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HR’s role in refugee integration

With large numbers of refugees expected HR should lead on integrating them at an organisational level


HR can be the key enabler of refugee integration at an organisational level and should therefore act as a strategic partner with senior management to achieve this. Our goal is to identify the opportunities of the current situation, while not neglecting the risks. Taking Germany as a case study of a country receiving a particularly high number of refugees, we discuss necessary conditions for successful integration into labour markets, and specific recommendations for HR on how to harness this potential at an organisational level.

What’s new?

The number of people displaced by conflict is at the highest level ever recorded. According to UN refugee agency estimates 65.3 million people were either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced at the end of 2015, an increase of 5 million in a year. This represents one in every 113 people on the planet.

With an influx of 890,000 refugees in 2015 and an additional 290,000 by the end of September 2016, refugee migration to Germany has reached the highest level since World War 2. With the root causes remaining unresolved and many refugees still on their way, this trend is likely to continue. Recent data suggests the majority of refugees will file an asylum request, and the majority will be granted protection. In short, most refugees will stay permanently.

The task of integrating a large number of people into the labour market is politically and culturally challenging. In principle, however, it is nothing new; Germany has faced similar challenges in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s around 2.6 million people came as part of the Gastarbeiter (guest worker) programme, amounting to 12% of all waged workers by 1973.

Or take the 1990 influx of around 400,000 ethnic Germans who had left the Soviet Union – at a time when around 16 million East Germans had to be integrated into the economic and political system of West Germany. Today more than one in five Germans has a migrant background.

The status quo: Current refugee situation

For the steadily ageing populations of many Western countries, such as the UK and Germany, large scale immigration provides positive demographic effects. Without it public welfare systems are unsustainable. Immigration can serve as a much-needed rejuvenating cure to countervail demographic change and the resultant shortage of skilled labour.

Around 80% of refugees are younger than 35, 60% are younger than 24. A recent Federal Office for Migration and Refugees survey also found that the majority of adult refugees and asylum seekers (58%) have spent at least 10 years at school, at university, or in apprenticeship programmes; 13% hold university degrees and 6% hold vocational qualifications.

Even if only some refugees are readily employable when they arrive, there is enormous potential. Those who come to Europe under life-threatening conditions are unlikely to be merely welfare tourists. McKinsey estimates that the 1.3 million refugees who are likely to be accepted as asylum seekers in Europe will contribute 50 to 60 billion pounds sterling to the annual gross domestic product (GDP) from 2025 onwards, provided that the necessary training investments are made (see boxout, previous page).

As soon as refugees find employment or are being trained their chances for integration at a broader level will benefit significantly. In the workplace migrants have to rub along with locals and learn their customs, and vice versa.

From research to reality

For many European countries unsuccessful integration of refugees could have adverse consequences. Refugees face the risk of isolation, unemployment, and poverty, while destination countries might experience strained welfare systems and segregated societies.

Europe is committed to carrying out its obligations under international law to offer safe haven and resources to refugees, and many Europeans have not hesitated to help people in desperate circumstances. But the political debate continues to swirl, in part because the refugees arrived as many European countries were struggling to shake off years of recession and austerity.

Even though the UK presently faces lower numbers of refugees than Germany, migration has always been part of the country’s DNA and will play a vital role in the years to come. There are long-term societal realities and economic necessities that can’t be neglected despite current political challenges and uncertainties. So our recommendations for more responsibility hold true for UK HR professionals.

The economic, social, and civic dimensions of integration need to be addressed holistically. But who should take the lead? We argue that HR as a key enabler should step forward to vigorously promote and shape integration at an organisational level. To succeed HR professionals must act as a strategic partner with senior management.

Specifically, HR managers must clearly articulate what is expected from the newly-arrived colleagues and what they can expect from their employer. It is crucial to transparently manage expectations on both sides. Transparent expectation management should contribute to identifying and overcoming communication difficulties stemming from cultural differences.

Refugees deserve trust. But it should be absolutely clear that double standards are not an option. The entire staff – refugee background or not – should be measured against the same performance criteria and behavioural norms. To ensure sustainability of integration measures KPIs should be clearly specified and tracked over time. In cases of frictions or frustrations in the integration process, HR managers should outline to all parties the mutually beneficial long-term perspective.

Eventually companies will benefit from motivated refugees. And refugees will benefit from meaningful work and earning a respectable place in their new society.

Unfortunately, some people’s attitude towards refugees is still characterised by prejudices and rejection. HR professionals must not shy away from the discourse. Instead they should courageously embrace a leading role in actively opposing ill-founded negative attitudes. Direct contact with refugees reduces prejudices very effectively. Thus, HR managers should create opportunities within their organisation to foster personal interaction, such as company sports days or celebrations.

HR managers should make their engagements and experiences more public to facilitate the exchange of expertise and allow for learning from best practice examples. Such active communication might not be justified just by social responsibility considerations, but can also improve the public image of a company as an attractive employer. Openness and multiculturalism, as elements of an employee value proposition, can be appealing not only to refugees but employees more widely. So refugee-friendly companies benefit from a larger pool of talented and motivated applicants.

Jan Pieper is professor of management and economics, Malte Martensen is professor of HR and organisational behaviour, and Johannes Asanger is a research assistant, all at the International University of Applied Sciences Bad Honnef (IUBH)