Refugees Reflect Hannaford’s Customers

An Ethiopian customer receives instruction on her new prescriptions from a fellow Amharic speaker at the pharmacy counter. A Sudanese produce specialist waves at a friend from the vegetable cart. The young Afghan cashier makes change for relatives at the checkout. At Hannaford grocery in Portland, Maine, associates increasingly reflect the city’s changing demographics. As Associate Relations Manager Shelly Williams explains, “Refugee associates represent the makeup of our community. It helps us build our business if our associates represent the community, because customers feel more comfortable.”

Although there are many reasons for Hannaford, or any company, to hire refugees, the bottom line is that the decision has to be good for the bottom line. Therefore it is important for refugee service providers to tailor their marketing strategies to businesses’ needs. Williams encourages employment specialists to be positive when approaching an employer. “Tell me what this person offers our company,” she says. Give us resources and solutions!”

In Hannaford’s case, refugee applicants are attractive because they represent Maine’s future workforce. “Hiring refugees is a responsible corporate move,” Williams explains. “Maine’s population is aging. In 10 or 20 years, the [refugees] will be holding the jobs and running the businesses.” Refugee employees at Hannaford are already advancing towards this goal according to City of Portland Employment Specialist Efrem Weldemichael. “Hannaford orients their new employees very well,” he acknowledges. “The pay is good and there is upward mobility with the company.” Former customer service associates are discovering new opportunities in the seafood, produce and pharmacy departments. Refugee youth who go off to college return to pursue opportunities in the company’s management training program. “I like to watch the growth in our employees,” notes Williams, adding that associates who stick with the company “can go as far as they choose.”

Refugees also introduce new learning opportunities for employers. For instance, when one refugee employee accidentally set off the fire alarm, Williams assumed full responsibility. “I took for granted that everyone knows what a fire alarm is; now I make sure to include it in each orientation.” Religious holidays, such as the celebration of Ramadan, are also easily accommodated with a short-term shift in schedules. Where language is a barrier, Williams recommends that providers be honest. “Be up-front. We can partner individuals with other native speakers or hire an interpreter if necessary, but we need to know in advance.”

Refugees offer tremendous benefits to Hannaford in return for employment. As Williams contends, “I think an employer who doesn’t use this population is losing out. You can’t go wrong. They are dependable, loyal, and they want to move up in the company. Refugees are truly part of the Hannaford family.”

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