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Finding Common Ground

Finding Common Ground

Culture at Work: Finding Common Understanding

Culture shapes our view of the world as individuals and as a society. Our ideas, attitudes, behaviors, thought processes, and personal identity are all rooted in culture. Furthermore, culture is learned and is evolving through a constant process of evaluation, adaptation, and innovation. The more opportunities we have to be exposed to cultural differences — be it the culture of Albania, Arizona or the Air Force — the more our assumptions of the “right way” of problem solving are challenged. For example, what is the “right way” to eat rice? Use a fork? A spoon? Chopsticks? Or eat with our hands? Obviously there are many “right ways” to answer this simple question depending on the situation, circumstances, or place in which we find ourselves.

The work place is no different from the rest of the world. Cultural and linguistic differences exist and can significantly impact employee expectations, job performance, and outcomes. Hiring and managing a workforce that includes people from diverse cultural backgrounds (with limited English) can successfully meet the labor needs of many organizations and businesses. However, new challenges then emerge and must be resolved. Managers and supervisors must recognize that cultural and language barriers result because workplace “assumptions” are not equally shared, and sometimes even the simplest communication can be misunderstood or misinterpreted.

For example, a new employee from Guatemala working as a hotel room cleaner may initially find many job tasks, conversations with co-workers, or instructions from a supervisor to be confusing, frightening, and seemingly impossible to understand. As a result, her job performance may be lacking even though her motivation is high and she feels she is doing a good job based upon her understanding of the instructions. Supportive supervisors and co-workers can establish an environment where success is defined not only by achieving workplace goals but also by developing cross-cultural communication and skills which lead to the improvement of everyone’s productivity.

Cross-cultural communication and understanding take extra time and energy, which are difficult to find in a busy workplace. However, the benefit is worth the investment. Frequently, the most successful employers are not cultural experts but are those who establish trusting relationships with their employees based on consensus and an exchange of needs and desired outcomes. Solutions to cultural conflicts or misunderstandings in the workplace can most often be resolved by finding a “middle ground” where neither the employer’s workplace goals nor the employee’s cultural identity is compromised.

The following story is an example of how an employee and employer worked together to solve a workplace problem which arose from a language barrier. It is a true story, recounted by a student in the International Institute’s English for Work program.
When the student reported to his part-time janitorial job at the office he was scheduled to clean, he found a cart filled with office supplies, topped with a note: “Dear Janitor,  Everything on this cart is garbage and must be thrown away. Please dispose of it immediately.”

The student understood most of the note, but he was reluctant to trust his understanding because the request seemed so odd. He called his supervisor and read the note over the phone. The supervisor told him to follow the instructions on the note.  So the employee dutifully threw away pens, pencils, documents and even a computer. He kept a copy of the note.

The next day, the office manager called the student to say that there was a problem: one employee was missing a computer and other important supplies and documents. The student agreed to come in and discuss the problem. He brought the note with him. The manager read the note and told the student that he had done the right thing. The student left the meeting, very relieved.

It was subsequently discovered that an employee had written the note as a practical joke on a colleague. He had assumed that the Russian-speaking janitor would not be able to read the note, and the next day his colleague would arrive to see the contents of his desk marked for destruction. The employee who wrote the note was fired immediately, and the student, in telling the story to his class, finished by saying, “He didn’t know I take English for Work class.”

Communication is only one cause of confusion in a multi-cultural workplace. The following material addresses some issues that are frequently mentioned by employers as areas of cross-cultural confusion or misunderstanding. There are no easy answers. The responses provided are intended to improve awareness of potential solutions. Cross-cultural communication and problem-solving skills must be developed over time and in partnership with non-native speaking employees. Often the best results occur when one has an open mind, plenty of patience, and a willingness to encounter cross-cultural situations as both a student and a teacher.

Age, Authority Figures and Hierarchy

Many societies consider elders highly respected figures of authority who guide the family and the community as well as help maintain traditional standards. Often the opinions and perspectives of older more experienced community members are sought before important decisions are made. As a result, many cultures have rules and strict standards for approaching a superior or interacting with an elder. The value of an elder’s experience and wisdom in a traditional culture may be discounted in American society which places great value on innovation, youth, and “up to the minute” information. The relaxed, informal American workplace may be very strange for a refugee or immigrant accustomed to a structured, hierarchical environment.

Among entry-level employees are some older immigrants who previously held highly respected professional positions in their native country as teachers, doctors, politicians, or business owners. The loss of status, respect, and self-esteem among these older employees may be an issue in the workplace as well as a source of personal stress. This can be particularly true when younger employees from the same cultural community excel on the job and are given increased responsibility due to their accelerated rate of acculturation and language acquisition. It is important to remember that many of these elders have the skills to be leaders and will likely be respected by co-workers from the same culture.

The following scenario depicts the thoughts of an employer and employee who are unaware of the cultural barriers between them.

Employer: “I don’t know what’s wrong with Paulo. He never wants to talk or joke around like the other staff. I try to encourage him. I even give him pats on the back sometimes! He’s so withdrawn. I know he’s a lot older than everyone, but I’ve tried to make him feel welcome and included. It’s like he doesn’t want to be part of the team.”

