How Can Refugees Benefit The Modern Workplace?

Today’s business needs are more complex than in years past, in part because we live in such a complex world. It used to be that different nations and cultures lived in geographically different areas, but in this postmodern, globalized economy reeling from the effects of climate change and geopolitical conflicts, refugee displacement has made cultural borders more relative and permeable than ever before.

This leads us to the question of how business and community leaders should approach the refugee crisis currently facing so many people who are dealing with war, violence, famine, and drought. How can we approach issues of workplace communication, emotional intelligence, and corporate social responsibility in light of our shared responsibility as civilized global citizens? We can start from a place of mutual respect, empathy, and the wisdom to recognize the benefits and assets that refugees bring to the table.

Emotional Intelligence

The concept of emotional intelligence has garnered a substantial amount of interest, as of late. Most notably, IQ tests have proven to be less effective in predicting success in the business world and office-based workplaces. Rather, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence have gotten a lot of attention as two specific types of aptitudes as coined by Howard Gardner as part of his theory of multiple intelligences. Garner defines interpersonal intelligence as “detecting and responding to others’ moods, motivations, desires,” and he defines intrapersonal intelligence as “being self-aware and attuned with values, beliefs, and thinking.”

Emotional intelligence is increasing pertinence in the modern workplace, especially when recruiting from a diverse pool of candidates who may hail from different cultures or geographic regions. Some candidates may not be native English speakers, either. In these cases, it’s especially important to pay attention to the whole person, rather than basing one’s assessment on more traditional measurement tools like IQ tests or language fluency. Instead, recent immigrants or refugees may be highly skilled at body language, conflict resolution, translation, agriculture, or other subsistence-related skills.

Total Wellness

For an example of overall wellness, the higher one’s level of emotional intelligence, the better one is able to cope with post-traumatic stress—which is extremely prevalent among many refugees, veterans, and people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. People from refugee backgrounds could assist companies by serving as a liaison between recent immigrants in need of comprehensive mental health treatment and companies in search of new talent with diverse language skills.

Of course, we must all be mentally and emotionally healthy in order to lead successful, productive lives. More than most, refugees are often coming out of highly stressful and war-torn living situations, so it’s of the utmost importance that all employees and their families have access to comprehensive mental health resources that include long-term psychotherapy, screening, treatment, and psychoactive medications—if necessary and applicable.

However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Pieter Ventevogel argues that many refugees are surprisingly resilient and, as a result, they shouldn’t be described as ‘traumatized,’ since this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s more accurate to say that refugees cope with a great deal of adversity in the form of relocation and separation from friends, family, and community members. Because this initial reintegration into society takes so much time and effort, human resource managers do a great service by recruiting recent immigrants.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Diversity in the workplace benefits not only immigrant and refugee communities but a company’s bottom line as well. According to Ohio University, a diverse workforce has many advantages, including increased problem solving, creativity, recruitment, retention, and productivity. Competencies that build diversity within organizations include communication, cultural self-awareness, knowledge of differences and culture, institutionalizing cultural knowledge, and adapting to diversity. HR managers seeking to increase diversity may consider making diversity part of the organization’s mission, involving all employees in diversity initiatives, and evaluating the current workforce and executive team.

Despite recent spates of reactionary nationalism and fear-mongering among alt-right extremists, there have been a number of companies that have come forth in support of refugees and immigrants, including executive leadership from Apple, Starbucks, and Chobani. For example, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years, worldwide. For Chobani’s founder and CEO, Hamdi Ulukaya, corporate social responsibility in the form of progressive hiring practices extends to his profit-sharing policies as well—proving that good CSR translates to good PR, as well.

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Refugees have a great deal to offer the modern workplace: empathy, emotional intelligence, dual language skills, and the ability to help make the world a more connected, global, and modern place—one company or organization at a time.

How are businesses in your network and community reaching out to recent refugees? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments section, below.


Daphne Stanford
Daphne Stanford
DAPHNE grew up near the ocean, and she loves taking pictures of the mountains and rivers in Idaho, where she now lives. She believes in the power of writing, education, and community radio to change the world. She hosts “The Poetry Show!” Sundays on Radio Boise.

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  1. This is a heavy, complex topic. I can’t add anything to the statistics or context, but I would like to see organizations give refugees a chance, if as the author points out, they want to work and they go through the interview process and earn the position. Recognize that language will be a barrier, but values and attitude are the same in any language.

  2. I am inclined to agree with Chris. Like him, I appreciate the intent and the spirit of the article. But, I do feel that reducing standards like basic language skills do little to strengthen a company. It should also be noted that hiring refugees and immigrants should be done only when those people have entered the country legally.

    Some of the recent corporate pledges, such as Starbucks made, are little more than grandstanding. And in some cases have cost the company significant customer base.

    • Thanks for reading and for your thoughts, Ken. I would respond with everything I said above, but I’d also add this question: have you ever had to flee your homeland to settle somewhere else, for safety’s sake? We all should try to have more empathy for the situations of others. What’s the easier solution? To simply force recent immigrants to remain cloistered in their communities and not have any interaction with the economy and business world of their new home? This makes no sense.

