Decision Vision Episode 138: Should I Hire Refugees? – An Interview with Lauren Bowden, International Rescue Committee
Lauren Bowden, Career Development Coordinator with the International Rescue Committee, joins host Mike Blake in a conversation about hiring refugees. She discussed the plethora of highly skilled talent among refugees and the role of the resettlement agency in supporting both the employee and the hiring organization. Lauren also addressed misconceptions about the process of becoming a refugee, the particulars involved in hiring refugees, accommodations such as “language buddies,” and much more. Decision Vision is presented by Brady Ware & Company.
International Rescue Committee
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Atlanta creates opportunities for refugees and immigrants to integrate and thrive in Georgia communities.
Since opening in 1979, the IRC’s locally funded office in Atlanta has welcomed more than 27,000 refugees from over 60 countries to resettle in communities across the state. A committed staff of professionals and volunteers work together to assist families in reuniting and rebuilding their lives in the greater Atlanta area.
The IRC in Atlanta offers a broad range of programs including resettlement and case management services, adult education classes, youth programs covering age 5 to 24, employment assistance, asset-building resources, community health response programs, and immigration services, all of which serve close to 3,500 clients per year.
Lauren also mentioned a list of resettlement partners at the UNHCR website which you can find here.
Lauren Bowden, Career Development Coordinator, International Rescue Committee
Lauren Bowden works as the International Rescue Committee of Atlanta’s Career Development Program Coordinator. She has over eight years of experience in the nonprofit field and over 4 years of experience in refugee and immigrant workforce development. Lauren has worked with Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Delta, Sodexo, and other large corporations to recruit, prepare, train, and upskill their local refugee and immigrant workforce and help these companies provide empowering culturally competent work environments. To date, she has assisted over 500 refugee program participants and helped them pursue education, training, job placement, and job upgrade goals.
Lauren Bowden serves as an advisor to the City of Atlanta’s Welcoming Atlanta program and is also a member of the Global Talent Study Commission. She is a Transition Specialist for the Technical College System of Georgia and was awarded the Young Nonprofit Professionals 30 under 30 award in 2019.
Mike Blake, Brady Ware & Company
Michael Blake is the host of the Decision Vision podcast series and a Director of Brady Ware & Company. Mike specializes in the valuation of intellectual property-driven firms, such as software firms, aerospace firms, and professional services firms, most frequently in the capacity as a transaction advisor, helping clients obtain great outcomes from complex transaction opportunities. He is also a specialist in the appraisal of intellectual properties as stand-alone assets, such as software, trade secrets, and patents.
Mike has been a full-time business appraiser for 13 years with public accounting firms, boutique business appraisal firms, and an owner of his own firm. Prior to that, he spent 8 years in venture capital and investment banking, including transactions in the U.S., Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
Brady Ware & Company
Brady Ware & Company is a regional full-service accounting and advisory firm which helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality. Brady Ware services clients nationally from its offices in Alpharetta, GA; Columbus and Dayton, OH; and Richmond, IN. The firm is growth-minded, committed to the regions in which they operate, and most importantly, they make significant investments in their people and service offerings to meet the changing financial needs of those they are privileged to serve. The firm is dedicated to providing results that make a difference for its clients.
Decision Vision Podcast Series
Decision Vision is a podcast covering topics and issues facing small business owners and connecting them with solutions from leading experts. This series is presented by Brady Ware & Company. If you are a decision-maker for a small business, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com and make sure to listen to every Thursday to the Decision Vision podcast.
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Intro: [00:00:02] Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast series focusing on critical business decisions. Brought to you by Brady Ware and Company. Brady Ware is a regional full-service accounting and advisory firm that helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality.
Mike Blake: [00:00:21] Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast giving you, the listener, clear vision to make great decisions. In each episode, we discuss the process of decision making on a different topic from the business owners’ or executives’ perspective. We aren’t necessarily telling you what to do, but we can put you in a position to make an informed decision on your own and understand when you might need help along the way.
Mike Blake: [00:00:43] My name is Mike Blake, and I’m your host for today’s program. I’m a director at Brady Ware & Company, a full-service accounting firm based in Dayton, Ohio, with offices in Dayton; Columbus, Ohio; Richmond, Indiana; and Alpharetta, Georgia. My practice specializes in providing fact-based strategic and risk management advice to clients that are buying, selling, or growing the value of companies and intellectual property. Brady Ware is sponsoring this podcast, which is being recorded in Atlanta per social distancing protocols.
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Mike Blake: [00:01:29] Today’s topic is, Should I hire refugees? According to the U.S. State Department, the United States has admitted 3.1 million refugees since 1980. President Biden lifted the refugee limit to 62,500 in 2021, and a raise of the limit to 125,000 in 2022 is expected. In addition, the United States admitted 46,500 people on asylum, latest data available is 2019. Sixty seven percent of refugees are aged 15 and older, making most of them working age.
