Mindi Cox: Welcoming refugees to the workplace benefits everyone

Welcoming people escaping conflict and persecution is part of Utah’s collective identity.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) O.C. Tanner President & CEO Dave Petersen speaks at the One Refugee Conference 2017, hosted at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City, Friday August 18, 2017. O.C. Tanner will partner with The Refugee Education Initiative to form a new company, One Refugee which will help individuals from a refugee background pursue a meaningful career.

In Utah, welcoming people escaping conflict and persecution is part of our collective identity. That was true two centuries ago, when our state became home to those seeking religious freedom, and it’s true today, as we embrace refugees from around the globe.

Last week, President Joe Biden reaffirmed his commitment to substantially expand our nation’s refugee program, including many thousands of Iraqis who’ve helped our armed forces. The proposed 125,000 annual resettlement is a significant increase from the 15,000 refugees we welcomed last year. And the shift is vital — not just because it helps people in need, but because it will play an important role in our nation’s economic recovery and future.

I’m the senior vice president of people and great work at O.C. Tanner, a nearly 100-year-old company that partners with top companies to create thriving workplace cultures. We began hiring refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s, welcomed Bosnians fleeing the Balkan conflict in the mid-90s and now employ more recent arrivals from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. One-quarter of our 1,400-person workforce is foreign born, and refugees account for approximately one in 10 employees. This tradition of helping everyone thrive at work, including the world’s most vulnerable, is now an integral part of our identity and has directly contributed to our company’s success. We’ve seen this in three areas.

First, refugees uniquely understand perseverance, especially in times of strife. I saw this in the early days of the pandemic, as they helped pivot our production lines to develop face shields and other personal protective equipment. Second, refugees are loyal team members; research shows that employers with significant turnover rates report higher retention when they employ refugees. Third, refugees fill persistent talent shortages in fields like manufacturing, transportation and health care, Currently, more than 176,000 — or 15 percent of the refugee population — work across the health care sector, according to New American Economy.

It’s true that refugee employees need support — including language assistance, equitable and inclusive hiring practices and mentoring on the job. But much of this assistance is key to creating a diverse and equitable workplace for all employees. And the payoff is real. Data curated by the nonprofit Upwardly Global shows that organizations with an inclusive culture are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and six times as likely to be innovative and agile.

At O.C. Tanner, our employees hail from 58 countries and speak 62 languages; that hasn’t pushed us apart but has instead taught us new ways to unify. We’ve translated employee resources into native languages and offer English language classes when needed to help our foreign-born employees succeed in their new environment — both at work and in life. We regularly host events that celebrate our diverse cultures where we all learn more about each other as we share in the joy.

These efforts toward inclusion, mutual respect and practical, every day support have changed our company and the lives of all our employees — immigrants and US-born alike. That’s why we’ve committed to sharing what’s working at O.C. Tanner with like-minded organizations in Utah and across the country.

In the years ahead and with support from our elected officials, I look forward to welcoming more refugees to Utah and to our communities. They have so much to teach us about perseverance and faith. They are eager to be part of our state’s story of economic resilience and rebirth in their new homes. Let us embrace them.

Mindi Cox

Mindi Cox is senior vice president of people and great work at O.C. Tanner in Salt Lake City.