HR Magazine - November 2000: Refugees to the Rescue

By Andrea C. Poe Nov 1, 2000
HR Magazine,   July 2000Vol. 45, No. 9

Refugees come to the United States seeking safety and protection; some employers in need of good workers are welcoming them with open arms.

Sometimes while driving through the streets of Des Moines, Iowa, Goran Surlan can’t help but shake his head. It wasn’t that long ago that Surlan, a refugee from Bosnia, would hop the bus to his job as a payroll clerk in the Sarajevo city government.

Today, he is a payroll clerk at Dee Zee Manufacturing in Des Moines. Now living in the Corn Belt, where mass transit is impractical, Surlan’s mornings are spent behind the wheel of a car, snaking his way through commuter traffic. "You spend most of your life in your car here," he laughs.

Commuting habits are the least of the changes Surlan has adjusted to. It was only three years ago that he left war-torn Bosnia, where he watched his vibrant, sophisticated homeland fall prey to destruction and chaos. Because he spoke near-fluent English and had a professional background, he arrived stateside with desirable skills.

Within the first few months of his arrival he landed his job by networking with his wife’s cousin who was already working at Dee Zee, a company that manufactures aluminum truck accessories. He learned English financial jargon and regulations while on the job. "Ultimately, math is math wherever you are," he notes.

Dee Zee is the first U.S. company Surlan worked for; three years later, he’s still there. He stays because he appreciates the opportunity the company gave him and because it’s a good job.

"The arrangement has worked out really well," says Cindee Moyer, human resource manager at Dee Zee. "Goran does great work. And he translates for us when we need him to relate something to our [100 other refugee] employees."

Like Surlan, Moyer has made some adjustments recently: A few years ago, refugees weren’t even on her radar screen. But the company began to grow, and the high turnover rate of plant workers took its toll. "We had to hire very young people right out of high school, and they didn’t want to work a 40-hour week. Most would stay a year or so and then leave," she explains.

That’s about the time a local refugee organization contacted her. "They asked me if I wanted to hire a couple of Bosnians. I said I’d try two [of them]," she recalls. Today about one half of Dee Zee’s workforce are refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam and Sudan.

The need for labor also prompted Aimee Romaine, vice president of human resources at The Sharper Image in San Francisco, to consider refugees. "Let’s face it—it’s a challenging hiring environment," she says. "It’s especially hard to find people willing to take entry-level positions." Romaine turned to refugees for those hard-to fill spots in the mailroom and clerical pool at the company’s corporate office.

Tim Hertel, vice president and manager for direct deposits and regulatory operations at Wells Fargo in Portland, Ore., has hired 10 refugees for his department over the past six months. "What stimulated my interest [in refugees] was the job market," he says.

For other worker-strapped organizations, refugees can provide much needed labor relief. Last year almost 90,000 refugees entered the United States, making this population a hot hiring source for employers. Currently, more than 630,000 refugees live in this country.


Although there are no special government grants or tax breaks for companies that hire refugees, companies report that doing so saves money on recruitment, retention and productivity.

"Before I hired refugees, I had a 60 percent turnover rate. Now I have 20 percent [turnover]," Moyer says. "I had a 6 percent absentee rate, now it’s down to .1 percent."

Similarly, Hertel has found refugees to be a successful staffing solution. "Since we began hiring refugees, our retention rate is 34 percent higher. Most new hires leave within a year. Refugees stay around four to five years," he notes. "Productivity rates are also higher. The refugees we’ve hired tend to do more volume more quickly."

Macy’s Inc. also has benefited from refugee employees. "They come with a very strong work ethic," says Laurie Winthrop, group vice president of HR at Macy’s West in San Francisco. "They’re committed to getting the work done."

Abby Snay, executive director of Jewish Vocational Services (JVS), an organization that provides employment, educational and skills training services to refugees in San Francisco, believes refugees make good employees because "they tend to be very motivated people. They took enormous risk to leave their countries and start a new life. They work very hard to establish themselves and stabilize their lives in this country."

Role of Refugees

There are no hard-and-fast rules about what refugees are equipped to do. As with any employee, much depends upon the education, skills and background of the individual. However, because many refugees start out with little English, they often accept jobs outside their fields of expertise and at the entry level. Many refugees work behind the scenes doing key entry, clerical work and other jobs that don’t require face-to-face contact with the public.

"They understand that without the language skills they can’t come in at the level they were at. But sometimes they can use their knowledge," says Miriam Ali, marketer of job services at International Refugee Center of Oregon (IRCO), a non-profit organization in Portland that provides cultural, social and employment services to refugees. "For instance, we had a pharmacist from Afghanistan who didn’t speak English very well. While he couldn’t work as a pharmacist, we placed him with a pharmaceutical company as a pill counter," where he could learn about the industry in the United States.

Other times, refugees take jobs completely unrelated to their backgrounds as they learn English. For example, Moyer hired a philosophy professor from the former Soviet Union to work on Dee Zee’s plant floor.

According to refugee organizations, the biggest demand for refugees comes from companies in the fastest-growing industries, such as health care, hotel and food service, manufacturing and transportation. However, any company that needs employees will find refugees a welcome solution to their staffing problem, says Gail Flood, director of special projects at the Corporation for Public Management (CPM), a non-profit organization in Springfield, Mass., that provides assistance to special-needs populations, including refugees.