Mike Blake: [00:02:02] So, I wanted to address this topic – and we’ve done something like this before where we’ve talked about hiring people with criminal records and hiring people with disabilities – because we remain in a labor shortage environment. Now, as we record this on October 6,2021, the Labor Department published a very encouraging report, U.S. companies added roughly 565,000 new jobs to payrolls. That’s the biggest jump in quite some time. But there are still a lot of help wanted signs out there. Still, a lot of positions to be filled.
Mike Blake: [00:02:42] And as we’ve talked about before, there are structural issues that are curtailing the size of the labor force. Our population is aging, so people are simply retiring. Coronavirus has killed something on the order of 300,000 working aged Americans since the virus was unleashed in the country.
Mike Blake: [00:03:05] And then, I’m not going to get into the discussion in terms of what impact government benefits have played and not played. I think, frankly, because economics is a slow science, the data is just out. We may very well find out that generous government benefits did keep people out of the labor force. Or we may find that there are more structural issues, as some commentators have indicated, in terms of daycare availability and people just simply reorganizing life priorities. But maybe we’ll address that at the end of the year once we actually have data, but I’m highly disinclined to speculate.
Mike Blake: [00:03:44] But in this market, that means that we can’t afford to leave any stone unturned. And there’s a lot of labor available if people and employers are willing to maybe expand their efforts to find labor beyond what they traditionally have done. And I posted on Chart of the Day that was, I’m guessing, about two or three weeks ago now, that had shocking data. And the activities that employers had not and said they would not explore in order to add staff are just remarkable.
Mike Blake: [00:04:23] Even adding veterans, something like 29 percent of those surveyed said that they weren’t looking necessarily at veterans. I cannot imagine why one wouldn’t go in that direction. We had a show on that. Jason Jones came on that early in the program’s life, I think in 2019, to talk about hiring veterans.
Mike Blake: [00:04:43] And so, again, if you’re looking for people, we may find out from our conversation that we’re going to have with our guest, whose name is Lauren Bowden, that refugees are a place where you may look. And in some cases, if the model is similar to what we’ve seen with veterans, the handicapped, and ex-convicts, that there are resources out there that are geared to making that process easier. In some cases may be easier than just going out to the large labor markets. But I don’t want to spoil it because we have an expert here who’s going to talk about it, and I’m just going to ask questions and listen and learn like the rest of you.
Mike Blake: [00:05:21] So, joining us today is Lauren Bowden, who is Career Development Coordinator for International Rescue Committee. The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster to survive, recover, and gain control of their future. In more than 40 countries in over 20 U.S. cities, their dedicated teams provide clean water, shelter, health care, education, and empowerment support to refugees and displaced people.
Mike Blake: [00:05:55] They have helped 31 million people with access to health services. They have assisted 410,000 children under the age of five with nutrition treatment. They’ve provided 2.6 million people with clean water, 1.1 million people with cash relief, and 819,500 children with schooling and education opportunities.
Mike Blake: [00:06:19] Lauren’s role in International Rescue Committee includes providing advanced work readiness training workshops to clients covering business writing, resume creation, networking, interview skills, and goal articulation. Offering soft skill training, including help with professional dress, time management, job search skills, LinkedIn, and professional communication. Strengthening employment opportunities by developing relationships with local employers and advocating for client interviews. Developing new career pathway opportunities by encouraging local trainer partners to provide accommodation and culturally sensitive training for immigrant students and job seekers. And assisting clients with resume creation and to provide tailored job search assistance and interview preparation. Lauren Bowden, welcome to the program.
Lauren Bowden: [00:07:06] Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Mike Blake: [00:07:09] So, Lauren, let’s jump right into it. Make the case that hiring a refugee is something that a business should explore, and not just because it might be a socially conscientious or socially conscious thing to do, but it’s also a good business decision.
Lauren Bowden: [00:07:30] Yeah. Sure, Mike. So, it really is both. You know, we talk a lot about the fact that there is a lot of mutual benefit. Yes, you’re able to help empower and help somebody who’s newly arrived find a great job. But, also, there is a lot of strategy for a business.
Lauren Bowden: [00:07:52] Businesses often spend a lot of money working with recruiting agencies, staffing agencies, temp agencies to be able to find talent. As you said, there’s a huge labor shortage. And so, businesses are spending a lot of money advertising for people trying to find talent.
Lauren Bowden: [00:08:12] And the way that most businesses will end up working with refugee talent is that they’ll partner with an agency like mine, a resettlement agency. And that resettlement agency is going to have a vested interest in doing a lot of that work for them. A lot of the work that a staffing agency, a temp agency, et cetera, might do, a refugee resettlement agency is willing and able to do all of those services for free.
Lauren Bowden: [00:08:46] So, the International Rescue Committee, where I work, we will work with businesses to recruit talent. We will go out into the community. We will flyer for you. We will set up job interviews. We’ll help people apply. We’ll even come to, like, your orientation or your onboarding, help with onboarding paperwork. So, there’s a lot of administrative burden that we’re able to relieve. And we know that there is a cost or a value associated with that. That’s one thing.
