Although well-intended, sometimes employers can unintentionally undermine the agency of refugee employees by victimizing them.
Over five million Ukrainians have fled their country, and more than 68,000 have made it to Canada. If they haven’t already, most will begin seeking employment in their new countries soon. In the face of this, it’s important that employers are ready to hire refugees in a way that benefits everyone.
Our research sheds light on the experiences of newly hired refugees and offers best practices for employers. Based on the experiences of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran from 28 German companies, we discovered the best ways employers can integrate refugee employees into the workplace.
Our findings reveal that some refugee employees are unintentionally marginalized when their employers offer too much support. This happens because the employers see themselves as humanitarians and their refugee employees as victims — not as fully autonomous human beings.
One Syrian refugee employee told us how he felt about his boss: “She wants to control everything in my life. I can’t stand it any longer. If I had known that before, I would have never started the job.”
Although well-intended, sometimes employers can unintentionally undermine the agency of refugee employees. Because refugees already experience many challenges while seeking employment, managers should avoid adding more barriers while possible.
Ukrainian refugees board a plane before flying to Canada, from Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland in July 2022.
We found that refugees’ experience in the workplace depended on how managers viewed and understood them, producing three distinct types of employers: humanitarian, lecturer and pragmatist managers.
Humanitarian managers portrayed refugees as helpless victims and focused on their vulnerabilities. Employers adopting this lens focused too much on preventing refugees from failing, including inappropriately intervening in their private family or financial issues instead of building their relevant capabilities.
For example, one employer admitted he had hired refugees based on his Christian principles, but later realized at least one didn’t have the right skills for his job. “I can only deploy him for unskilled labour.”
While the humanitarian approach can be helpful for recognizing refugee employees’ specific needs compared to non-refugee employees, it is problematic because it downplays the ability of refugee employees to control their own lives.
The second category of manager was lecturer managers. The primary goal of these managers was to reduce the risk of refugees becoming a societal burden.
Lecturer managers would police refugees’ behaviours to ensure they were compliant with local cultural norms. One executive described how he would force his refugee and domestic employees to spend time together during breaks because he thought it was best for all of them.
The overreaching support offered by both humanitarians and lecturers often made refugee employees feel patronized and undervalued by undermining their self-reliance and autonomy.
Some refugee employees ended up wanting to leave their jobs because of lecturer managers. One employee described his experience: “The organization is everywhere in my life. I feel like I am caught in a box.”
Further, many humanitarian and lecturer managers felt let down when their extraordinary efforts weren’t adequately recognized by those they were trying to help.
The third category of manager — pragmatist managers — struck a balance between viewing refugee employees as victims and valuing their strong work motivation and the skills and knowledge they developed in their home countries. This approach was most likely to result in positive outcomes for both the refugees and their workplaces.
Managers in this category helped refugee employees develop their careers by offering targeted support for work-relevant issues, such as reducing language barriers, educational and knowledge gaps.
The refugee employees we interviewed strongly preferred working with pragmatists. For instance, one Syrian refugee in Germany stated:
“I am so grateful. I was worried about my future here in Germany. I lost the belief in my abilities. She [supervisor] achieved that my belief in my abilities is back. She was always saying to me: ‘You can achieve it! You need to try. Believe in your abilities!’”
A Ukrainian refugee prepares a coffee at a shop where she works in Prague, Czech Republic, in July 2022. Many refugees are still struggling to find jobs in their host countries.
Strategies for successful hiring
We recommend four actions employers can take to support refugee employees without victimizing them and allowing them to control their own lives.
Avoid seeing refugees only as victims. Employers should value refugees’ talents while also recognizing when to show empathy and compassion. For example, pragmatist employers were generous when offering tools or training to build refugee employees’ capacity at work.
Be sensitive to refugees’ individual needs. Not all refugees have the same needs, and they are not defined entirely by their status as refugees. One employee may benefit from language training, while another may be ready for leadership training. A one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be successful.
Recognize refugees’ agency over their own life decisions. People who are forced to seek asylum lose control over their lives, and most try to regain it as soon as they can. Employers’ efforts should be directed towards career development initiatives, rather than trying to solve all problems on behalf of their refugee employees. Employers are free to offer support to their employees, but they must allow them to decline any support they don’t want. Employers must trust refugees to know what is best for themselves.
Be selective while hiring. Employers should fill open positions with refugees who have the skills and expertise required for the job, or the potential to develop them. Our study found that some employers, motivated by altruism, offered refugees jobs despite being unqualified, resulting in bad outcomes for everyone.
Ultimately, no matter how educated or skilled refugees are, they face unique challenges in their workplace integration. When done right, managers can play a key role in helping refugee employees thrive in their new workplaces, instead of robbing them of their autonomy.
Robin Pesch receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Ebru Ipek receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Stacey Fitzsimmons receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).