“We Can Learn From One Another”: How Supporting Refugees Makes Australia’s Business Culture Better

“We Can Learn From One Another”: How Supporting Refugees Makes Australia’s Business Culture Better
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In acknowledgment of World Refugee Day and World Refugee Week, B&T is exploring how businesses can better support potential and current employees from a refugee background.

Inclusion and diversity in the workplace has become a growing point of concern for businesses in recent years, and the questions of how best to support employees from diverse backgrounds are slowly being answered.

Business are now also beginning to grapple with a hiring process that is often optimised for those who already hold significant societal privilege

As we are learning – and likely should have learned a long time ago – inclusion in the workplace is essential for any business to thrive.

Making sure hiring practises are inclusive of refugees and asylum seekers is just one element of that puzzle, but ultimately, an essential one.

Dr Betina Szkudlarek is an Associate Professor in Management at The University of Sydney Business School, and a Strategic Sustainability and Growth Consultant for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC).

Dr Szkudlarek focuses on cross-cultural management and management of diversity. She reflected that “on  a very, very high level, it’s really about creating a well functioning, diverse and inclusive workplace.”

“On one hand, I think it’s not just about encouraging diversity, because we increasingly – especially in Australia – see a lot of it. But it’s more about really creating an environment in which those diverse people and their perspectives are encouraged and in some way included and valued within the organization.”

She believes that making workplaces more accessible starts with recruitment.

“If you think about refugees, they haven’t really relocated to Australia because they were searching for job opportunities,” Dr Szkudlarek explained.

“Most of them lost everything in their lives. They lost houses, they possibly lost any evidence of their education or previous employment, there is no access that they could have to reference checks and referees.”

“Because they [never planned] for finding employment in Australia, it’s much more difficult for them to enter through the traditional processes.  Some organizations that we know are really structuring separate processes for refugees, so that they actually get a chance to be even considered seeing the circumstances of the relocation. What other organizations [could] be doing is providing brief training to employees of how to work with refugees.”

One of the organisations providing those opportunities is CareerSeekers, who supports both mid-career and university age refugees, or people with refugee background, in finding work.

CareerSeekers work with a number of brands to provide 12 week internships for mid-career refugees. In fact, 83 per cent of those who take part in the internship program are offered professional work after it is completed.

For university students, CareerSeekers provide those studying full-time at university with paid internship opportunities.

Lynn Anderson is the general manager of CareerSeekers. The 12 week internship program, she explained, was essential for people “without local relevant work experience and professional networks”.

“The evidence is in that paid internships help individuals to overcome these barriers, but too often some segments of our community are excluded from these kinds of opportunities,” she said.

“Refugees who are starting a new life are one of these segments.  The internship program model used by CareerSeekers is based on the success of similar programs around the world supporting other underserved minority groups who aspire to professional careers – INROADS in USA, Tupu Toa in New Zealand and our sister organisation CareerTrackers here in Australia.”

The internship programs allow those who are new to Australia, without the documentation traditionally expected when applying for jobs, to access the professional world.

“Employment is key to enabling refugees and their families to settle effectively,” Anderson added.

“Many organisations are eager to play their part, but don’t know where to start.  We are specialists and offer a structured program that makes it easy and sets everyone – employer and employee – up for success.  A 12 week internship is a low-risk proposition for employers while providing the opportunity to reap the benefits of tapping into this pool of motivated, skilled and resilient professional talent.”

CareerSeekers’ internship program has given work opportunities to a number of refugees, including Chantal Mousad, a senior manager in Westpac’s business controls and monitoring digital division.

Mousad completed a Bachelor of Economics and a Masters of Banking and Insurance at Damascus University in her birth country, Syria.

After the Syrian war began, she moved to northern Iraq with her then-husband and young daughter, where she rose to the rank of chief risk officer at RT Bank. After splitting from her husband, she applied for refugee status in Australia but, in the process, relinquished her legal papers, money and jewellery.

When she first arrived in Australia, she was settled south of Brisbane.

“It was very hard to find work – anything,” she reflected.

“I was the chief risk officer overseas in the Middle East. And I was thinking, I will not find the chief risk officer in the financial sector in Australia, but a junior analyst, anything, I will be happy.”

To support her daughter through childcare, she worked any job she could, ranging from grocery stores and convenience stores to cleaning and cooking.

She sought work not just because of her daughter, though. Mousad wanted a career again.

“Even if the government gave me 100 per cent child care [support], [it was] for myself that I wanted to work,” she explained.

“I have to keep my brain working, keep learning and get back on track, because my goal back as a chief risk officer was to be CEO.”

Despite having a safety net of friends in Queensland, when CareerSeekers offered her an internship place in Sydney, she took it.

“I packed everything and moved to Sydney. I struggled, because I don’t have references, I had to enroll my daughter in childcare again, find a place to myself.”

The week-long work readiness training that is core to the CareerSeekers program was instrumental to her understanding of the Australian business world. For example, she explained, the openness of Australian office culture, particularly with senior staff, was new.

The CareerSeekers training also covered things like negotiation with stakeholders and colleagues.

CareerSeekers then secured Mousad an interview with Commonwealth Bank’s digital risk department, something she describes as one of her “best moments”. After the interview, she was offered a 12 week internship.

“I was working super hard at the time, just be across everything. In business, it’s totally different from overseas: how they work, the processes and procedures, the cycle of the work, escalating…I was working double hours just to cover everything, and I was looking to secure a permanent contract for myself.”

“My first day at CBA was amazing,” she said.

“I wasn’t feeling too comfortable. [But] how the people looked at me, how they dealt with me, how they said hi to me…it was one of my best days in Australia. They were very welcoming.”

By the end of her internship, she had been offered a permanent contract as an analyst in their digital risk department. As a contracted employee, she cited “great leaders [and] great managers,” who appreciated her extensive experience due to her former role as a chief risk officer.

“Risk is risk everywhere around the world.”

After a year, she secured another role at CBA as a manager in their wealth management department.

“I faced a lot of people, diverse people. They believe in diversity, which is very important. They believe in how they can invest in new people and new cultures – people from different backgrounds – to bring new ideas to their division or their department.”

Earlier this year, she began her new role at Westpac.

Because of her experience, Mousad has reflections for business looking to employ more inclusive hiring practises.

When hiring refugees, it is important to “give them a chance to be creative, give them a chance to speak up. Like any employee, listen to them, listen to their experience. Asking [things like], “how would you resolve this in your previous business?” Always give people a chance to talk about their previous achievements. We can learn from one another.”

She was also highly supportive of the internship program, allowing people to settle into the business over the course of a number of weeks.

One of the things she believes could help support a number of diverse people in employment is businesses having a less intensive focus on resumes, cover letters, and CVs, and instead focusing on people.

She reflected that people she knew from refugee backgrounds had changed their names because they were being rejected from roles they were qualified for. Many who struggled to get through to the interview process found that after they changed their names on their resumes, they were more likely to be accepted into interviews.

Dr Szkudlarek had similar reflections about supporting refugees in the workplace.

It is critical, she said, “to provide enough opportunities for refugees to flourish and to grow within the organization. Many of them won’t have any professional networks locally, and we know how important social professional networks are in Australia.”

“So I think mentoring – formal and informal –  is especially critical for refugees who do not have that social capital that we take for granted.”

Featured Image: iStock/miakievy

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