Lauren Bowden: [00:09:18] The other thing is, we are able to create dedicated talent pipelines. So, at the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, I am all the time looking in Atlanta to see, like, where is it that we have these labor shortages, which industries, which positions do we have a huge shortage. And I will go and talk to companies and help them create programs where we are training people specifically for those roles. So, that’s the other thing is that we know you spend even more money when you’re looking for roles where there’s not a lot of talent to fill those roles.
Mike Blake: [00:10:00] Another thing is we have research now that shows us that the turnover rate for businesses that employ a large number of refugees is actually a lot lower. So, turnover obviously has a cost associated for hourly employees. We think it’s about $1,500 a person is which a company is going to end up spending any time there is a single person who leaves their job. And refugees, in comparison with non-refugee counterparts, the turnover rate is about 15 percent better. In some industries, it’s even better than that.
Lauren Bowden: [00:10:40] So, in manufacturing, there was a study where manufacturing companies that have a large refugee workforce, their annual turnover rate was about 11 percent. For those who had a large refugee workforce, it dropped to four percent. So, that is the other thing, is that, if you have a reliable flow of talent coming in, if there’s less turnover happening, you’re able to not spend as much money.
Lauren Bowden: [00:11:15] Then, the final thing I would say is, companies who hire refugees often think initially that, “Oh, I want to partner with a refugee resettlement agency just for low skilled jobs.” Refugees who come into the United States have all different kinds of talents, and skills, and educational backgrounds. A lot of them were mid or late career professionals in their home countries. And so, when they arrive in the United States, because they don’t have well-developed professional networks, they are often willing to work at below market rate.
Lauren Bowden: [00:11:50] Although, I don’t encourage people to pay them significantly below market rate. But slightly below in order to get a foot in the door, in order to be able to return to the industry that they have decades of experience. So, you can often work with people who have lots of experience, they have language skills, et cetera, and not pay them at that same premium for decades of experience.
Mike Blake: [00:12:15] So, would it be too stupid a question to ask you to define exactly what a refugee is? Is that definition important to this conversation?
Lauren Bowden: [00:12:25] No. It’s not a stupid question at all. It’s a really good question. Because I have had employers say to me, “Why do you call them refugees?” The word refugee was very [inaudible]. We’ve heard a lot of questions about it. But refugee actually is this immigration status. And the definition of a refugee is a person who has fled war or conflict or persecution, and they’ve crossed an international border to get to safety.
Lauren Bowden: [00:12:57] So, what happens is there’s some kind of crisis, the person has to leave their home country. Something about their identity that they cannot change makes it unsafe for them to live in their home country. They go to a second country, and, there, they will connect with a nonprofit, UNHCR, and file for refugee. Of all, the people who apply, actually, are eligible for resettlement in the United States because there is so much extensive vetting that goes on. It takes many years for people to get through that process and then come into the United States.
Lauren Bowden: [00:13:34] So, to answer your question, that is what makes somebody a refugee, is that they fled their home country, went to another country, and applied for refugee status.
Mike Blake: [00:13:46] So, that’s interesting. I guess on some level, I knew that, but I hadn’t really put together that that’s an arduous process. It sounds silly to say it now, but I’m just going to confirm it. It doesn’t sound like you can just sort of walk up to any U.S. Embassy or Consulate and say, “Hey, I’m a refugee. Can I come?” The U.S. Government, to my understanding, does a pretty vigorous and rigorous vetting process to ensure that somebody actually qualifies as a refugee.
Lauren Bowden: [00:14:18] Yeah. It takes years. There are medical screenings that you have to go through and make sure you don’t have something like tuberculosis that might infect the U.S. population. There are background checks. The State Department does a check. The USCIS does a check. The FBI, you have interviews. So, it’s very difficult to be granted that status.
Lauren Bowden: [00:14:45] Something I didn’t mention but another benefit to employers is rarely, if ever, do refugees ever fail a background check. So, if that’s a problem where you’re getting these candidates but they keep failing, rarely, if ever, does that happen. They’ve already been through such scrutiny. I have never seen it happen in five years that I’ve been working at the IRC.
Mike Blake: [00:15:08] So, interestingly, a refugee may in fact have the most vetting of any candidate that an employer’s going to look at. Which is interesting, I never thought of that before. Does the U.S. Government or do any state governments offer any special incentives in addition to provide jobs to refugees?
Lauren Bowden: [00:15:31] So, most refugees when they first arrive, are put on to food stamps, SNAP benefits by the resettlement agency. Ninety something percent of refugees become self-sufficient within six months. But in that first few months, most refugees are on food stamps. And because of that, they are a targeted group for the workforce opportunity tax credit for that first year, because they or one member of their family was accessing food stamps within the last six months.
Mike Blake: [00:16:11] I’m not familiar with that. I probably should be. But I’m not a very good accountant. Do you have at least some broad sense what are the benefits of that program? Is that a tax credit or is it a subsidy? How does that work broadly?
