Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why It Is Hard For Foreigners To Work In the U.S.?

Most of my readers are Americans.  But many of you know people who are foreign nationals who want to work here.  Please pass this information to them.


Despite the plethora of worldwide agencies, it is very difficult to obtain work in the United States, even for employees of those agencies.  In many cases, some companies, as a matter of form, simply ignore people with foreign credentials (they even discount Americans who have worked abroad), even those from their own offices abroad..

Foreign nationals face a double whammy when they move or want to move here.  First, agency people are reluctant to do the paperwork necessary to obtain visas.  Second, and possibly more important, because the U.S.  is geographically isolated and many of us are infrequently exposed to people with advertising training in other countries, so there is a built in prejudice against foreigners..  One HR person commented to me that people from other countries don't know U.S. media.  That is laughable since anyone in the business under forty years old has not been intimately involved with  U.S. media operations since  the media companies became separated from the general agencies.

Most people who work in Europe or Asia are constantly exposed to people from other nations; they know that people assimilate and learn quickly.  Advertising is not a complicated business and the principals are the same throughout the world.  In the United States, we do somewhat better with with English speaking people – people from the U.K., South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.  But we are often adverse to others, no matter how well they speak English.  

Almost every day I receive résumés from people throughout the world.  I can honestly say that some of them are wonderful and might make a great contribution to American companies, but few will get a chance.  American ad agencies reject most of them out of hand. 

Case in point: I recently interviewed a wonderful person from Singapore.  She had worked for one of the major international ad agencies, spoke perfect English and had absolutely stellar CPG credentials.  Her husband was transferred here so she was totally eligible to work in the United States with minimum paperwork.  The woman from Singapore had been highly recommended to the U.S. office of her former employer.  She contacted the New York office, which had received the references, and the human resources person, despite the excellent recommendation, wouldn’t give her an interview; she was told to keep checking back with their web site to see if any appropriate jobs were posted.  I thought that was shameful. HR could have done the courtesy and found a half an hour for an interview. Had she called her former CEO, she probably could have gotten him to get her an interview, but she was reluctant to call in the favor.

There is no question that visa applications are a pain.  No one likes to do them. But when the talent is good, the extra work may be well worthwhile.  In this business, talent trumps everything else.

Most of the people here with working visas, initially got American jobs either through transfers or knew a senior executive who was able to champion their candidacy for employment here.  Sadly, there are actually several ad agencies which have instructed recruiters not to submit anyone who requires sponsorship of any kind. I can honestly say that in all my years of recruiting, I have only been able to place one foreign national here in  an initial U.S. job. Other recruiters tell me the same.  This even applies to Canadians and Mexicans who are eligible to work here under NAFTA; however it is somewhat easier to place a Canadian (I have placed several).

It is also difficult to place an American who has worked abroad.  (I once had a really good HR person tell me that she did not want to see an American candidate who had worked in Eastern Europe because she did not fully understand what an account person might do in one of those countries.  That is the result of our being geographically isolated.)

The truth is, many big city ad agencies don’t even want to interview Americans from another U.S. city.  The issue in recruiting (and hiring) is always talent.  We put square pegs in square holes and there should be no issue if someone has lived and worked somewhere else.  I suspect one of this issues, particularly in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, is that we are snobs and cannot believe that an advertising person from somewhere else might actually be qualified or know more than someone home grown.

Ironically, once a foreign national has their first U.S. job, it is somewhat easier for them to transfer visas and move to another company.  I have placed many of them who simply required a visa transfer; but even doing that, with proven talent, some agencies are reluctant. 

My heart goes out to people who come here and want to work here but find it really difficult.


  1. Sadly, your report is remarkably consistent with what you told me when I was 22 and fresh off the plane from Paris via West Berlin... my thanks and a shout-out to my colleagues at Scali McCabe Sloves, JWT, and Havas Worldwide for thinking differently. Vive la difference!

