Interview: The Employer Perspective on Interviewing

Harry photoRecently, Higher interviewed Harry Brigham, former owner of three Subway restaurants in Baltimore, Maryland.  We are including this conversation here to provide both employment staff and job seekers with insights and tips from perhaps the most important perspective in the interview process – the decision-maker!

Higher:  Before we start into the hard questions, can you tell our readers a little bit about your background to help put your advice into context?

Harry: I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts where I attended Tuft’s University.  After graduation, I was commissioned a Naval Officer and served as a Lieutenant on a ship out of Charleston, SC for four years.  I then received my Masters in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Currently, I am an entrepreneur, venture capitalist and operations consultant who recently owned three high-volume subway restaurants for approximately seven years.  These stores, located in Baltimore City, operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with an average of 15 -18 full and part time employees per location.  Through several different initiatives including the introduction of refugees into the employee team, the restaurants enjoyed on average a 40-50% increase in sales over my period of ownership.  I hired roughly 70 refugees over that period.

Higher:  What first motivated you to begin hiring refugees and what happened to turn you into such a strong supporter of refugee workplace integration?

Harry:  I was having great difficulty in sourcing quality staff.  The restaurants were experiencing high turnover, poor attendance reliability, lack of commitment to the workplace, poor customer service, dishonesty and workplace theft, on-site drama manifesting in workplace conflict between employees, and drama in employee home life that affected their work performance and attendance. 

As a result, the stores were under-performing, a source of many customer complaints and exhausting to own and manage.  Good employees found the workplace to be stressful and inequitable and would leave.  Due to the high employee turnover, we found ourselves in a mode of scrambling to find individuals to fill positions.

One day, I was voicing these concerns to a parent of one of my children’s classmates and he suggested I contact the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) office in Baltimore and explore hiring refugees. 

At that point, everything started to change…

Higher:  Could you tell us a bit of history about how your hiring practices and philosophy changed over time?

Harry:  By introducing refugees to the workforce, the store turnover was dramatically reduced.  Therefore, we had the luxury of more time to fill openings.

We continued to receive applications at the stores from walk in candidates and I would also contact LIRS or IRC employment advocates when I had an opening.   I would strive to maintain a 50/50 mix of refugee and non-refugee staff.  It was still helpful to have non-refugee staff in the workforce who could better read the nuances of a customer interaction if there was a complaint or if a customer was trying to take advantage of the refugee.

Higher:  How did you use candidate interviews to help you decide whom to hire?

Harry:  As I developed a relationship with the local refugee employment advocates, they grew to understand the requirements of the positions within the store.  Therefore, they were able to identify candidates that could be the best fit with the opportunity and escort that individual to an interview with me.  Within the interview itself, I looked for the following:

English skills at a sufficient level to be able to fill the job description of the opening – This is a critical evaluation of the employment advocate.  Employers have limited time and to bring an unqualified candidate to an interview erodes trust.

Eye contact and willingness to attempt an active discussion – I recognize that this can be terrifying for someone depending on where they come from but conversation has to occur for the interviewer to know whom they are considering to hire.

Willingness to talk about their migration journey – This is about what the refugee used to do in their home country, when they came to the US, who in their family came with them, how long have they been here, where do they live, etc.  Refugees need to practice this story in English and hopefully have an opportunity to tell it in the interview in order to turn the perception from an anonymous foreign person that needs a job to a new American who is assimilating and ready for the next step of employment.

Attitude and Energy – The ability to go past ‘I need a job’ and convey to the interviewer “Why I would be a great employee.”   For example, “In my home country, I did X and Y for work and it required X and Y skills or work habits and those are characteristics that I can bring to your workplace.”

Employers are looking for productive employees that will move quickly to accomplish tasks.  Since the refugee does not have work history in the US nor job references, this energy is critical.

Contact information – Phone number and email address that are accessed regularly by the refugee.  The employer does not want to have to contact the employment advocate to circle back to a candidate following an interview. The employer does not want to hear that the client is in the process of getting a phone

Higher:  How can refugees with little English language skills best show their value in an interview?

Harry:  Refugees with limited English skills need to do the following:

  1. Try as hard as possible to use the English they do know and to have a two-way conversation with the interviewer.
  2. It is OK to say ‘I don’t understand, can you say that again and speak more slowly?’  That is better than simply smiling and nodding and not understanding.  It is unsettling for the interviewer when he or she senses the employee simply has no idea what is being asked and that does not bode well for workplace training programs.  Two people smiling at one another in silent interview, is not a successful interview.

Also, it’s important for the employment advocate bring a translator to the job interview when necessary to facilitate the conversation and ensure the candidate understands expectations.  The job itself (warehousing for example) may not require significant English skills, however, the interview itself must be a productive conversation and a translator can make the difference while allowing all participants to feel that their points were made. 

Higher:  You’re a valuable resource for the network of employment professionals who are passionate about helping refugees but often struggle to convey that passion AND sell employers on considering refugees for job openings.  What advice can you give about crafting an effective pitch to prospective employers?

Harry:  Here’s my “top ten” list:

  1. Be professionally dressed whenever coming in to meet with the employer.
  2. Research the company ahead of time.
  3. Have an outstanding piece of collateral to hand to employers that anticipates and addresses the 10 to 15 questions any employer is likely to ask.
  4. Emphasize that the refugees are legal immigrants to the US that have been interviewed and approved by our US State Department.  They will have a social security number and pay taxes.  When illegal immigration is such a sensitive issue in the US, it is an exciting opportunity for an employer to hire legally compliant refugees.
  5. Convey hiring refugees is a very American thing to do.  The United States is a melting pot of cultures from around the work.  Other than Native American, none of us are originally from here.  It always has been a characteristic that makes our country so diverse and strong.
  6. Express that refugees have no roots in this country and they want to be part of something and to be a loyal team member.  Let that ‘something’ be your workplace.
  7. Highlight the real tax savings available and that the employment advocate can educate the employer about those savings.
  8. Be specific about how you will help the employee have a successful onboarding experience.  Talk about your accessibility for the employer – that you have your phone with you 24/7 and will take a call at anytime to help address any situation that may come up.
  9. Speak about workplace diversity.  Refugees are not threatening to existing employees; instead they are an interesting new element.
  10. Emphasize the overall strengths that most refugees share by nature of their migration experience.  That is a hard thing to do and a company can only benefit from the addition of that resilience and determination.

Higher: Thank you for your thoughts, Harry.  I think front-line refugee employment staff will really appreciate your honesty and suggestions!

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