Lauren Bowden: [00:16:26] It is a tax credit. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know the exact amount. But, yes, it’s a tax credit rather than an incentive.
Mike Blake: [00:16:37] Now, my understanding is refugees can have a temporary status, which I assume means that they may then be repatriated or a permanent refugee status. One, am I accurate? Is that true? And if so, is that something that employers are allowed to inquire as to whether or not the person has a temporary or permanent refugee status?
Lauren Bowden: [00:17:03] Sure. Yeah. Just to answer that question, refugees are able to work indefinitely. So, you know, as I was saying, only one percent of people are chosen after all this vetting to actually move forward and become refugees in the United States. And with that is a pathway to citizenship. And so, the first day that a refugee walks off the plane into the United States, they are documented and eligible for hire in the United States indefinitely. So, employers don’t need to worry about whether or not they are able to legally hire refugees.
Lauren Bowden: [00:17:49] There is some confusion because there’s a difference between somebody who is a refugee and an asylum seeker. Someone who is an asylum seeker is often afforded a temporary status. An asylum seeker is a person who came to the U.S. border and asked for asylum. And people who have that immigration status often have the ability to work temporarily until they go before the judge. And the judge decides whether or not they can have permanent status in the United States.
Lauren Bowden: [00:18:24] To answer your larger question, yes, it’s fine for an employer to ask about status. What I recommend is working with a resettlement agency that are able to help walk you through how to hire and how to understand documentation. So, you can put a refugee’s information into E-Verify. It’s easy. But just a lot of hiring managers who are unfamiliar with the kind of documentation that people get when they first walk off the plane. So, yes, it’s fine to ask, but also people shouldn’t be overly nervous.
Mike Blake: [00:19:07] So, you know, a concern I think employers have – this may or may not be an educated concern – may be any time you hire somebody that has – for lack of a better term. I don’t know the term of art is – some sort of “special status” or maybe even “protected status,” do refugees have any special protections that would – let’s say, frankly, the refugee is hired. But for whatever reason, the employer is figuring or has determined that it’s not a good match, not working out. Is there any additional risk or exposure? Or are you taking on an additional commitment by hiring a refugee as opposed to somebody who doesn’t have that status?
Lauren Bowden: [00:20:00] There’s no additional risk. Of course, like all Americans, refugees as new Americans have workplace rights. So, employers need to make sure that they’re not infringing upon a person’s ability to maintain any protected status, like their religion, or their race, et cetera. So, you’re not able to, for example, ask a woman to not wear a headscarf to work. If you insist upon that, then, yes, you’re taking on additional liability by breaking the law.
Lauren Bowden: [00:20:38] But in the spirit of your question, no. There’s no additional concern or liability that a business is taking on. And, actually, we really want to work with businesses who are transparent about what kind of issues they may face. Of course, there’s going to be misconceptions. There’s going to be cultural misunderstandings in the workplace. And we want to help smooth those over.
Lauren Bowden: [00:21:05] I mean, frankly, as case managers, it’s a lot of work for us to continuously keep trying to help people find a job and then another job, et cetera. We want to make a really good fit. And so, we have conversations with the businesses about what it is exactly that they’re looking for and ask businesses to be really transparent when things aren’t working out so that we’re able to recruit better in the future. Prepare the candidates better with better and more specialized training for those roles.
Lauren Bowden: [00:21:41] And, also, just because we want to have good relationships. We don’t ask that you hire our candidates and work with them forever. We want there to be that mutual benefit. That is good for our candidates as for the business. Our candidates don’t want to be in places where they feel as though there is some kind of resentment, or there is some kind of discomfort, they’re not an inclusive, welcoming environment.
Lauren Bowden: [00:22:08] So, we’re able to do things like create apprenticeship programs, if that’s something that the business is interested in. A working interview, where a candidate will work with the business for three weeks so that the business can kind of try out the candidate and see if it’s a good fit, address any issues upfront. We have a lot of flexibility. And the major takeaway is that, it’s important that the the needs of the employer as well as the needs of the refugee candidate are both being met, so that it’s a good fit and there is sustainability in that role.
Mike Blake: [00:22:50] So, that segues nicely into the next question that I wanted to ask. And that is, should employers be prepared to make any kind of special accommodations for refugees that might not necessarily be obvious or might not have to be made for somebody who’s not a refugee? Are there any special programs, facilities, resources that employers might want to consider or maybe have to consider making available in order for that relationship to work well?
Lauren Bowden: [00:23:24] Yeah. Sure. So, there are a lot of different accommodations that businesses can make that help them have a more reliable refugee workforce. So, part of your question is, really, what are the barriers that refugees have to employment when they first arrive. The obvious ones are the fact that there is, in many areas in the United States, lack of good public transportation and refugees often don’t come with enough money to buy a vehicle.