Employee: “My boss makes me feel so uncomfortable. She talks to me like we are brother and sister! Sometimes she even touches me! I am a 55-year-old man. Where I come from it’s an honor to speak with your elders. We talk in a quiet voice. The elder talks first and the youngster listens. It’s not her place to be like that with me. Even though she’s my boss, she should show more respect.”

This misunderstanding occurred because Americans are much less formal in their communication and usually do not use titles to address their elders.

Additional Strategies for a Multi-Cultural Workplace

It would be impossible to compile a definitive list of strategies to use when working with people from a variety of cultures. Furthermore, what works for one organization may not work for another. However, the following suggestions may help a multi-cultural workplace run more smoothly.

Support and encourage the non-native speaking employees

  • Invest in extended orientations to minimize the occurrence of conflicts and other issues. Expect training to take longer with new Americans. This investment will pay off. Be sure to evaluate company orientation materials used in training. Simplify language and eliminate jargon in these company documents:

    • applications

    • job descriptions

    • pre-employment tests

    • interview questions

    • orientation materials checklists

    • skill assessment forms

    • policies/procedures

    • attendance forms

    • scheduling forms

    • performance evaluations

    • charting forms

    • calendars

    • handouts

  • Expect non-native employees to follow the existing workforce rules and policies, but realize that it will take additional time for them to understand these rules and policies.

  • Identify a willing, informed supervisor or coordinator to be a liaison for non-native speakers. This person should be responsible for listening, clarifying and following up on non-native speakers’ concerns.

  • Provide informed committed mentors when possible.

  • Explain the purpose and procedures of employee evaluations. These can be confusing for refugees and immigrants. Point out that it is a discussion between the employee and supervisor – not a reprimand. Don’t wait for annual or semi-annual evaluations to give feedback.

  • Ask the employees themselves what they need. The most vocal employees may not represent the majority, and there may be less need for accommodation than it first appears.

Support and encourage managers, supervisors and co-workers
Organize training/discussion groups for middle managers and frontline supervisors. They will need support and additional knowledge to appropriately guide and direct non-native speakers. This is a key point that is often overlooked.

If the company chooses to provide mentors for non-native speaking employees provide on-going education, and problem-solving meetings for the mentors. Increase the pay for the mentors, demonstrating that this position is a career ladder opportunity. Choose mentors that demonstrate ability to adapt to change.

Work closely with the employee responsible for training and scheduling new employees. Miscommunication at this level often has serious consequences. Research has shown that the rotation model of staffing, where employees are regularly assigned to new units or jobs, can make employees feel more isolated and actually decrease their proficiency and production. A permanent model assignment allows the staff to develop closer relationships and provides the opportunity to exchange information.

Acknowledge the extra time and energy it takes supervisors and co-workers to communicate with non-native speakers. Provide extra time for managers and supervisors to address language and cultural issues.

Create a positive atmosphere in the organization
Refuse to tolerate disrespectful behavior. This sets a tone of respect for all employees in an organization and could be stated in company policies.

Encourage employees to accept differences. Establish a zero tolerance policy for negative comments and attitudes.

Have fun with cultural differences and learn from them. Some suggestions:

  • Put up a bulletin board with pictures or displays including articles from or about other countries

  • Put on an art exhibit with art from different cultures or travel items brought by staff who have visited other countries

  • Offer food from other cultures brought by employees or ordered from local ethnic restaurants; label the food offered in the cafeteria with name and ingredients

  • Have refugees share their stories of how they came to the U.S. (Note: this can be very emotional.)

  • Offer a presentation from a confident immigrant/refugee employee about his/her country

  • Invite a comedian from an ethnic group

  • Offer a foreign language lesson to English-speaking staff to build appreciation for the process of language learning

  • Bring in an ethnic musical group

  • Provide calendars from the United Nations or the Peace Corps

  • Attend multi-cultural events such as the Festival of Nations or other local activities

Cross Cultural Communication

For those of us who use English as our primary language, effective and clear communication is an on-going challenge.  This is because normal communication within any language varies significantly depending on factors such as age, education, and dialect. When we communicate using messages, oral or written, that are mixed with slang, technical jargon, innuendo, and double meanings, an advanced level of sophistication is required to avoid miscommunication and to achieve comprehension.

For people with a different cultural experience and with limited English ability, effective communication can be extraordinarily difficult. Culture plays an important role in communication. It is the “filter” we use to interpret the world around us. Culture also determines how and when we should express those interpretations. An American worker may easily understand a sign on a factory wall that says, “No Horsing Around Allowed.” The same sign could leave a Hmong worker wondering where the horses are. In such an instance the worker may be confused for days without ever asking.

Question:  Why doesn’t my employee ask for help when she doesn’t understand?
In some cultures, asking for clarification is avoided because it is considered impolite, especially when talking to a supervisor or an elder. For example, in Somalia, asking for clarification is perceived as an insult to the speaker. It is seen as an indication that the speaker did not adequately express his or her ideas.

