A seasoned operations pro who was seeking asylum from Uzbekistan recently came to my office feeling frustrated. She had arrived in the U.S. with 10 years of operations experience, fluency in four languages, and a degree from a top-notch university in her country. She also had her work permit. But after sending scores of résumés to potential employers, her job search had stalled. To support herself and her young daughter, she was driving a taxi.
Her experience paints a disheartening but realistic picture of the challenges that foreign-born professionals face in rebuilding careers in the United States. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that diverse teams are nimbler and more creative, and improve an organization’s bottom line. Yet in 10 years of experience coaching immigrant, refugee, and asylee professionals, I consistently see the biggest obstacles to their success are HR screening processes built on old paradigms. For many hiring managers, a cursory look at their résumés reveals nothing but a foreign-sounding name, an unfamiliar university, and—in many cases—a current “survival” job unrelated to their professional experience.
My team helped the operations candidate: We updated her résumé, did mock interviews, and coordinated introductions to employers who valued diversity. She landed a job as an interpreter, and, with her extensive management experience, was quickly promoted to operations manager—the CEO’s next-in-command.
This asylee’s story is ultimately an example of what can happen when newcomers get the support and opportunity to shift the narrative. Employers eager to embrace talented immigrant and refugee professionals in their workforces should rethink diversity hiring with a few important—if subtle—changes to their hiring practices.
A gap in a professional résumé shouldn’t be a deal breaker
Newcomers to the U.S. may have significant gaps in their résumés due to relocation and the challenges of integrating into a workforce where they have few—if any—connections. Refugees, in particular, may have spent months or years in temporary living situations, moving between countries before finding a permanent home in the U.S. Degrees and credentials are frequently lost in transit.
Highly qualified immigrants and refugees are often screened out early in the hiring process due to this common red flag. But consider the circumstances: For a newcomer to the U.S., a gap in employment may indicate that the candidate is unusually resilient and resourceful, committed to finding a job where they can contribute at their full potential.
One woman I coached through her job search—a highly accomplished finance professional from Colombia—was told by a recruiter that “most immigrants clean bathrooms, wash floors, and do dishes,” and he was doing her a favor by offering a job barely above minimum wage.
The job seeker turned down the position, believing there was a better opportunity out there for her. Her patience and hard work paid off when an employer recognized her background and experience as an asset, despite the gap in her employment. She was hired for her dream job, working for a multinational energy company as an analyst.
Life experiences drive professional success
Several years ago I was conducting a practice interview with a logistics professional from Iraq. I asked him to describe a challenge he had overcome in a previous job. He paused for a moment and then described his work in navigating a delivery through a route rife with bombs and land mines without putting his staff at risk. He proudly declared that the delivery arrived on time, with no casualties. In my work with immigrants and refugees, I’ve heard any number of incredible stories, but this example stopped me in my tracks.
Interviewers may be hard-pressed to understand how professional challenges so far outside our day-to-day experience can translate to a U.S. workplace. But the unique circumstances that immigrants and refugees have faced demonstrate—above all else—perseverance and a strong desire to succeed. Adaptability is an asset in any workplace, and unique life experiences should be recognized for the value they bring.
Look outside your network for your next hire
While companies embrace the idea of diversity and inclusion, recruiters too often return to the same hiring well or rely on internal referrals and familiar universities, missing opportunities to reach newcomers and candidates with global backgrounds. Instead, companies can expand their networks through volunteer events that pair employees with immigrant and refugee job seekers, or by connecting with organizations that help newcomers access and integrate into the professional workforce.
I recently connected with a broadcast producer and editor from Nepal. A new arrival to the U.S., he was making ends meet by working at a doughnut shop. As his foreign credentials and current job weren’t opening many doors, he registered for a mock interview and networking event. He sat down across a table from the chief engineer of a broadcast department at a top-ranked consulting firm—a conversation that led to a formal interview, and ultimately a rewarding job as a broadcast event producer.
Diversity hiring needs to encompass a wide range of backgrounds, skills, and experiences. Making the effort to reach this deep, untapped talent pool of new Americans will drive innovation and create a workforce that truly reflects our globalized world.
Mary Voelbel Lee is a program director at Upwardly Global, the first and longest-serving organization that focuses on helping foreign-trained immigrants and refugees integrate into the professional American workforce.
WeWork is committed to the economic empowerment of refugees in our communities through the Refugee Initiative. Learn more about our efforts at we.co/refugees.
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