Lauren Bowden: [00:24:03] And so, one of the things that a business can do that make it easier to hire a large number of refugees and really rely on the refugee workforce is figure out transportation solutions. And there are a number of those. Everything from some things super low cost, like they can help us identify a driver in the community where a lot of the refugees live, and that person just provides carpool service. All the way to we have a lot of companies who have found that it is actually a better model for them to just provide their own transportation. They have a van pool that goes into the community, picks everybody up at the same time, and drives to the company. So, that is something that would be hugely successful.
Lauren Bowden: [00:25:01] I mean, I’m cautious here of the fact that I don’t want to give the impression that all refugees are low skilled workers. Refugees are a diverse group of people. There are a lot of refugees that come in and are willing to do low skilled work to get their feet under them and get stable. But there are also a lot of refugee workers who are able to buy their own car or are able to access reliable private transportation. So, that is not always necessary. It depends on what you’re trying to do.
Lauren Bowden: [00:25:36] The other thing that’s helpful is, a lot of refugees are not native speakers of English, right? So, something that can be super helpful is a willingness to hire people with an intermediate or lower English level on the condition that the business also hire some people who are fluent both in that community’s native language and also in English. We call this language buddies.
Lauren Bowden: [00:26:07] So, we’ll have a company who makes windows or doors, for example. And they will assign a few people as language buddies. They’ll pay them a little bit more. And those people are there to provide more technical or detailed instructions to people who have an intermediate language level, but speak fluently that language buddy’s native language. So, that is another thing that is helpful.
Lauren Bowden: [00:26:39] Of course, none of these are strictly necessary. You don’t have to make any of these accommodations. But the more accommodations you’re willing to make, the more likely it is that you will be able to resolve your staffing woes by utilizing this talent and working with the resettlement agency. I mean, there are a lot of things that companies just take for granted and don’t think about even in their application process.
Lauren Bowden: [00:27:15] I encourage employers, look at your application. Are people able to, with your current online application, enter their references if those references do not have an American phone number? Can they put in their education history if that education history came from a different state? Or will an automated form lock them out so they can’t even get into your application to apply in the first place, because there’s a dropdown list and their school isn’t on that list? So, these sorts of things will allow you to provide additional support and really shore up your workforce.
Lauren Bowden: [00:27:59] You know, we’re able to get people staffed. And there is a reason that I am working with a lot of companies right now who are making all of these investments. It’s not just a social decision. They have decided to provide van pools. They have decided to translate some of their forms or provide, like, little cheat sheets with jargon in the person’s language, because they get such a benefit knowing that they have this pipeline of talent, really. When you provide a really good, supportive workplace, you don’t have problems because refugees tell their friends, “Hey, this is a good place to work.” And you have too many applicants is often what happens.
Lauren Bowden: [00:28:47] So, yeah, I hope that answers your question. There are number of accommodations that you can make. And I encourage companies to work to make those accommodations because they are competing for talent. A refugee resettlement agency like me, we don’t work for the company. We work for the job seeker. And so, if there is a better employment opportunity available for our job seeker, of course, we’re going to encourage them to be in a more supportive environment.
Mike Blake: [00:29:16] So, you said a couple of things that I want to pause on for a minute because I do think they’re really important. One, in terms of the language issue, I can attest to that from the other end. Early in my career, I moved over to Belarus. Even though I had some Russian in school, there’s a big difference between learning in a textbook and being thrown on the ground. And my own experience, it takes about three months to really get from remedial to, basically, not having any language barriers anymore. So, it really doesn’t take very long to adapt to the new language. So, you know, if you can provide those transitional language buddies, I think that’s a sensational idea.
Mike Blake: [00:30:05] But, also, I would just simply, from my own perspective, encourage employers, if you’re concerned about a language barrier, even if there is one today, a little bit, there will not be one within three months. I mean, people pick up languages very quickly when they’re immersed and they have to, as I did, learn it for survival purposes. Because where I was, Minsk is the Russian equivalent of Des Moines, Iowa. They were not English speakers in Minsk other than in the U.S. Embassy. So, they’re going to face that here and they’ll pick it up.
Mike Blake: [00:30:37] The second was, actually, you touched on a question I wanted to ask and you answered a little bit, but I want to make it explicit, which is, I suspect that there is a widely held stereotype that the overwhelming majority of refugees are low skilled labor. The tired, huddled masses kind of deal. And, you know, I’ll bet you that’s not necessarily the case.
Mike Blake: [00:31:04] And, again, just going back to my own experience with Russians, I used to do a little bit of work with Russian resettlement. You know, there are a lot of people coming over that have advanced degrees in engineering and mathematics, and even people that were physicians. I mean, they wouldn’t be able to get their license here right away, necessarily. But people that are actually quite skilled that were refugees from that part of the world, not just Russia, but from Central Asia and so forth.
Mike Blake: [00:31:35] And I’d love to give you an opportunity to kind of set the record straight – whether I’m right or wrong, it doesn’t matter – are the bulk of refugees going to be low skilled labor? Or is there a high skilled labor pool out there that employers can be looking for?
