How to hire for resilience in refugee and immigrant job candidates

This critical workplace trait is essential to growth and protects against burnout—and is extremely common to newcomers to this country

Zinah AlTaie was a young HR professional in Baghdad when the war destroyed the life she was just starting to build. She and her family fled their home and spent the next 10 years as refugees in Jordan and Oman. With every move, AlTaie remained focused on the future, obtaining a master’s degree in business administration and working her way up to the position of HR manager at a global logistics company—the only female manager in her department. 

Eventually, AlTaie and her family were permanently resettled in the U.S. Here, however, she found that employers did not recognize her international experience. Undeterred, she worked to develop her professional network and build her confidence. When she sat in front of the hiring manager for an HR role at a Dallas-based company, AlTaie said, “If you hire me, I will never let you down.”

AlTaie’s resilience is typical among refugees. After eight years spent coaching immigrants and refugees as they rebuild their lives and careers in the U.S., I’ve observed this mental toughness and adaptability as a common, indispensable trait in newcomers. These are men and women who have picked up and moved to a new country—sometimes fleeing dangerous circumstances and overcoming tremendous obstacles—and are committed to persevering and rebuilding their lives, often supporting other family members as well. 

Resilience is not only a critical life skill, it’s also an incredibly valuable career skill that employers should look for as they build their teams. 

Resilience in the workplace is essential to growth, managing stress, and avoiding burnout. A resilient team member is not someone who has never failed or faced setbacks but rather someone who has proven their ability to grow and learn through challenges. 

A resilient employee is also likely to be a loyal one. They remain optimistic and inspired through periods of reorganization and transition, and they have an ability to uplift and energize those around them. A report from the Tent Partnership for Refugees and the Fiscal Policy Institute confirms that employers who hire refugees experience positive outcomes—73 percent of surveyed employers reported a lower turnover rate for refugee employees than other employees as well a wider pool of talent and the development of more versatile managers. 

U.S. employers have the opportunity to benefit from the unique abilities and experiences newcomers bring. But a resilient mindset is not a skill you’re likely to find listed on a résumé, and a standard set of interview questions may not reveal a candidate’s true capabilities in this area. To hire for resilience, you have to dig a little deeper into the job seeker’s story. 

Include behavioral questions in the interview. Explore how the candidate approaches challenges. Ask for specific examples like: “Tell me about a time when you persisted when others around you were giving up” or “How did you handle a difficult situation at work, and what did you learn from this experience?” Then listen closely to their responses. Is the candidate overly critical of others? Do they frequently cast themselves as the victim? A resilient individual takes responsibility and will demonstrate how they grew from challenges.

Take the time to learn more about a candidate’s story. Our personal experiences inform who we are as professionals, and what we bring to a team. When interviewing, make an effort to learn more about the whole person and the unique perspectives and experiences that have shaped them. Immigrants or refugees, in particular, will have résumés and educational backgrounds that look different from other candidates. A foreign degree or an international employer should not be viewed as a negative but rather an opening to better understand the job seeker’s unique experiences and the obstacles they may have overcome to get here. Questions about their university and international experience are safe. The candidate will choose how much of their personal story to share—but showing interest can open the door.  

Cast your recruitment net wider. To ensure you’re reaching candidates with diverse backgrounds who bring flexibility and resilience to the table, proactively expand your candidate pool. Include an option for foreign degrees and job locations outside the U.S. on job applications. Connect with sources of nontraditional talent, such as organizations that help newcomers integrate into the professional workforce.

Today, AlTaie, who has forged a successful HR career in the U.S., shares the personal belief that kept her going through difficult times: “Your current situation is not your future measurement. Be confident, have hope, and never give up.”

Not only did she persevere but employers took a chance on her—and everyone benefitted. Newcomers bring a wealth of skills and experience, both professional and personal. Understanding where they’ve been and what they are capable of will create a stronger, more resilient workforce that powers all of us forward.  

Emmanuel Imah is the National Employer Partnerships Manager at Upwardly Global, the first and longest-serving organization that focuses on helping foreign-trained immigrants and refugees integrate into the professional American workforce.

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