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Investing in Refugees

By Maya Babla Appiah ’07
Maya Babla Appiah ’07 explains the financial benefits of hiring refugee employees.
I come from a long line of immigrants. My great-grandfather immigrated from India to Tanzania in pursuit of greater economic opportunity. My parents immigrated to the United States from Tanzania seeking that same goal. The United States once had a proud tradition of welcoming and integrating newcomers, and gratefully, my family were beneficiaries, privileged to make the choice to move to a new country. By contrast, today there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, including more than 25 million refugees and three million asylum seekers, according to the UN Refugee Agency. Yet the U.S. admits the lowest number of refugees that it has in more than four decades.

But let’s not talk politics. If there’s one thing that might trump values in America, it’s money. Let’s talk about the dollars and cents of investing in refugees.
Refugees are a great investment, with a 100 percent return rate. Investing one dollar in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two dollars in economic benefits within five years, according to a 2016 report from the Tent Partnership for Refugees.
Still not convinced? Perhaps the best illustration of the economic impact of refugees comes in the form of prominent founders. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was a child refugee from the Soviet Union. WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin were refugees from Ukraine. These companies have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in their host country and around the world. How’s that for ROI?
The Talent Advantage
At a more micro level, employers who have invested in hiring refugees report greater retention and a robust referrals pipeline.
A Fiscal Policy Institute study found that refugee employee turnover rates were 7 to 15 percentage points lower than the average—an impact on a company’s bottom line that cannot be ignored. When calculated at a $13 per hour wage rate (appropriate for the employers surveyed), that means a savings of $5,200 per year, per worker who doesn’t have to be replaced. In addition, there are savings in recruiting costs associated with constantly hiring to replace workers.
In the talent acquisition space, referrals represent a recruitment advantage, saving employers time and money that would have been spent searching for additional qualified talent. Here, too, the upfront investment in hiring refugees pays big dividends.
An employer may need to tailor their onboarding program to set their refugee employees up for success, for example, by providing language-specific training. But once they have fine-tuned that model, they are likely to find their employees are encouraging other members of their diaspora communities to apply for similar roles. When they make these referral hires, the employer is readily able to scale and replicate an inclusive onboarding experience.
It’s no wonder, then, that companies like Starbucks and Chobani have doubled down on their efforts to employ refugees. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s not all charity.
Closing the Skills Gap
The other business problem leaders face today is the skills gap, or the gap between the supply and demand of a specific skill in a particular labor market at a point in time. While very pressing skills gaps exist today, there are many misconceptions; employers are not always accessing the total addressable market.
For example, 45 percent of recently arrived immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree, yet nearly 2 million college-educated immigrants and refugees are unemployed or underemployed, according to data from Upwardly Global. This represents a massive pool of untapped talent. Consider the Uber driver living in Seattle or San Francisco who has a master’s degree in computer science. That person is grossly underemployed, neither meeting their full earning potential nor contributing as much as they could to the economy.
So what’s happening here? There are several barriers to entry for newcomers to the United States, but one stands out to me as the most significant. When refugees leave their homes, they leave their careers and professional networks behind. In the U.S., most white-collar jobs are found through networking. No matter how skilled you are, if you are not accustomed to the local job search process and you don’t know someone who can vouch for you or help you navigate a company’s hiring process, you’re excluded from the possibility of rebuilding your career.
Employers also have a responsibility to be inclusive in their hiring practices. This work isn’t just the job of human resources or recruiters—it’s everyone’s responsibility because we all contribute to the culture of our workplaces.

The following are some inclusion strategies to consider— whether you are interested in hiring refugees or just making your company a better place to work:
1. Talk the talk. Your company’s brand is reflected far before a candidate is invited to interview. The language in a job description can have a direct bearing on the types of applicants you attract. For example, phrases such as “rockstar coding skills” or “sales ninja” may be a turnoff (or just plain confusing) to those for whom English is a second language.
2. Language matters. Consider an interview scenario in which a candidate is indirect about their past achievements, preferring to use language like “we” or “my team.” In some cultures, this type of language is preferred and is considered to be more polite and appropriate, in contrast to an American cultural preference toward “I” statements and individual accomplishments. Ask yourself: Are you evaluating a candidate’s ability to do the job, or how they present themselves culturally? Communication styles may vary; this is not always equivalent to poor communication skills.
3. Break out. It’s easy to fall into the same pattern of hiring those who are in your immediate or second-degree networks. If those networks are homogenous, your workplace may reflect that too. To breakout, top companies have partnered with organizations such as Upwardly Global, which pairs employees with immigrant and refugee job seekers for informational interviews, mock interviews and speed networking events. In the process, employees connect personally with diverse talent, and these immigrant and refugee job seekers begin rebuilding their professional networks.
Perhaps I have a unique vantage point—as a corporate talent professional, a nonprofit champion and a public advocate for refugees and immigrants—but the business case for hiring refugees seems quite lucrative from my perspective. We have an opportunity to strengthen our companies by unlocking the tremendous potential value associated with a diverse workforce. We have an opportunity to combat some of the immense talent shortages we face and desperately need to address to stay competitive as a country. Hiring refugees?

That sounds pretty American to me.

Maya Babla Appiah ’07 is a senior program manager within Microsoft’s Global Talent Acquisition team, where she develops strategies to recruit talent from around the world. Previously, Appiah worked at LinkedIn, where she consulted with Fortune 500 companies on their hiring strategies and supported LinkedIn’s refugee program, Welcome Talent, as a volunteer. She co-chairs the City of Seattle’s Immigrant and Refugee Commission and is on the Leadership Council for Upwardly Global, a national nonprofit that supports immigrants and refugees to rebuild their professional careers in the United States.

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