Lauren Bowden: [00:31:52] Yeah. Absolutely. And thank you for that question. It’s a question I want to answer. There are so many high skilled refugees. In my State of Georgia, there are more immigrants with graduate degrees than graduate degrees among the native born population. In my case load of refugees and immigrants, I have doctors, I have lawyers, I have mathematicians, engineers. Refugees are people who, in their home countries, their lives were interrupted because of some kind of crisis. This can happen to anyone. It doesn’t just happen to people who have not had a formal education or working in some kind of low skilled job.
Lauren Bowden: [00:32:46] The other thing to think about is that, a lot of refugees do speak good English. A lot of our refugees were working with the U.S. Military in Afghanistan and Iraq as interpreters, and also as mechanics, and drivers. The U.S. Military were trusting these folks because of how good their English is and how highly skilled they are. These folks are some of the most impressive people that you’ll ever meet. I work with people all the time who have such detailed professional and impressive resumes.
Lauren Bowden: [00:33:28] A lot of countries outside the United States are placing more of a premium on STEM education than the United States is. And because of that, I have a lot of people that I’m working with right now who have a lot of IT experience, who started a computer science emphasis before they were even out of high school, because that is the way their education system worked.
Lauren Bowden: [00:33:57] Similarly, there are people who have experience doing technical skills or skilled trades. In our country, we have not put as much emphasis on those skilled trades, on trade schools. But in other countries there has been that emphasis. And so, when I call sometimes a construction firm and say, “Hey, I’ve got an electrician who wants to be recertified.” They’ll tell me, “I need 300 more.” “Of course.”
Lauren Bowden: [00:34:30] So, yeah, there is a really harmful stereotype that immigrant or refugee means a person doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t come to this country with professional experience and valuable education. And that is just not the case. There is a lot of brain waste happening. And by that, I mean people who are underemployed within the refugee community. Because when refugees first arrive, they need to get self-sufficient as quickly as possible. They don’t have cars. They need to pay their rent. They need to take care of their families. And so, they are just taking any job available to them.
Lauren Bowden: [00:35:11] I have a person who was the senior communications adviser for his country right now, who is working as a valet. He has great English. He’s worked with political –
Mike Blake: [00:35:22] We got to talk. I know somebody that needs to hire that person. So, we need to talk after the show about that person.
Lauren Bowden: [00:35:27] Let’s absolutely talk about him. I love it. Everywhere I go, I’m trying to make these connections. So, there are a lot of people that get stuck in these entry wage jobs. And they have these kind of strange gaps in their resumes because they spent years in a refugee camp. They have transitioned kind of strangely. And then, also, there are people that were professionals in their home country, but they come here and they don’t have that professional network built out.
Lauren Bowden: [00:36:02] And so, to compete with people and that same level of professionalism would mean going up against people who do have an American professional network built out. That’s probably not going to work for them. And then, they’re also overqualified for a lot of positions.
Lauren Bowden: [00:36:23] So, there are so many misconceptions about refugees. But when you hear that word, please do not think that what that means is a person who isn’t a well-educated person. Refugees are people, and like all people, they have different skill levels, different interests, passions, backgrounds, skills, languages, et cetera.
Mike Blake: [00:36:53] So many ways to go here, but here’s here’s a question I will make sure that we get in here because I do think it’s important. I speculate – and you tell me if I’m right or wrong, especially if I’m wrong, please – that refugees kind of definitionally are here because of having suffered a traumatic event. To flee your home country to another place in that way, I would imagine more often than not some sort of trauma, physical and/or mental was involved. And so, my question is, should employers have concerns that refugees may be facing particular mental challenges, it could be PTSD, it could be other things, because of the event or events or environment that caused them to become refugees in the first place?
Lauren Bowden: [00:37:52] Yeah. For sure. Absolutely. Refugees, almost definitionally, are in the United States because of trauma. The resettlement process in and of itself, because of research, is a kind of trauma. It’s very difficult to leave your home country, to be separated. There is survivor’s guilt. And then, there’s also so much to learn when you first arrive, so much that you suddenly have to adjust to very quickly.
Lauren Bowden: [00:38:33] If the question is, should the fact that these people have experienced trauma suggest to the employer that this person is not a good hire, I would definitely push back against that. I think that people who have spent years now in limbo in refugee camps are very, very eager to restart their lives, very, very eager to have stability. And these are people who are extremely resilient, who have made it through tremendous obstacle to be able to be here and bring their family here. So, I think often they’re great employees.
Lauren Bowden: [00:39:18] There are things, though, that businesses could do to provide a more trauma informed approach when they go to hire somebody. So, some of the things that you can do is provide a more inclusive and welcoming environment by making some of the accommodations that I mentioned. By being willing to have language buddies there to provide assistance when needed. Having an H.R. rep or someone there to help guide people to where they need to be on the first day of work.
Lauren Bowden: [00:40:01] A lot of what we know about trauma is that there is a big concern about retraumatization when you force people to talk and think about past experiences. So, something that hiring managers can do is just be conscious of the fact that they do not need to ask why is it that you’re here. There are other questions that you can ask. You can ask, what do you like most about the U.S.? What is the most surprising, et cetera?
