Only about 10 percent of Atlanta-based Cox Automotive’s $7 billion in revenues come from outside the U.S., a number the company hopes to grow as it continues to serve clients in more than 100 countries.
But that hasn’t insulated it from the challenge of managing a workforce that has become increasingly international as Cox has stepped up its digital game during the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before COVID-19, Cox had about 400 team members on H-1B visas whose status was threatened by the Trump administration’s increasingly opaque and capricious immigration policies, said Janet Barnard, executive vice president and chief people officer at Cox Automotive.
Before the end of 2019, the company had began to have “heartbreaking” conversations with foreign-born employees for whom no continued sponsorship looked possible, Ms. Barnard said in the latest international business webinar organized by the Center for International Business Education and Research at Georgia State University.
This comes as Cox and other large companies are facing more competition for talent amid a remote-work revolution and competition from startups not limited by geography. Attracting and retaining talent internationally is a “big concern of mine as we go forward,” Ms. Barnard said.
“Whether you’re in the U.S. or operating elsewhere in the world, I’ll just flat out that say that we are exclusive rather than inclusive in terms of finding and utilizing and giving great opportunities to diverse talent, and I hope that we will find a new place of center as we emerge and move forward in this post-COVID world,” Ms. Barnard said of the United States.
This year, pandemic travel bans and economic retrenchment have made cross-border recruitment even tougher.
In June, the Trump administration issued a proclamation (panned by some attorneys as illegal) that barred issuance of new non-immigrant visas like the H-1B for skilled workers, J-1 for traineeships and L-1 for business owners through the end of 2020.
The ostensible goal was to protect American workers distressed by the pandemic, though critics call it another fear-driven move which will actually make the country less competitive.
For Ms. Barnard, the policies weren’t abstract: The head of Cox’s internal benefits program is a British transplant who hasn’t returned home since last April.
“Because of changing immigration policies in the U.S., she hasn’t been able to go back and see her family,” Ms. Barnard said, mainly for fear that she wouldn’t be let back into the country.
The irony is that for Cox, the momentous shifts accompanying the pandemic are exactly what is precipitating the need for new talent.
In March, Cox Enterprises, the $20 billion parent company, immediately moved all 50,000 employees across its Cox Automotive, Cox Communications (the nation’s third-largest cable company) and New Ventures divisions to a work-from-home setup, wherever they resided in the world.
Cox Automotive, which owns Autotrader, Kelley Blue Book, Clutch and other brands, moved its Manheim wholesale market to a completely digital auction platform as in-person auctions were shuttered.
Either of those changes would have taken a decade if the pandemic hadn’t forced the company’s hand, Ms. Barnard said.
The company is now using artificial intelligence and machine learning to perform vehicle inspections, checking for wear and tear in a less “subjective” way and even analyzing the sound of the engine for clues to its health. Where that leaves the 1,500-2,000 trained workers who physically walk the car in normal times is unclear.
“This will completely transform the way a dealer may learn about a car that they might buy sight-unseen,” she said.
What hasn’t slowed down is the demand for programming talent. Cox has outsourced strategically to places like Vietnam and Belarus, while bringing on direct hires who still have yet to enter a Cox building. The company is courting a tech startup that has half of its staff scattered across 14 countries.
To be more nimble and “unlock talent pools around the world no matter where they sit” without running into mobility hurdles, Cox will have to re-evaluate a traditional model that relies on bringing people into Atlanta, Ms. Barnard said.
“We’ll need some very different kinds of recruiting practices in this new world,” she said.
That includes at the executive level. Leaders who were initiated around the water cooler are now learning the ins and outs of managing global and mobile teams.
“Because we have been a home-based, Atlanta-based U.S.-based company for so many years, we have to help our leaders understand how to think across the enterprise,” she said of the family-owned Cox group. “We have people who are very loyal to their brands, and we need people thinking about Cox Automotive brands and the brands we represent globally.”
Ms. Barnard personally has spoken to many new hires in places like Germany and Austria, asking questions that wouldn’t come up in normal check-ins — evaluating living arrangements and whether they have dogs or children to get a sense for what is now their office environment. The last question is always the same: What’s one request they would present if she could grant one of their workplace wishes?
“It tends to uncover things that I would just never know if I had never had that conversation,” she said.
For the company, her wish is that the proof of its innovative mettle stays after necessity has worn off, and that it can live up to its long-held corporate values of “empowering people to do the right thing” while improving diversity and inclusion.
When the pandemic arrived, Cox itself offered workers disaster relief payments and disbursed $500,000 through its employee assistance fund. Employees were given the option to enroll in meditation apps Headspace. In August, the company unveiled an Actions Speak Task Force on racial equity and inclusion. Everyone also received six hours of paid time off to vote on election day.
On the diversity front, Ms. Barnard says Cox has improved but hasn’t reached where it needs to be, especially at the executive level.
Change isn’t coming by simply installing quotas, but by tying behaviors to compensation: Not only do HR professionals have to present a diverse slate of candidates for a position, but they have to ensure some of them get into the interview process — to be considered by a similarly diverse panel.
Having people in leadership that reflect the diversity of the company is key to keeping emerging talent engaged with the hope that they can get there one day too, Ms. Barnard said.
Learn more about GSU-CIBER and view past events in the international business webinar series here. The series starts back up in January.