The Surprising Benefits of Hiring Refugees

As debate rages over the treatment of those seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border, a new report finds hiring refugees is actually good for business.

Refugees as Employees: Good Retention, Strong Recruitment is the result of six months of research by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Tent Foundation. Together, they interviewed companies that have hired refugees in Atlanta, Phoenix, upstate New York, and eastern and central Nebraska. Their findings were overwhelmingly positive: Not only were employers happy with the refugees they’d hired, but they reaped the benefits of greater retention, access to a vast labor pool and an improved ability to manage a diverse workforce.

“There was definitely a sense of gratification that somebody who had come from a difficult situation in another country had come to work for them,” says David Dyssegaard Kallick, deputy director and director of immigration research at the Fiscal Policy Institute. “A lot of the success comes from having the confidence, and perseverance and openness to the idea that refugees come from really tough backgrounds, but that doesn’t necessarily stand in the way of them being good employees. In fact, it can help them be all the more committed.”

Of the 26 employers interviewed, 73 percent reported higher retention rates for refugees than for the workforce as a whole. Even in those industries in which turnover tends to be high, such as meat packing, refugees left the job in far smaller numbers: 25-percent turnover for refugees compared to 40 percent overall. Such findings came as no surprise to Megan Bracy, associate director for community integration  at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. After her 14 years of working with the refugee community, she says, the report “speaks to a lot of the truths that those of us in the field have seen firsthand.”

Refugees understand that a job is the vital key to attaining self-sufficiency and being integrated into their new community, says Bracy. “They are willing to do whatever they can to maintain that job, whether that means working overtime, showing up early or staying late. They are helpful and courteous and they have a strong work ethic simply because this is their chance to start over.”

That’s not to suggest hiring refugees is without challenges. The majority come to the U.S. with low levels of English, significant cultural differences and often lacking transportation. Fortunately, Kallick says, it doesn’t require a great deal of accommodation–or financial investment–to overcome such challenges. He’s seen some employers provide English-language classes during employees’ lunch hours or after work. Others have paired new entrants with longer-term bilingual employees to not only help them learn English, but also industry- and job-specific English. Transportation difficulties can be overcome by matching work hours to bus schedules or making a company vehicle available for carpooling. Some employers have gone so far as to provide citizenship training, giving refugee employees the opportunity to make progress on the path to becoming U.S. citizens.

While the report addresses some of the challenges of hiring refugees, David Lewis, president and CEO of HR consultancy OperationsInc, feels it glosses over the deeper, politically charged potential pitfalls.

“It’s very easy to get sucked into the trap of the altruistic, humane, working-off-the-credo-at-the-base-of- the-Statue-of-Liberty-type approach where you say, ‘I’m going to help people who’ve come here because they have no place to go,’ ” says Lewis. “It all sounds great on the front end, but you have to be prepared for what could result from that, and [hiring refugees] could be business-killing if people view it as un-American or unsupportive of policies and practices they believe in.”

In an environment in which refugees are often maligned and even vilified as unwelcome invaders who are stealing American jobs, Lewis recommends organizations mitigate any potential public backlash by not making a big fanfare about hiring refugees. Embrace the population and welcome them into the workplace, if that is the best course of action for the business, he says, but don’t issue a press release or otherwise broadly communicate that the company has been–or intends to begin–hiring refugees.

When it comes to gauging how current employees might respond to an influx of refugee colleagues, Lewis suggests HR keep its finger on the pulse of the organization to get a sense of employees’ “political leanings.” According to Bracy, animosity or fear can often be overcome simply by providing opportunities for interaction with their new refugee co-workers. Potlucks are especially effective because they allow employees to share a bit of their culture, thus strengthening the workplace community.

As employers rack up more positive experiences with refugee employees, that often leads them to open the door to more refugee hires, says Kallick. Likewise, refugees are more likely to refer friends and family if they have found a particular employer to be welcoming and supportive.

“If a job is working well for someone from a particular refugee community, word will get around quickly that the employer isn’t put off by the fact that there may be language or cultural issues to work through,” says Kallick. “That leads to a natural source of increased recruitment as word gets around within the often very tightly knit refugee community that this is a good match.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]