Lauren Bowden: [00:40:31] Another thing is there’s a lot of additional trauma that comes from feeling isolated from community members and feeling isolated from native born speakers. So, some companies have programs where they have conversation partners, and over lunch, people in the company who are native English speakers will volunteer to essentially just have lunch with somebody who’s not a native speaker, and help them practice their English, help them socialize and make friends. All of these things can lower the stress level, make the person feel more included, and also ensure that they’re not retraumatizing by othering, isolating, and then really kind of asking that person to to talk about, you know, the most difficult parts of their life, which really isn’t relevant to talk about in work for the most part for any of us.
Mike Blake: [00:41:31] Yeah. And some of that goes to the sensitivity that is required to hire any foreign-born – I got to be careful about this. Not just foreign-born – any employee that has a cultural background that is different from the majority at that company.
Mike Blake: [00:41:55] An example that may have nothing to do with refugees, take a theoretical employee who is a Hasidic Jew. There’s a separate culture there. There are Americans. They may very well have been born here. But they have they have certain cultural and religious practices that, if you’re going to put that person in a successful work environment, that it would be wise to just be aware of. You wouldn’t celebrate national pork and shrimp day for that individual, for example.
Mike Blake: [00:42:40] And so, even just moving beyond sort of the traumatizing event – and I do think that’s important – on the one hand, you want to be curious, maybe even sympathetic. On the other hand, if you’re not trained in that conversation, you’re doing more harm than good, potentially. But some of this just goes back to, “Hey, you’re hiring somebody from a foreign country.” And it’s one thing to say, “Well, we’re an American company, so you ought to be like an American.” You can have that attitude, but then be prepared for a failed hire if that’s going to be your attitude going into it, right?
Lauren Bowden: [00:43:15] Yes. Exactly. So, you saying that made me think about the fact that I worked with The Cheesecake Factory for a while. And they had a terrible time, just they couldn’t get the back of house kitchen staffed. And we were able to place a lot of people, Rohingya Muslims. They were all from Burmese. There was a group of guys who were all working there, and really figured out the system, were able to keep the restaurant very efficient.
Lauren Bowden: [00:43:50] When it came time for Ramadan, we had to have conversations about the fact that for these folks, it was very important to be able to break their fast. They hadn’t eaten or they hadn’t drank anything all day long, and they wanted to be able to eat something, to drink, to be able to pray.
Lauren Bowden: [00:44:12] And so, the The Cheesecake Factory talked to us about that and we work something out. Obviously, it would not work for everybody in your kitchen to all of a sudden just stop working and pray. But we’re creative. We’re able to do that. We’re able to be limber. We’re a nonprofit. So, we worked with them. Everybody had, like, a quick snack and then people took shifts where they took a 15 minute break and then kind of tagged in or tapped out the next person to go and pray so that you still have a kitchen staff there.
Lauren Bowden: [00:44:48] Going back to our trauma discussion, it was very important for these folks who had experienced religious trauma and were persecuted because of their religion to be able to practice their religion and a very important religious holiday. And so, we had conversations about what that would look like and also be able to still work the busy shift.
Mike Blake: [00:45:18] Right. And, again, for someone like The Cheesecake Factory, that question was going to come up at some point, whether they are hiring refugees or not. Now that we’re in October here, it’s baseball playoff season, there’s a very famous event that happened. I think it was in the ’64 or ’63 World Series where the Dodgers Sandy Koufax, Hall of Fame pitcher, refused to pitch because he was an Orthodox Jew, and because that game was going to take place on a Saturday, he just simply would not pitch. And he was American.
Mike Blake: [00:45:57] But the point is, is that, really in our society, some of these things are not new. They may become more in focus because working with your organization, you may be hiring many people with those needs at the same time, so it becomes a much sharper focus. But, really, if you’re a company in the United States of any size, you’re probably going to face those issues and have faced them already to some extent.
Lauren Bowden: [00:46:23] Yeah. Absolutely. These issues are not just particular to refugees, you’re absolutely right. I mean, we have a wonderfully diverse country with people who celebrate all different kinds of faiths, all different ethnicities, all different practices. And if your company does not allow people to bring integral parts of their identity into work, if they have to leave those at the door, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of great talent.
Lauren Bowden: [00:47:00] It does not have to be this huge loss for you to make these accommodations. It can be something that is a learning experience for the entire organization. I think that it’s kind of hard to measure, but I think there is absolutely a value for your organizational culture to feel as though, as a company, we have decided to make these small changes because we want to be able to support the wellbeing and the identity of all the people that work there.
Lauren Bowden: [00:47:39] And like I said, there are things that don’t cost very much money or things that don’t take very much time, but they allow people to feel respected. And we know that when people feel included and respected at work, they are more likely to stay at that job. So, there is a value to the company.