      If Starbucks is losing profits by hiring recent refugees (which I doubt), the customers who are choosing not to patronize them are the ones missing out. I’m not sure the point of this opinion other than suggesting that it’s better to discriminate against or ignore people than to hire or interact with them. This is backwards-thinking that doesn’t benefit anyone.

    • I didn’t specify Starbucks as losing profits, only that some companies that have been taking on large numbers of refugees are experiencing some pushback from their client base.

      I agree that a reasonable amount of infusion of people from other cultures is a plus. However, I still stand with Chris in saying too much too fast is detrimental, not just for companies, but for the country and its support systems. Right, or wrong, I would not hire anyone unwilling to learn our language, support our values, and adapt to our culture.

      No, I haven’t had to abandon my country to settle somewhere else. However, if I had to do that I would hope that I would be responsible enough to learn the language and find a position where my skills and talents and experience could offer value to my new employer and homeland.

  3. I like the spirit of the article. However, I’m hesitant that having refugees in the workplace will make a significant impact. From context, I’m speaking from Canada.

    The number of refugees has increased significantly since 2015. However, what is also increasing is the poor integration of refugees into Canadian society. The majority do not speak English nor French. They usually don’t have the skills either to make a major impact in Canadian companies. Further, there is a large portion of them that do not have the motivation or interest to work. That’s what the stats say up here. Despite that, I just read a newspaper article saying very similar things you’ve written in your article.

    Also, a little bit of diversity is good. But a lot of diversity can be very harmful. Companies rely on shared principles and values — often coming from the country its operating in. When you have refugees that do not integrated into society start working at companies, they will most likely not integrate with those values either.

    It sounds nice to say these things about refugees. And I understand why many are doing it. But based on the numbers I’ve seen, the studies I’ve read —

    I just can’t believe it.

    • Thanks for your comments, Chris, and for reading. I guess my first impression is that you seem to be speaking of all refugees as if they are a monolith. I can only speak to what I’ve seen, but here in Boise, Idaho, there are a number of refugees from Nigeria, Sudan, etc., who have contributed a great deal to the community and are eager to become a part of it: they have become business owners, CSA farmers, etc., and they and their children bring a great deal to the community.

      I wonder how Canadians or U.S. citizens integrate into a society, upon entering into it? It depends on the individual circumstances, right? I suppose one major difference between them is the fact that they have the option to return, since they are not faced with the prospect of being killed or starving to death, upon return to their homeland. If faced with this prospect, I imagine it would be very difficult to adjust, right away.

      Language skills take time to develop, but under the right circumstances (a welcoming environment, for one), many people naturally want to learn the language of the country where they are now living. I definitely would have a desire to learn how to speak French, for example; but it’s also quick tricky and French people speak much more quickly than in French class.

    • Thanks for the context Daphne. I was speaking from the data and statistics that were collected up here in Canada regarding refugees. I’m in London Canada. Our city has over 5,000 Syrian refugees that were transplanted here rather suddenly. Because of that, there were some issues. You don’t hear a mention of these issues in the news but you sure hear quite a bit when you hang out a McDonald’s late at night catching up on emails. Integration is one. Muslim girls that are acting too western is another. Then their is the stuff around entitlement and privilege.

      If the refugee can became of political persecution they are usually a boon for society. When they are economic refugees and they are coming is mass, the sheer volume just isn’t a good thing.

    • I disagree that it’s a numbers thing. I’m speaking objectively as one that planned and managed multi-million and multi-billion dollar initiatives that deals with a lot of process improvements and culture change.

      1. Poor processes – There was no analysis or preparation done to reinforce the existing process for refugees or their integration into Canadian society. The process was not designed to support the sudden increase in volume.

      2. Poor culture change – There was no consideration of how refugees values would integrate with Canadian values. Canadian women who where there to help with the refugees integration were seen by the refugees as being useless 2nd class citizens.

      3. Poor qualification – There was poor background checks with the refugees. 22 year old adults were classified as children, resulting in them being enrolled in high schools to develop their English.

      4. Cultural friction – There is no accurate or objective feedback loop to see how the refugees are doing. Anytime a refugee does harassment or assault on a complainant, the complainant is too afraid to come forward to report to the authorities. They don’t want to be labeled as a racist. When complainants do come forward, the authorities just say that what they went through was “Cultural friction. They don’t know how we do things here in Canada.” This was said by police, deans from schools, and court judges.

      This isn’t a complicated issue. The problems are stemming from our leader, the prime minister of Canada, who is setting direction and not relying on input from people that really know how to handle this. Leaders are suppose to step out of the way of those that know how to get things done; not corral them into doing what he feels needs to be done.

  4. Daphne, great article – thank you! Working with new people from different backgrounds help us learn to deal with change, which most people agree is an essential element of business success these days. It’s not easy, but it is important.

    • Thanks so much for reading, Carol! I’m glad you liked it! Yes, change is a constant, isn’t it?