The Welcoming Center on Engaging Immigrant Talent: Learning From a Shared Dialogue

Monday December 21, 2020

This piece originally appeared on the Welcoming Center’s website on November 25, 2020 and is cross posted here with permission. The Welcoming Center is a grantee partner of the WES Mariam Assefa Fund. 

Our world is collectively experiencing a pandemic as well as social and political upheaval, both globally and locally. This turmoil directly impacts our workplaces and requires us to reimagine how to operate, particularly as we become more digitally connected. Including immigrant hires adds a diverse perspective to our workforce, provided they have the tools they need to succeed. Immigrant workers can more fully contribute to an organization when their employer puts in place workable strategies that foster inclusivity, positivity, and humanity within their organization. To promote inclusive growth through immigrant integration, we have developed the Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative.

Through Engaging Immigrant Talent, we will provide tools for employers to adopt inclusive hiring practices and develop strategies that support immigrant success. Above all, we create opportunities for a shared dialogue among immigrant talent, employers, and service providers to exchange knowledge and experience for successful immigrant integration in the workforce.

To learn more about the current strategies in Philadelphia that promote immigrant integration, in collaboration with the Junkin Group, we conducted a series of interviews in spring 2020. We spoke to a variety of organizations about their knowledge of and experience in immigrant workforce integration. Through these interviews, we identified three groups who are key to successfully integrating immigrants into the workforce: employers, service providers, and immigrants themselves. All three are interconnected, yet each brings a variety of expertise and knowledge that they can share to promote inclusive economic growth through immigrant integration. We found that when each group is intentionally engaged to share its knowledge and expertise, immigrant integration into the workforce is successful.

We identified nine clustered themes based on the responses of participants from each group. Understanding these themes, or takeaways, allows employers, service providers, and immigrants to learn from the expertise and knowledge of other participants and develop strategies for successful immigrant integration. Here are the nine takeaways:

1. In each group, there are differences in perceived barriers to successful integration.

Employers see barriers that typically include concerns about immigrant language ability, social and political contexts impacting the ability to hire immigrants, and concern about their organization’s ability to sponsor a visa for immigrant talent. Service providers report that immigrants’ perceived barriers to their own inclusion are their English language abilities, navigating United States workplace and HR culture, and feeling as though they are held to a different standard than non-immigrant workers. Moreover, service providers have heard perceived barriers as immigrants’ misunderstanding employer expectations, encountering difficulty establishing relationships with co-workers, and underestimating their value and skills.

2. Shared understanding is key. 

Interview participants also reported misunderstandings between employers and immigrant employees about what specific terms mean within the workplace. Across all interviews, we found seven definitions of the term “immigrant” alone. To promote immigrant integration in the workplace, employers and immigrant employees must have a shared understanding of the meaning of terms.

3. Need ideas to support immigrant integration? Look to service providers. 

Service providers have suggestions for immigrants to support their integration into the U.S. workforce. Their experience serving immigrants has shown them that newcomers who successfully integrate into the workplace have supportive, quality co-worker relationships; feel that they can adequately communicate with HR and their boss; have external networks of support; understand how to use professional networking to further their career development; and believe that their home culture work experiences are valuable in the U.S. workforce.

4. Everyone has a role in supporting cultural competence. 

Employers who fail to actively value cultural competence fail to integrate immigrants into their workforce. However, cultural competence is not just for employers. Immigrants can struggle to integrate into the U.S. workforce if they do not embrace cultural adaptation. Fortunately, service providers can address these issues by bridging the gap between employers and immigrants.

5. Employers succeed with a defined understanding of diversity and inclusion. 

Through our interview sessions, we found that employers who possessed a defined understanding of diversity and inclusion appear to lead in successful integration and cultural competence. Those without a working understanding of these terms may exclude immigrants from the workforce. Employers who possess a working definition of “diversity” and “inclusion,” at the very least, seem to successfully integrate immigrants into the workforce. Often, non-immigrant employees need assistance as well. Employers that recognize the multifaceted nature of integration are intentional about supporting the integration of non-immigrant and immigrant employees into the workforce.

6. Cultural competence among co-workers can address workplace discrimination. 

Our findings suggest that the cultural competence of co-workers appears to provide solutions to perceived discrimination in the workplace. According to the service providers we interviewed, immigrants have identified their co-workers as a major contribution to their successful workforce integration.

7. Immigrant integration is multilayered. 

Immigrant integration does not stop at simply onboarding an immigrant into the workplace, according to employers who have successfully integrated immigrant employees. For them, integration means understanding what their immigrant employees need to navigate their community, personally and professionally. According to employers, this could mean finding a home or learning about personal banking.

8. COVID-19 recovery plans may impact current thinking around immigrant integration. 

As organizations consider how to continue or begin the process of immigrant integration, they will need to take the COVID-19 pandemic into account. Many businesses have their staff working remotely and remain concerned about the safety of their employees. Unfortunately, many employers have been forced to reduce their staff because of the pandemic. There are many unknowns; however, being mindful of the impact of COVID-19 and immigrant integration will help organizations develop a meaningful integration plan.

9. The Black Lives Matter movement will change diversity and inclusion efforts for the better.

At the Welcoming Center, we believe diversity and inclusion are fundamental tools in the fight for equity and justice. More broadly, organizations recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement will positively impact the way they understand, discuss, and incorporate diversity and inclusion into their HR plan for immigrant and non-immigrant employees. You can read the Welcoming Center’s blog post on the importance of inclusive, proactive talent strategies for equitable economic recovery here.

Although we interviewed a wide range of employers, service providers, and immigrants, we found that they were united in their commitment to inclusiveness and integration. When all three groups are engaged to contribute their expertise, they can promote successful immigrant integration in the workforce through positivity, inclusiveness, and humanity.

Given the information learned from spring 2020, we are engaging employers, service providers, and immigrants in identifying and implementing best practices for workplace integration. These roundtable discussions began in October 2020 and will continue through January 2021. The roundtable discussions focus on articulating shared definitions of terms; imagining how to implement inclusive practices; exploring how accountability, responsibility, and opportunity support integration; and identifying best practices.  Our goal is to identify areas of reciprocal support through which immigrant talent, employers, and service providers can fully benefit from a partnership to successfully integrate immigrants into the workforce.

This piece was the first in the Welcoming Center’s Engaging Immigrant Talent blog series. Want to stay in touch and get more involved with the Welcoming Center or the Engaging Immigrant Talent initiative? Please contact Rochelle T. Cooks, Director of Employer Engagement at (215) 825-7767 or [email protected]. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).

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