Mike Blake: [00:48:01] We’re talking with Lauren Bowden of the International Rescue Committee. And the topic is, Should I hire refugees? I know we’re running out of time here and we have so many more questions we could go through, but there are a couple I want to make sure that we hit.
Mike Blake: [00:48:19] You’ve talked a little bit about, you know, what things would probably not make a company a good candidate to hire a refugee? And as you said, you work for the refugee, so I think your perspective on this would be really interesting. In your mind, as you examine or analyze a company as a potential employer for one of your clients, what are red flags? In your mind when you look at a company and say, “I don’t know that they’re ready for hiring a refugee.” Or maybe they’re just not even doing it for the right reasons. What are red flags that you look for?
Lauren Bowden: [00:49:01] Yeah. That’s a great question. So, when we talk to our employer partners, we essentially interview them. We are asking them about what the environment is like. The number one red flag that comes to mind is, when I speak with the company, and it’s pretty obvious to me that the reason they want to work with a resettlement agency is because wages for whatever position they’re trying to fill, the market rate has gone up. And instead of trying to keep up with the market rate, they’re hoping that if they hire refugee talent, they’ll be able to just sort of not have to adjust and they can just pay people less.
Lauren Bowden: [00:49:50] And there is an attitude of we are doing these refugees a favor by hiring them rather than, as I mentioned before, there is mutual benefit. We want to help people. We want to hire people. We need people. But also we want to provide a good and inclusive environment.
Lauren Bowden: [00:50:13] Other things, there are a lot of great materials that the Tent Partnership for Refugees and others have created for how to employ an onboard refugee. So, there are guides that we can give employers about how to process refugee documents in E-Verify, et cetera. There’s some documents and resources and literature that will allow you to understand that just because somebody’s employment card has an expiration date, it’s just like a driver’s license, you just need to reapply. It doesn’t mean the person can’t work anymore.
Lauren Bowden: [00:50:57] So, if we give you all of this information and there is still so much suspicion that this person should not be processed in the system, that this person is dangerous, et cetera, that would be a huge red flag.
Lauren Bowden: [00:51:14] Other things, not providing health insurance. Not being willing to make any kind of accommodation is also much a red flag. It’s just that, as I mentioned, there are companies that are doing everything they can to be able to accommodate the talent. They are providing a living wage. They have insurance. They have upskilling programs that they have made in partnership with us to help people train in-house to move to better positions. There’s some opportunity both for the company and for the refugee. Sometimes they have onsite ESL classes after work. They’re providing shift work that allows for the fact that people might be taking public transportation. Or might have split shifts with a spouse or a family member.
Lauren Bowden: [00:52:11] So, really, it is not that there are all these red flags. It’s just that if you’re not willing to make any of those accommodations, the talent is going to go to places where there are accommodations. So, you’re really competing to be a place that is inclusive, et cetera. Because then you’ll be able to have a steady stream of applicants. You’ll have that less turnover. So, that is really the way that I think we ultimately think about who’s a good partner for us.
Lauren Bowden: [00:52:45] It’s who gets really freaked out with little requests, like, “Can you print out their schedule? They don’t have a computer at home and so they can’t just look it up online.” And who is like, “Yeah. That’s nothing to us. What’s a few sheets of computer paper?”
Mike Blake: [00:53:03] Lauren, this has been a great conversation. There are questions that that are probably out there that some of our listeners had, but we didn’t get to or ones that they wished we would have spent more time on. If somebody wants to contact you directly to follow up and ask about hiring refugees and how your organization can help them, can they do so? And if so, what’s the best way to do that?
Lauren Bowden: [00:53:27] Yeah. Absolutely. So, refugees are resettled in 49 U.S. States and they are resettlement agencies. In addition to the International Rescue Committee, there are eight other resettlement agencies that are also doing this work. Chances are, if you want to hire refugees, there is an agency near you that would provide you with a lot of these free employment placement and skill training services and help connect you to this talent.
Lauren Bowden: [00:53:54] In order to find us, our website is rescue.org. And if you want to contact me or the IRC Atlanta directly, our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And our Facebook page is facebook.com/ircatlanta. So, those are all the ways. Oh, one other thing is that, the UNHCR actually has a search bar where you’re able to put in your location and see which resettlement agencies are near your location, so that you can contact them directly and ask about hiring refugee talent.
Mike Blake: [00:54:38] Well, thank you. That’s going to wrap it up for today’s program. I’d like to thank Lauren Bowden so much for sharing her expertise with us.
Lauren Bowden: [00:54:45] We’ll be exploring a new topic each week, so please tune in so that when you’re faced with your next business decision, you have clear vision when making it. If you enjoy these podcasts, please consider leaving a review with your favorite podcast aggregator. It helps people find us that we can help them. If you would like to engage with me on social media with my Chart of the Day and other content, I’m on LinkedIn as myself and @unblakeable on Facebook, Twitter, Clubhouse, and Instagram. Once again, this is Mike Blake. Our sponsor is Brady Ware & Company. And this has been the Decision Vision podcast.