with skilled individuals who happen to live overseas.

Some companies are directly contracting or hiring IT professionals with the understanding that they will continue living in their home countries.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Singapore, China, the U.S., India or Australia — it’s increasingly a global labor market,” says Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources Inc., a Fremont, Calif.-based recruiting consulting firm. “If I can bring the labor to me, that’s good; if I have to take the work to you, that’s OK, too.”

Wheeler sees all sorts of hybrid hiring models cropping up and notes a general move away from blanket hiring of full-time employees.

“Smart companies are really looking at a whole mix of options — contractors, consultants, part-time workers, offshoring — and it’s being driven partly by strategy, partly by the ability to find talent and generally to keep costs lower,” he says.

A common setup might include a U.S.-based management and research-and-development staff working with a few programmers in Ireland, a couple more in China and maybe a dozen in India, he says.

And while cost is still the No. 1 driver of global hiring efforts, “the search for talent will surpass low cost in the next few years,” says Allan Schweyer, president and executive director of The Human Capital Institute, a talent management organization in Washington.

As that happens, Schweyer says, companies will less often ask employees to move and instead use globally dispersed, remote workforces led by a U.S. project manager.

But for companies just getting started on their global talent fishing expeditions, Crotts has some tempering advice: Referring to Thomas Friedman’s oft-cited book The World Is Flat (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), he says, “The world is flat, but terms and conditions are not.”

For instance, compensation packages, the number of hours that employees expect to work, even the length of the hiring process all differ widely throughout the world.

Consider that new Shell employees in the Netherlands start with five weeks of vacation, whereas U.S. staffers might get less time off but command higher pay.

And although prospective employees in the U.S. might not find it the least bit strange to be hired on the spot following a single interview, that would be jarring to someone in Latin America, where the normal hiring process can take three months.

“It’s hard for a global company to get local HR right,” Crotts says.

Reflecting Cultural Nuances

That’s why Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, with two-thirds of its workforce seated outside the U.S., has overhauled its approach to global recruitment. Led by Kent Kirch, global director of recruiting at Deloitte, the company has created a global selection methodology, a global talent management system, an international internship program and worldwide agreements with several providers of recruitment-related services.

Kirch also has revamped the recruiting section of Deloitte’s Web site to emphasize the company’s consistent global hiring practices while reflecting cultural nuances and the country-specific job opportunities, benefits and special programs available to employees of its local offices.

The company used to have more than 35 employment sites — one for each country — and no central job listing. Now it has one global site for job candidates throughout the world, containing information on more than 500 offices in 90 countries. Almost all of the information is locally managed, Kirch says.

“We don’t want to have a situation where a person in China comes to the site and sees a photograph of someone who doesn’t look like they’re from China,” he says. “The content is very localized so people can relate to it and are attracted to it.”

Even so, Kirch says, positions are advertised on job boards in several countries with the idea of attracting talent both near and far. “We’re hard-pressed to find talent quickly enough to meet our business needs,” he says. “Our approach for recruitment, even for our local companies, is global.”

In addition to its 5,000-person IT operations in Hyderabad, India, Deloitte employs a few programmers who work remotely in other countries. “That’s definitely a trend, and I think it will continue to become more common,” Kirch says.

Deloitte relies heavily on online job boards and employee referrals in addition to its own Web site. It is currently establishing a cross-border employee referral program in which it rewards people who successfully refer overseas colleagues or friends.

“The workforce is more globally mobile today,” Kirch says, “so odds are greater that you or I might know a potential candidate in another country.”

Regional Variations

To recruit successfully, employers have to be wary about regional differences, such as the need to tailor benefits to the local culture.

For instance, Google Inc.’s Web site offers a “cycling plan” to its employees in Ireland, in which it contributes €200 toward the cost of a bicycle. And in India, Deloitte’s Web site offers free company-organized transportation that shuttles employees in Mumbai and Hyderabad from pickup points across those cities to its offices.

“It’s very difficult to recruit cross-border if you don’t have the right approach and awareness,” Crotts says. “I always have the local HR representative right beside me to make sure I’m hitting the marketplace with the right initiatives and terms and conditions.”

Companies also have to be familiar with country-specific legal requirements and traditions, Wheeler adds. For example, terminating employment in Germany is a very involved process that requires 60 to 90 days’ notice and is subject to approval by the government. For this reason, he says, smaller companies without global recruiting offices often leave it to local recruiting firms to do the hiring negotiations.

Cultural differences also make it difficult to accurately assess the credentials of foreign candidates, Wheeler says. For instance, it’s common for European resumes to include photographs and personal information such as weight and age. “Legally, [in the U.S.] you can’t even look at this stuff,” he says.

Even interpreting skill sets is difficult, since three years of programming in Israel is quite different from the same number of years of experience in the U.S. “You’re not comparing apples to apples in many cases,” Wheeler says.

To help feel a bit closer to far-away job candidates, some companies are turning to online referral networks such as LinkedIn to find someone who knows a candidate personally, Wheeler says. Or they might use search tools such as ZoomInfo or Jigsaw, which are designed to verify or discover information such as a job candidate’s previous employers, job titles and other affiliations.

Know Your Limits

But no matter how flat the world may look when viewed through the lens of Internet-enabled communications, the virtualized global workplace still has limitations, according to Crotts. For example, he has developed a rule of thumb to avoid sourcing a team of programmers from more than two countries.

“The more countries involved in the development project, the higher risk the project,” he says, citing obstacles such as time-zone differences, methodology inconsistencies, language problems and evolving requirements that are difficult to track and discuss when teams are distributed too widely.

“It’s absolutely incorrect to say I can use global resources without concern for where a person’s home base is,” Crotts says.

Still, Wheeler contends that companies will increasingly hire talent no matter where that talent resides and then struggle to coordinate and manage the virtual workplace.

“Rather than bringing people to the work, work is increasingly going to the people,” he says. “We’ll see more employers saying, ‘Live your life, and we’ll send you a paycheck every week.’”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

What do you think? Would you take a job in another country? Is your firm hiring beyond its borders? Share your thoughts at the Sounds Off blog.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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