by Esteban Herrera

How companies can counter bad H-1B visa program press

Mar 21, 2016
H-1B VisasOutsourcingTechnology Industry

As usual, the press for companies that use the H1-B visa program is not good. Here's what your firm can do if you depend on it.

Well, it has happened again. The H1-B visa issue found its way back into the public discourse on the stage of the recent Republican debate in Miami, Florida. Each of the four remaining candidates was put in quite a corner, forced to stake out a position that would offend neither his corporate contributors nor free-market globalists nor American workers. 

Of course, it is not my job to analyze politics (send me a note if you would like to get into that debate!), but suffice it to say that each of the candidates on stage somewhat mischaracterized both the reason and the effect of the H-1B visa program.

And this was just the first shot across the bow for the public relations teams at so many global outsourcing service providers and their enterprise clients—specifically TCS and Disney, whom the candidates made a point of calling out. Of course, no one in our industry is immune to such slings and arrows, nor is the mudslinging limited to one party. No matter your politics, you will certainly agree that being accused of cheating the H1-B visa system on national TV by a presidential candidate is probably not good for business.

The hard truth is participants in the global outsourcing industry should be prepared for negative press. This is almost always true, but more so during an election season. So what can you do if you depend either directly or indirectly on the H-1B visa program? Here are some ideas:

1. Stock up on data. I don’t know a single company that is satisfied with either the quantity or the quality of talent available in the U.S. Looking outside is a must for reasons of expertise, time to market and access to new technologies. New coders and developers are paid more than $100K and, still, there aren’t enough of them. Should we impede exciting new products, services and companies like Uber, Blockchain and Netflix because we can’t get skilled workers? Every company and every service provider and their respective corporate communications departments should be armed with data that makes this case. It is out there, and I am always surprised by how seldom it is used.

2. Educate the public. This is harder, and it won’t happen overnight. A lot of what we lump together under the broad category of outsourcing is project-based: it displaces no jobs and creates economic value for companies and their customers. Nobody wants to publicize their use of H-1B visas, but companies can practice marketing judo and turn a negative into a positive. America continues to lead the world in innovation and speed to market for new, digital products partly because it leverages a global workforce.

3. Understand the alternatives. Too few enterprises really understand their options. Without a full sense of what you could be doing instead of offshore outsourcing, it is impossible to defend your position. What would happen if you used local employees, assuming you could find them, instead of outsourcing? Like so many things in business, inertia seems to have taken over critical thinking. In order to defend the decision to use temporary workers, the business context must be understood. Each industry will be a little different, but consider these examples:

  • What is the goodwill created by a retail bank that hires Americans? There is marketing value in having an American voice on the other end of that call center line.
  • How will a utility’s offshoring and staffing decisions affect its rate case, particularly in states where regulators are elected and not appointed?
  • How do public relations costs and contingencies figure into the business case? These are real costs of using the H1-B program.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, a compelling case for or against using H1-B labor cannot be made without understanding the nuanced implications of such choices. Executives—and, in an ideal world, candidates—must understand the entire picture of an H1-B decision, which is often far more complex than simply importing scarce labor.

Not surprisingly, politicians on both sides have complicated the conversation by stipulating (more in their rhetoric than in actual legislation) that the H-1B visa program shouldn’t be about cost. But it is partly about cost, not just because that is the overwhelming reason businesses use the program, but also because every business decision is influenced by cost. Being well-advised can help in formulating the communication strategy and in ensuring compliance with the law. The stakes are too high for service providers and their clients not to be prepared.