Hiring Process

Most HR professionals find that working with a local refugee organization is the best way to hire refugees. The mission of these organizations is to prepare refugees to support and sustain themselves in this country. A large part of that job entails matching refugees with the right jobs. "We want to be sure there’s the right fit so they become self-sufficient," says Flood.

By working with refugee organizations, HR professionals get the benefits of candidate screening, training and testing programs, the services of an interpreter and any special support an employer needs. All of this comes free of charge to employers.

Because of the emphasis on getting refugees employment-ready, refugee organizations tailor training programs to employer needs. For instance, JVS offers refugees computer training and a nursing program because that’s what area employers are looking for.

"Refugees come from countries that lag behind in technology so we introduce them to state-of-the-art equipment," Snay explains. "For instance, draftsmen in the former Soviet Union do everything manually. They have the experience, they just need to learn the computer programs."

Employers also team up with refugee organizations to provide low-tech training. For example, when Macy’s had a hard time finding seasonal employees to wrap gifts, it teamed up with a refugee organization to provide training. "We gave wrapping classes through an interpreter," Winthrop notes. Although some trainees went to work for other area retailers, many signed on with Macy’s as holiday wrappers. Several of those wrappers have stayed with the company.

Refugee organizations also offer post-placement services. IRCO’s Ali recalls an instance in which a Russian refugee was hired at a non-union shop. A few months later, managers at the shop complained to IRCO that the individual was wearing a union jacket to work.

"They wanted to know if he was making a statement," says Ali. IRCO sent out a translator and learned that the refugee had picked the jacket up at a donation center and didn’t know what the logo meant. The translator assuaged the company’s fears and ensured that the refugee would no longer wear the jacket.

Although the majority of refugees find jobs through refugee organizations, not all do. Once word of mouth spreads among refugees that a company is hiring, it isn’t unusual for HR professionals to hear from refugees directly.

"We had a company picnic and told employees to bring their friends and family," recalls Moyer. "One little 5-year-old girl came up to me and said, ‘My mommy wants to work. Will you give her a job?’ She asked because her mother didn’t speak English. What did I do? I hired the mother. She turned out to be a great worker."

The administrative burden associated with hiring refugees is slight. According to Melissa Wyers, spokeswoman for the Immigration and Refugee Services of America in Washington, D.C., when hiring refugees, the only thing HR needs to see is a Social Security card. "Refugees have permanent status and a right to work. They need no special visa to work," she says. "All they need is a Social Security number."

Accommodating Change

If a company hires only a few refugees, like The Sharper Image, company policy and programs probably won’t have to change. However, when HR professionals hire a significant number of refugees, it’s inevitable that the workplace will need to accommodate the new population.

At Wells Fargo, the company has designed training programs especially for refugees. "Instead of doing group training as we might with other new hires, we do one-on-one training with the refugees. We have several different trainers so that we can teach them in English and [in] their own language," Hertel explains.

In addition, Wells Fargo has set up classes that teach U.S. banking regulations and vocabulary. "Though there are similarities in banking everywhere, there are also some differences, particularly when it comes to financial jargon," he notes.

With refugees making up half the plant population, Dee Zee had no choice but to change the way some things were done. "Although they come with some English, they don’t know ‘Dee Zee English,’" says Moyer. The company has set up an English as a Second Language (ESL) class that focuses on product names. (For more information on ESL training, see the December 1999 HR Magazine agenda "Offering English Lessons at Work.")

To encourage participation, Dee Zee offers a $250 bonus to everyone who completes the course. "So far, the class is filled to maximum capacity, and it looks as if everyone is going to complete it," Mayer notes.

And that’s not the only change Dee Zee has made. Because most of the refugees on staff are from Bosnia, the company has become bilingual. All printed materials are now written in both English and Bosnian.

In addition, Dee Zee has developed a leave of absence policy to accommodate refugees who want to visit their homelands. Moyer requires that they reserve dates in advance so they don’t overlap and leave the company short of staff.

As for the fear that refugees may not come back to work, Moyer says, "They go with their eyes open. I haven’t had a single person not return to work."

Fitting In

When refugees are first brought on board, resentment from other employees may sometimes flare up.

"I heard things like, ‘They’re taking our jobs,’ from other employees," says Moyer. "What I told them is ‘If you do your job, no one can take it. If not, anyone can.’ Then I heard complaints about how the refugees didn’t speak English. That’s when we decided to get the ESL instructor involved and start working on language skills so there wouldn’t be such a communication gap."

To further sensitize staff, Moyer found a book of essays written by children from around the world that described their cultures. She copied several that reflected her staff’s refugee population and attached copies to everyone’s paycheck.

Moyer’s approach worked. Today, three years after hiring the first two refugees, U.S.-born employees have changed their tune. "Now, they treat the refugees just like anyone else," she says.

At The Sharper Image, bringing refugees on board immediately enhanced the company’s status among employees, according to Romaine. "Our employees really appreciate that we’re thinking outside of the box and coming up with creative solutions. They think what we’re doing is a good thing and they really like the vibe," she says.

Although a tight labor market may be what sparks HR’s interest in hiring refugees, it’s ultimately the quality of work, productivity and loyalty of this employee population that has HR professionals continuing to seek out refugees.

"We feel really good about hiring refugees," says Romaine. "But we don’t do it because it’s the politically correct thing to do. We do it because it’s the right thing for our business."

Andrea C. Poe is a freelance writer based in Easton, Md., who specializes in human resource and management issues.


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