Cultural Chameleon BLOG

Managing refugees in the workplace
Posted by admin on 3rd August 2016

As the election approaches, the popular vote-catching topic of stopping the leaky boats full of asylum seekers hits the headlines. Each side of the political spectrum puts their case for how to stop/control the onslaught of masses heading for our shores. Only a small amount of research will enlighten anyone who cares to check the details that this is in fact far from reality. According to the leading immigration research and author Professor Graeme Hugo, of the 7 million permanent immigrants that have come to Australia since the end of the Second World War only 700,000 are refugees (Castles, Hugo et al. 2013 p.115) Moreover, this small minority has in many cases made a strong contribution to the Australian work force and economy (Castles, Hugo et al. 2013 p.118).

In contrast to the overwhelming media focus dedicated to which refugees should be allowed to enter Australia and how they should or should not arrive, little known coverage is given to their journey once legal residence is granted. Once Australian residence is gained we may incorrectly assume that the refugee’s struggles are over and that they now embark on a life of privilege. Nothing could be further from the truth. Catherine Francetich from the Y foundation told me during a recent conversation that Refugees are 10 times more likely to find themselves homeless compared with the Australian population as a whole (Francetich 2013). Furthermore, according to Hugo (2012)many refugees arriving in Australia are younger than other immigrants and 25% of them have no family. Add to the equation that these young traumatized individuals often experience a language barrier it is not hard to imagine why they struggle to find a foot hold in the Australian workforce.  If they do find employment it will often be unskilled and therefore of a low income (Hugo 2012).

Of all the adversities refugee immigrants in Australia face, one that receives little attention is how Australian management style has the potential to further alienate these individuals. Australian managers often choose to empower individuals by welcoming feedback and employee opinion  (Phatak, Bhagat et al. 2009 pp.121-124). Moreover, Australian employers will often reward individual staff for high achievement and exceeding expectations. Furthermore, as pointed out by Susan Cain, “Western and in particular the U.S., have always favored the man of action over the man of contemplation” (Cain 2012) as she discussed how  extroversion is seen as preferred behaviour over introversion.  Many refugees originate from parts of the world where employers exhibit far greater degrees of control over their staff. In view of this, people from these cultures expect a far greater degree of direct instructions and would not wish to be left to their own devises for fear of making a mistake and losing their job (Phatak, Bhagat et al. 2009 pp. 408-410). Moreover, the importance of the individual is very much secondary to the importance of the group or team and values such as listening and being respectful and quiet especially to those in senior positions are seen as highly desirable behaviours. (Rapee, Kim et al. 2011 p.2).

There is of course the case for cultural relativism which states ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ or in this case ‘when in Australia do as the Australians do.’ For those immigrants such as myself who consciously made the decision to make Australia home, lured by the image of a superior lifestyle and amazing scenery and beaches, I believe adapting to Australian cultural is an important ingredient. In these circumstances I also believe the onus should be on the individual to change to Australian management behaviors. However, it is vital to consider the very different context that surrounds the arrival of young refugees. Their decision to flee to Australia is based on survival and seeking basic needs such as food and shelter. It’s important to remember that, as I have already mentioned, for many the need for shelter may still not be met even after the refugee’s legal entry to Australia is granted. When managers recruit refugee newcomers to Australia they may also wish to consider making simple adjustments to their management style. Examples of these changes include giving the new recruit a little more guidance and focusing on team incentives. Managers who choose to adapt could find the rewards far outweigh the small amount of effort needed. Such small changes can form the stepping stones to a significant ‘win win’ result. For the refugee this can mean a move to a new career path leading them away from a life-time of low-income bracket wages (Hugo 2012), For the employer there is the obvious benefits  of having greater engagement from their staff. Furthermore, research from Mckinsey’s has shown that companies who employ highly culturally diverse staff often financially outperform those companies whose staff are predominantly from the same background (Barta, Kleiner et al. 2012). Finally it is important to remember that refugees are prone to be younger than other immigrants and are also likely to spend their entire lives in Australia, as stated by Graeme Hugo,  this in turn “offsetting the effects of the ageing workforce” (Hugo 2012), hence the greater the success of the young refugees the greater the benefit to Australia as a nation.

Sally Anne will be speaking at the ‘Investing in Youth Employment conference this September. for more details visit their site.

Barta, T., et al. (2012). “Is there a payoff from top-team diversity.” Retrieved 17 July 2013, 2013

Cain, S. (2012). The power of introverts. United States 19 mins.

Castles, S., et al. (2013). “Rethinking Migration and Diversity in Australia: Introduction.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 34(2): 115-121.

Francetich, C. (2013). S. A. Gaunt.

Hugo, G. (2012). ” The economic contribution of refugees – an Australian case study.” SACOSS News(Spring): 10.

Phatak, A. V., et al. (2009). International Management Managing in a Diverse and Dynamic Global Environment New York McGraw-Hill Irwan

Rapee, R. M., et al. (2011). “Perceived Impact of Socially Anxious Behaviors on Individuals’ Lives in Western and East Asian Countries.” Behavior Therapy 42(3): 485-492.

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