10 Ways to Support your Immigrant Coworkers in the U.S.
(Article co-authors, Pawan Zenda (left) and Lydia Rin Kye (right))
Being an immigrant in the workplace involves more than just navigating the logistics of work permits and government regulations. Our colleagues now bear the heavy burden of uncertainty around their immigration statuses with immigration policies being in a constant state of flux. It is more important now than ever to support and empathize with our immigrant colleagues and communities.
Growing up as a child of immigrants, I [Pawan] have personally seen my family and friends struggle with immigration issues. These experiences led me to pursue a career in immigration. Prior to joining Netflix, I worked as an Immigration Specialist, where I confronted the issues individuals faced when anticipating approvals, the fear they experience when receiving requests for further evidence to prove they deserved the jobs they were offered, and ultimately the disappointment and helplessness that comes with a denial. Immigration should no longer be treated as a troublesome and undesirable situation that people are afraid to engage with. I believe that we can work towards actively and openly criticizing, fixing, and celebrating immigration and the immigration process, where we can.
The first step is understanding what our immigrant colleagues are going through in addition to our daily work struggles. I want to bring attention to how anyone, even if you’re not an immigrant or an immigration specialist, can offer support through the following tips.
I teamed up with Lydia Rin Kye, Founder and fellow co-lead of Dream@Netflix (Netflix’s employee community for immigrants and allies) to offer 10 ways to support your immigrant coworkers.
#1. Be curious about your colleague’s immigration journey, if their boundaries allow it.
Pawan: Create a safe space for your colleagues to open up, but be willing to accept that this is their personal experience and they might not feel comfortable discussing. Avoid asking your colleague to explain their work permit as this can be triggering and uncomfortable. Instead, learn what types of work permits are common at your company and the processes immigrants go through when applying for their work permits, green cards, citizenship, etc.
#2. Commit to creating a work environment that’s inclusive of the immigrant experience.
Lydia: If your colleague has opened up about their immigrant status, you might ask about previous workplace challenges they’ve experienced as an immigrant. For example, you can ask, “If you have any questions regarding your immigration case, is it clear who you can reach out to?,” or “Any suggestions for how the company can better communicate immigration policy changes?”
Validate their experiences and commit to removing those barriers at work (e.g., ability to travel freely) as long as it’s legally possible. Assure that events/actions you are promoting are inclusive and change the way you may present these. As another example, instead of saying "make sure you go out and vote" - reword it to "If you have the ability to vote, make sure you exercise that privilege.”
#3. Empower your colleagues to speak with candor.
Lydia: Immigrants struggle with speaking transparently and boldly for fear of work retaliation - which can impact their work status, their dependents’ work status, and their ability to stay in the country. When I was an OPT and H1B visa holder, I didn’t feel empowered to speak openly as so much more than my job was at stake - my ability to stay in the United States was also at risk. As a DREAMer, the US is the only home I know. The thought of having to go back to South Korea, where I haven’t lived since I was 3 years old, and start fresh was scary. So, build trust with your colleagues to help them and others feel empowered to be transparent. Allow more moments of silence so they feel more comfortable about speaking up. We all process conversations differently and some of our colleagues may need more time to digest before replying with candor, so please practice patience.
#4. Allow for open and candid conversations that encourage your colleague to speak freely and openly about their immigrant status.
Pawan: Learning about your colleague’s immigration journey goes beyond their actual work permit and extends to the emotions, anxieties, and uncertainties they may feel. Let your colleague know that they are free to discuss their work status during 1:1 meetings. Promise and commit to confidentiality and empathy. Avoid making any assumptions of your colleague’s immigration story - rather, practice curiosity.
In a team meeting you may offer support by acknowledging the current immigration climate. I recently overheard a colleague say in a team meeting, “I understand that these times are unprecedented, with lots of changes in immigration policies that could affect some of us personally, as well as our friends and our families. If anyone needs or wants to talk 1:1 about their situation, please reach out.”
#5. Show selflessness by making time to support your colleague(s) during tough times and to celebrate wins.
Pawan: Encourage your colleagues and your team to prioritize self-care. Also celebrate any immigrants’ rights wins (with their consent, of course) - for example, the preservation of the DACA program in June 2020 - or if your colleague successfully secures a work permit, green card or citizenship. These are big personal wins and we should celebrate them where we can! My team has a shared calendar where we list our birthdays and work anniversaries in order to keep track of important events and celebrations. I created space and encouraged my team to add in their immigration-related wins, where they feel comfortable, and it’s been a huge success.
#6. Be mindful that navigating a new country can be intimidating.
Pawan: Getting situated in a new country entails many complexities that go beyond obtaining a work permit. Be mindful that your colleague is having to learn not only about the cultural norms of their new home but are also getting set up logistically (e.g. driver’s license, banking, social security, healthcare, etc.). Ask your colleague if they or their dependents need support or help with resources to get situated, and give them space to talk about these added stressors that are now part of their daily life.
#7. Adapt your communication style to work well with your colleague, who may not share your native language.
Lydia: Avoid making cultural communication assumptions and understand that your colleague(s) may communicate differently from you. We highly recommend reading Erin Meyer’s “The Culture Map,” which helps managers and leaders improve the effectiveness of culturally diverse teams, and/or taking a culture map test here to see where you compare to others of your own culture. It is important to understand and acknowledge that due to language barriers, opinions may be more difficult to express or may be expressed in ways that differ from your own style.
#8. Stay informed on immigration-related news.
Lydia: Be mindful that immigration news is rarely positive in the media. This can impact your colleague’s emotional and mental health (and yours!). Being well-informed on relevant immigration news will allow you to be more aware of events that could add additional stress and anxiety to your colleagues daily life. Some valuable resources include American Immigration Council, FWD.us, Immigration Equality, IRC, UndocuBlack, United We Dream and other immigrants’ rights organizations. The American Immigration Council has a US Immigration System Fact Sheet and a regularly updated special report around the impact of COVID-19.
#9. Share your learnings openly and proactively with others.
Lydia: Share your learnings with other teammates and allies. Immigration is a political hot topic, but one where misinformation is pervasive. When I was a visa holder and my ability to stay in the United States was still uncertain, I found having to constantly educate folks on immigration policy and law emotionally exhausting and even triggering -- so much so, that I would avoid bringing up the topic at all. It was such a relief when an ally was able to do it on my behalf. It also helped me feel supported, validated, and a sense of community. Demonstrate allyship by educating others that are not as familiar with the immigration process, even when there are no immigrants in the room. Ask your colleagues how to best practice allyship for them and the immigrant community.
#10. Remain curious of how your background affects you at work and your views on immigration.
Pawan: Unconscious biases are inevitable, but it’s how you address them that is important. Become more attuned to your perceptions of immigration and reflect on how they were formed. Remain aware of how your views may be shifting as you confront your own inherent biases -- this will better help with inclusivity both inside and outside of the workplace.
At the end of the day, we should all be working to help support our immigrant colleagues -- and communities -- and can use the above tips where appropriate. Creating this safe space is only a part of the beginning steps as we bring more attention to immigration, and we can all play a part to decrease the fear around these discussions. As we move away from fear, we hope to one day celebrate immigration journeys to their fullest.