People often fear the unknown or face trepidation when engaging with people who are different. But business leaders at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2023 Inclusion conference sent a different message on Oct. 30: Hiring refugees doesn’t have to be a fear-filled DEI endeavor. Katie Brown, founder and chief education officer of language upskilling service EnGen, naturally spoke about language learning at the Savannah, Georgia, conference.
“Most native-born Americans have taken five years in Spanish and they can’t say anything,” Brown said. “Which is bad for many reasons, but one of them is because they think language class is a place where you go and you don’t learn anything.”
There is a sort of unconscious bias, Brown said — a belief that language learning is “an insurmountable obstacle.”
Expand the languages represented at work
What can employers do? Beyond championing language learning on the job, HR can create a workplace culture that is inclusive of multiple languages.
“When you have language access policies and when you have signs written in the languages that your workers are speaking, you really break down a lot of those barriers,” Brown said. “You help people understand that it’s possible — that it’s not that hard.”
Universal signage is also important, said Annie Fenton, senior director of Welcome.US, a nonprofit organization founded in 2021 to accommodate Afghani refugees arriving in the U.S.
This form of worksite communication is particularly important for ensuring health and safety, particularly in manufacturing environments; Fenton added that this is a tool for “layering” accessibility.
“If you can put something in universal signage that’s with images or pictures, and then layer with translated documents — and then layer with a bilingual speaker — those are all ways to make sure that folks can be successful and thrive in those environments,” Fenton explained.
Clear communication should be every employer’s cornerstone
During the Q&A portion, a SHRM conference attendee asked about ensuring engagement for refugee workers, especially in a remote-first work environment. Brown’s perspective was that the need for hybrid work inclusion practices is “something that transcends language barriers, and immigrant and refugee barriers.”
Her pro tip is to be “as transparent as possible about expectations,” how communication works at the company, and best practices around collaboration.
“Overcommunicating is helpful when you’re trying to build new norms that govern how everybody interacts when nobody is together,” Brown said.