  2. Annette: As I said, getting the first US job is the hardest. I wish Scali were still around! It is even harder today, in part due to the tough economy. Thanks for the comment.

  3. As an American who's worked extensively abroad (that was me in Eastern Europe, and being questioned about my US media knowledge)your piece resonates; how can this HR mentality persist? The funny part is that to this day, when meeting senior agency management, I'm almost always asked why they can't find more candidates with international or global experience... It's because we can't get past hiring managers with limited perspectives.
    My option has been to stick with the global big guys, rely on contacts and thank goodness for open minds.
    Thank you for raising these points.

  4. Indeed, Lisa, you were the one who that comment was made about. You have good memory. Unfortunately, in many companies, the hiring managers, particularly the senior ones, are far removed from the people doing the screening.

  5. Thanks Paul, for raising the issue on behalf of the immigrant mad hatter. Though the local industry might not see this as a burning issue, especially during leaner times like now, it is nice to see people at the top, like yourself, recognizing and championing the cause. Every bit helps and I am sure every immigrant who has gone/is going through this phase will appreciate your insightful post. Let's hope that more HR managers take a leaf out of your book.

  6. I find this to be very true. Almost half of the response e-mails I receive from recruiters, The first few sentences would be like:

    Hi Jin, thank you for your interest in our agency. Just a quick question, are you eligible to work in the US?



    Yes, I have a green card.

    But Dear Paul, I find it very rude to ask me that question in the very beginning. They wouldn't question someone with an Americanized name, I suppose?

    1. Jin, of course you are right. While it should not be the first question asked, I suspect that the issue is so drilled into the heads of the HR people that it becomes paramount. I don't think it is so much about a foreign name as it is about foreign experience - i hear the same thing from Europeans and Australians. The HR [ep[;e tale one look at their experience and know that they require sponsorships.

  7. Hi Paul - what a great article, and certainly daunting to know the truth (oh yeah, and thanks for always being so truthful!).

    I've been through this struggle, and was lucky to get my initial H1-B Visa. I must say, about 99.8% of my classmates and friends have returned to their countries because getting an initial Visa is like finding needle in a haystack.

    What's really disappointing and sad, is that despite the industry's criticism for neglecting diversity/multi-cultural talent, it seems like the industry's current efforts are like a PR campaign, as opposed to something that they believe in. The industry promoted diversity programs, not based on people's truly diverse backgrounds, but programs specifically to rebuild its image by hiring based on the color of your skin. How does that bring in new ideas, trends, and unique perspectives, which really are the essential values that agencies must have to succeed? What is the criteria and definition for being diverse and multi-cultural?

    I think it's time for the industry to think broader, in ROI terms, or like today's advertising strategies - i.e., understanding the talent audience deep inside. It's time to weigh in the overall value that a foreign/international candidate could bring to the agency. And to remember that it's the mid/lower tier employees that spark the daily insights through dialogues with the brands, not just C-level management.

    ...After all, the U.S. audience is comprised of many internationals, isn't it?
    And in this unique industry where turnover rates are at its highest, imagine how much better it would be with a loyal employee who would stick around for a longer period of time. (vs. time & energy spent on educating a few more employees who come and go).

    Eager to hear your wise thoughts on this!

    1. DK: You are, of course, correct. I do think that employees with visas probably do stay longer. Diversity breeds creativity.

      Sadly, many agencies are lazy when it comes to prospective employees who require visas. Ironically, this is particularly true of the larger multi-national agencies. They are perfectly willing to extend visa applications (sometimes) to their own employees from other countries, but not necessarily to those who come from competitors. It actually makes little sense to me. Never has.

  8. Nice! Thanks again for your response!

  9. I want to work in Israel because my friend was there and he said that he was working in a good company. But since I try to find in job searching website Australia I was wonder if I will try to work on this place because they offered a nice salary and a good workplace.

  10. thanks for this usefull article, waiting for this article like this again.
    HR services


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