Psychology Helps Heal
the World (Part 1):
The Workforce Consultants
We have an exciting new development for the International Practice Forum! With Walter Reichman (OrgVitality) and a number of I-O psychology practitioners and academics, we will be exploring the ways in which “Industrial-Organizational Psychology Helps Heal the World.” Through a series of articles, we will present real and actionable ways in which I-O academics and practitioners have an impact in innovative and creative ways and how they have been helping to heal the world!
Using I-O to Help Refugees
By Kristie Campana
Minnesota State University
As an instructor at Minnesota State University, I do my best to impact the world by helping my students to become competent, ethical consultants. One issue that I try to impress upon them is that as I-O psychologists, we have special skills that can benefit almost any individual, in almost any organization. It’s easy to focus just on client projects, where often our job is to make organizations more profitable. We sometimes forget the human component of our work, and lately, I have been wanting to do more with my skills to improve the world around us.
One major motivator for increasing my volunteerism is some of the current rhetoric surrounding refugees and immigrants.1 At Minnesota State, we have a decent number of refugees and first-generation college students. As the presidential election has progressed, I have been bothered by the way immigrants are discussed and treated by politicians and the media. The brave, intelligent, and thoughtful students that I have come to know through my job belie the negative stereotypes that proliferate about them.
Rather than complain about this issue, I decided to find ways to address the problem within my community. Minnesota is a popular secondary settlement site for refugees; many of them spend their first few years in another location (such as Atlanta or other major immigration hubs) and then subsequently choose to relocate to Minnesota because of our strong social programs and close-knit refugee communities. A simple Google search using the phrase “refugee volunteering opportunities” quickly brought up several possible organizations that were looking for help.
One of the first organizations listed in my Google search was the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC), which has refugee services in Minneapolis and Mankato. I connected with Jessica O’Brien at MCC to see what opportunities would exist that could make use of my skills. MCC’s goal is to build common good in the world and their mission extends across many nationalities and religions. So, although they are based within a religious organization, they work with refugees of many different faiths (primarily Muslim), and do not have any requirements about volunteers’ religious affiliations. This may not be the case for all volunteer organizations, so this may be an important question to ask as you look for similar groups in your area.
At this time, I have been involved with MCC for about 8 months and have had the opportunity to work on several projects. However, the project that has best leveraged my skills as an I-O psychologist has been serving on their MCC Refugee Employer Advisory Committee. The goal of this committee is to find community partners who would be willing to hire and mentor new immigrants as they transition into U.S. jobs. The creation of this committee was prompted by a recent program change within the state of Minnesota.
Previously, there was a supported work program (Work-Try-Out) that would pay up to the first month of employment to provide incentives to businesses to hire immigrant job seekers. Immigrants face many to employment due no GED or high school diploma in addition to a lack of work history in the U.S. Employers were eager to take advantage of this program, as it was essentially risk free for them to hire an immigrant worker, with the option to lay off this worker if the quality of work was poor. However, employers were pleased with their immigrant employees and now are much more willing to view this group as a potential and viable pool of employees.
Unfortunately, this program was terminated, and MCC has been faced with the problem of finding new ways to help employers consider refugees for positions. Although those who participated in the Work-Try-Out program continue to hire refugees, other organizations continue to be reluctant, often because of concerns about paperwork, concerns about language or cultural barriers, or simply because of xenophobia or racism. Our new task is to find ways to persuade these uninitiated groups to consider refugees for appropriate jobs.
MCC did an excellent job of finding other board members; my inclusion was really just a matter of good timing. We have had some initial meetings where very well-connected community members brainstormed together to discuss other problems our city was facing. One major problem among employers in our area is that there is a great need for cultural competency. Our workforce is becoming more diverse and global, and many managers continue to hold outdated notions of other cultures. This has led to a number of conflicts and problems within local workplaces where having a better understanding of diversity and its advantages would be helpful.
In conjunction with our Continuing Education director, we are currently advancing a program that will include a development center for new managers that will focus on many of the classic exercises and constructs in addition to a heavy focus on cultural competency. What better way for managers to build cultural competency than to support them in getting involved with a diverse international community that is a 5-minute drive from their workplace?
The details for this project are still quite tentative, but we are hoping to build on an existing program known as Tapestry, where refugees have a chance to interact with community members (such as police officers, teachers, and others) to talk about cultural differences and what it’s like to live in a new country that is so different from their previous home. If classic studies from social psychology are to be believed, we are hoping that having some of these managers interact and cooperate with our refugee population will help to build their empathy for our refugee population and to also see how diversity can aid teamwork. Because our immigrant population in Mankato is primarily Somali and Mexican, our managers will hopefully get an opportunity to learn about two cultures by meeting new people and having thoughtful discussions and activities with them. We are hoping that the learning will go both ways. Our refugees often have little experience writing resumés and interviewing; ideally, as these interactions progress, managers may find opportunities to mentor their refugee colleagues as they learn how to navigate the U.S. workforce.
Although the focus of this International Practice Forum Special Series is primarily to discuss how we, as I-O psychology practitioners and academics, can help improve the lives of others, I wanted to emphasize that this experience has really enriched my own life in ways I hadn’t expected. It has helped me continue to develop my own communication and listening skills. Prior to working on this project, I didn’t know much about our Somali refugee community. Having a chance to speak to some Somali refugees in this environment has helped me gain a deeper understanding of their culture and more confidence in trying to bridge cultural gaps that I experience at work among my international students. In fact, my next-door neighbors are a Somali family, and I was able to make a connection with them by waving and shouting “Eid Mubarak!” when they were celebrating the end of Ramadan. Thus, I have really enjoyed this experience, and I’m excited to see what other opportunities might develop as I learn more about MCC and our local refugees.
The issues brought on by immigration are likely to increase given the conflicts in places such as Syria, Myanmar, and Somalia. The dropping birthrate in the U.S. also suggests that we will likely need to increase our encouragement of immigrants in the workforce. SIOP members who have expertise in HR functions can help educate and encourage businesses to consider the immigrant population as a viable applicant pool. Trainers can use their skills in designing and delivering education to help refugees and other immigrants learn English and civics to pass their naturalization test for citizenship. I-O psychology practitioners and academics who are passionate about diversity in the workplace can find unique and creative opportunities to connect with an interesting and varied group of people in their own communities and identify ways that these individuals can enrich the workplace. Using I-O to help the world needn’t take place in other countries; we have so many people here in the U.S. that can use our help and guidance!2
Do you know of someone who is using I-O psychology to heal the world?
WE NEED YOU AND YOUR INPUT! We are calling upon you, the global I-O community, to reach out and submit your experiences for future columns. Give us your insights from lessons learned as you help heal the world.
To provide any feedback or suggestions on the International Practice Forum, please send an email to the following address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Throughout this article, I will primarily use the term refugee, as the organization I work with is aimed at this population; however, many immigrants who have left their countries voluntarily may also benefit from these programs.
2 I would like to extend a thank you to Jessica O’Brien and Walter Reichmann on their helpful feedback on this article.