Experts Share Tips for Nonprofits Navigating Global HR

By Greg Wright Dec 13, 2010

Human resource professionals who work for small nonprofit organizations operating around the world face a variety of challenges, including working under tight budgets and figuring out confusing immigration laws. Navigating local labor customs and regulations can be daunting as well.

However, HR professionals who oversee foreign offices can survive and even thrive provided that they tap the right resources, say experts who spoke in November 2010 at an InsideNGO conference on navigating international human resources in the nonprofit world.

“Our members are only international nongovernmental organizations, and they have always operated overseas,” said Marie McNamee, director of programs at InsideNGO. However, “many of the nongovernmental organizations are underresourced in human resources, even at their headquarters,” said McNamee, a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

Nongovernmental organizations or NGOs are private groups (think CARE International or Doctors Without Borders) that provide a variety of charitable and other services worldwide. They feed the hungry, provide medical assistance when disaster strikes, and serve as advocates for human rights.

Experts say there are tens of thousands of nongovernmental, nonprofit organizations operating at a global level.

Despite their wide reach, many of these groups have few if any HR personnel on staff—often relying on financial staff to perform HR tasks. Furthermore, human resource professionals who do work at these nonprofit organizations often don’t possess the resources colleagues at large, multinational corporations enjoy.

“You’re working on a shoestring and trying to be compliant,” McNamee said.

On Nov. 16-17, 2010, InsideNGO gathered a team of experts at a conference in Washington, D.C., to bestow advice and impart best practices for attendees who provide HR services for NGOs:

Be savvy about hiring foreign workers. Get up to speed on hiring practices in overseas locations, said Nisha Mongia, an attorney and director of human resources at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University who works part time at InsideNGO.

For example, U.S.-based companies might have to perform terrorist background checks on potential foreign hires or risk losing or obtaining federal grant money, she said. Services such as LexisNexis Bridger Insight and companies like HireRight can help HR departments perform background checks on foreign employees.

Some U.S. labor laws, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, apply to U.S. citizens working in overseas offices but not to foreign national hires, said Mongia, a member of SHRM.

Be careful when writing employment agreements to hire foreign nationals, because laws vary. For example, in some countries there are strict time limits to renew or not renew an employment agreement. Missing a deadline might result in companies having to pay a foreign national’s salary—even if that employee is no longer with the company. Mongia suggests using local lawyers to help sort through foreign hire regulations because they know laws and customs. “The reason to go to local counsel is because they understand how the law is actually implemented,” she said.

Be prepared for emergencies. The security of employees in foreign locations often falls on the shoulders of HR professionals because nonprofits usually do not have funding to hire a security service, said Alma Lopez, SPHR, GPHR, head of human resources at the International Food Policy Research Institutein Washington, D.C. “As we all know, things happen whether you have a security expert or not,” Lopez said.

Experts said terrorism, however, isn’t the biggest concern for workers in foreign locations.

One of the main mishaps that befall workers in foreign locations is auto accidents on remote, poorly paved or unpaved roads, Lopez said. Sometimes, it’s worse. Lopez remembers getting a phone call just as she was getting ready to leave her Washington, D.C., office from an overseas employee who complained that he didn’t feel well and wanted to return to the United States.

It turned out that the woman had dengue fever, a dangerous illness caused by viruses transmitted through mosquito bites. Lopez had the woman call International SOS, which provides medical care for overseas workers.

Lopez encouraged HR professionals to have a duty-of-care plan in case accidents or other incidents befall American or foreign workers in foreign locales.

These plans include having the name of a reputable hospital in foreign locations, insurance information on employees, and contact persons to reach out to in case of an emergency.

“HR has to have and make sure offices overseas have a guide,” Lopez said.

Transferring Talent

Thinking of bringing a talented foreign employee from an overseas office to a U.S. headquarters? Think again, said immigration attorney Donald Mooers of Bethesda, Md.

That’s because deciding what kind of visa to apply for can be confusing and expensive. The process might take years.

“When someone says, ‘We want to bring over a foreign national as an HR manager,’ you have to say, ‘Are you kidding?’ ” Mooers said, half-jokingly.

However, the trouble of recruiting foreign workers is worth it if the person brings a needed, international perspective to headquarters, he said. One example is Medical Teams International, which spent more than two years filing various immigration forms to hire a promising Ethiopian doctor to work in the United States and abroad.

SHRM member Vickie Kirkaldie, PHR, director of human resources for the Portland, Ore.-based organization, said the effort paid off.

“The reason it was worth it was because he had a medical background, was from Ethiopia [and] had three foreign language skills and vast travel experience in Africa,” she said. “But [the immigration application process] was expensive and labor-intensive.”

Mooers offered this advice: Never get involved in anything involving immigration and visas unless you have to, and don’t hesitate to get reliable legal help to guide you through the process.

Lastly, experts advise that NGOs ask for help if necessary.

Network with HR staff at other international nonprofit organizations (this can be done online through listservs, LinkedIn, SHRM Connect and HR Talk). Use these sites to obtain advice on handling such issues as finding reputable local legal advice.

Organizations such as InsideNGO, the University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Civil Society and SHRM’s HR Knowledge Advisors might be able to offer additional assistance.

Advice from such groups might come in handy for NGOs that cannot afford the thousands of dollars needed to set up human resource shops in each of the countries in which they operate, Lopez said.

“That is where these groups help,” she added.

Greg Wright is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who has covered Congress, consumer electronics and international trade for major news organizations, including Gannett News Service/USA Today, Dow Jones and Knight-Ridder Financial News. He can be reached at

Related Articles:

Global Duty of Care: Why HR Shouldn’t Ignore It, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, November 2009

Experts: Be Prepared When Sending Employees to Disaster Areas, SHRM Online Global HR Discipline, March 2010

Related Resource:

Got a Legal Question About Global HR?, SHRM Global Discipline Legal Helpline


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