The Ernst & Young executive explains the bottom-line benefits of welcoming immigrants to the workforce and how best to do it.

Canadian Business
February 18, 2009

Ayah Victoria McKhail

Fiona Macfarlane won the 2008 CBC Business Leadership Award at TRIEC’s Immigrant Success Awards. The article below contains an exerpt from her acceptance speech. [TRIEC editor’s note]

Breaking down barriers for skilled immigrants seeking meaningful jobs is something Fiona Macfarlane, Americas chief operating officer, tax, at Ernst & Young, knows a thing or two about. The South African native tells Ayah Victoria McKhail why she encourages other business leaders to create a more welcoming working environment for immigrants.

You need to have diversity to compete effectively in a global economic environment. It’s not enough to just have a diverse workforce, because if you’re not really leveraging the talents of everybody, you won’t get the benefits of diversity. But if you can go beyond diversity to inclusiveness, so you get everybody’s point of view, you’ll have better solutions at the end of the day.

Employers can best help newcomers succeed by giving them a chance – hire them. If employers go to the job interview armed with knowledge so they can properly assess the immigrant’s skill sets and experiences and relate them back to Canada, they’re more likely to hire them. But if they see something on a resumé that they don’t recognize, such as the university the individual attended or the company they worked for, that can serve as a deterrent. Employers might not want to take the risk, and so they may be losing out on somebody really talented and with really relevant experience.

My advice to our nation’s businesses on how to successfully integrate immigrants comes in the form of what I call the five Cs: Courage, confidence, competence, credibility and champion.

First, realize immigrants have courage. They had the courage to pick up and leave their own country – to start a new life with an unknown future. The courage is there. Inspire them to use it to succeed. Realize they may have little confidence in the beginning. Make a special effort to reassure and encourage them when they experience setbacks. Ensure they have the competence, both technical and soft skills, relevant to the local marketplace. And help them translate their prior experience into Canada’s workforce.

Help them with credibility. They may need a hand ensuring their credentials can be used to their full potential in Canada.

And, most important, ensure they have a champion by their side, someone who can help them reframe their experience into a Canadian context, help them with their first interview, give them advice. And if they don’t have a champion, become one.

Confidence is especially important, because obstacles abound when immigrants are first starting out, and it’s important for business leaders to take that into consideration. For example, when you move to a new country, it can feel like you really stick out. You don’t know things that appear to be common knowledge to those around you. It’s akin to joining a secret society where everybody’s talking about things that are largely unfamiliar to you, such as big companies and household names. It can become easy to feel like each day is a micro-inequity.

It’s completely unintentional, but you feel excluded because you don’t know what people are talking about. And the other thing that makes you sort of take a knock is that when you talk about your experiences, nobody can relate to those, either. It’s almost as if they’re irrelevant. The things you’re proud of aren’t celebrated. It may be something like you worked for XYZ company in your home country and that was a big deal for somebody to be hired there because it was highly competitive. In your country, the fact that you had that on your resumé spoke volumes about you. You come to Canada or any other country, and they’ve never heard of it, and so your big accomplishment is suddenly minimized, and it really does knock your confidence. If employers can use the five Cs as a guideline, it can help them adjust their modus operandi to really help newcomers succeed.

Reference: Canadian Business