Frequently among limited English speakers, respect for authority, fear, or the inability to express the need for clarification results in a show of understanding (“Yes, yes”  “I see, of course”). In fact, the employee may not have understood. If you need to tell an employee to perform a new task, show it to him or her as well as explain it. Ask your employees to demonstrate understanding by repeating the instructions in his or her own words or by role playing the information or instructions that have been communicated. Doing this will allow for further clarification and ensure a shared understanding of the presented information.

Question:  I have explained the performance expectations to my employee; why doesn’t he get it?
Workplace expectations are rooted in culture and exist to effectively guide appropriate behaviors that contribute to the overall goals and success of the organization. An employee seeing things from his cultural perspective may not understand organizational expectations or may interpret their meaning differently. It may help to identify whether an issue is related to culture or poor communication. Explain the rationale for the expectations, why they are important, and the consequences of lack of compliance.

Question:  Why don’t my non-native speaker and native speaker employees interact?
Cross-cultural interaction requires both Americans and those from other cultures to leave their respective comfort zones. For the Americans, communicating with non-native speakers usually takes a bit more effort than making small talk with their American colleagues. They simply may prefer the more natural conversation they can have with their native speaker colleagues. In addition, the Americans may not be sure about the English skills of their new colleagues and may be reluctant to approach non-native speakers.

Communicating with native speakers can be extremely intimidating for non-native speakers, unless they are proficient English speakers or naturally gregarious. Both types of employees may be unsure what topics to bring up or what might be polite or impolite in the other culture. It may help for employers to take the lead and engage non-native speakers in casual conversation where appropriate. Even if the native speakers are reluctant to join in, it will provide the non-native speakers with good practice as well as help them feel welcome.

Question:  I’ve tried to work with my employee on some of these issues, but I don’t seem to be getting anywhere. What’s wrong?
Often miscommunication with non-native speakers is based on a lack of cultural or linguistic understanding. Sometimes, however, it is not. While culture and language are major factors in interpersonal communication, they are not the only factors. It may be that the person is unhappy with the job or has a disagreeable non-complying personality.

Question:  Should I expect immigrant employees to perform at the same level as other employees?
Yes. It may take more time, perseverance and require more initial investment, but this will be offset with commitment to the organization.

Guidelines for Cross-Cultural Communication

The following “guidelines” are from Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication Challenges, by Marcelle DuParw and Marya Axne. Whether in the workplace, the community, or school, these guidelines are helpful to keep in mind when venturing into the uncertain world of cross-cultural relationship building.

  • Learn from generalizations about other cultures, but don’t use generalizations to stereotype, “write off,” or oversimplify ideas about another person. Generalizations are best used to understand and appreciate other interesting, multi-faceted people, but not as facts.

  • Cross-cultural communication requires practice. It is in the doing that we actually get better at cross-cultural communication.

  • Question your assumptions about the “right way” to communicate. Don’t assume that there is one right way.

  • Search for ways to make the communication work, rather than searching for someone to blame for the breakdown. Don’t assume that breakdowns in communication occur because other people are on the wrong track.

  • Listen actively and empathetically. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. When another person’s perceptions or ideas are very different from your own, you might need to operate at the edge of your own comfort zone.

  • Respect others’ choices about whether to engage in communication with you.

  • Slow down, suspend judgment, and try to look at the situation as an outsider.

  • Be prepared to learn about the world from a different perspective, and do not be afraid to ask questions that are respectful and well intended.


Effective communication is essential for a successful workplace. Employees with limited English proficiency are quite capable of contributing to a productive work environment with the appropriate support. It is critical that the employer determines the minimum level of English language skills — spoken and written — required to perform the job effectively. Remember language proficiency does not reflect education or ability to perform at work. This sets a clear expectation and standard for the employees who will then be hired. Hiring someone with less than the minimum level of language skills will likely frustrate supervisors, co-workers, and the employee as well as fail to meet the needs of the employer. If no English language skills are required for a position, it may be necessary for another staff person with bilingual skills to be designated to serve as an interpreter, lead worker, or mentor to ensure that instructions and expectations can be successfully communicated. Employers who proceed with the expectation that the limited English-speaking employee will “figure it out” or will learn English quickly are likely be disappointed.

Question: How long will it take my employee to learn English?
It takes time to learn a new language. How much time varies greatly from person to person. It can generally be assumed that most foreign-born adults not previously exposed to English need about two years to become comfortable with survival English.

Question: Why does learning English take so long?
Cultural, personal, and linguistic factors all contribute to the length of time it takes for someone to learn a language. Language learning is not a linear process. Individuals often have gaps in their abilities that must be overcome.

Cultural Factors

  • Cultural communities can “insulate” a learner from daily exposure to English.

  • Constant contact with family, friends, co-worker, shopkeepers, radio and newspapers in the native language can delay English language acquisition.

  • Relying on family and friends who speak the native language and some English makes survival easier.

  • Enormous cultural differences between a large American urban center and a small rural village in Africa, Asia, or Latin America can create extreme fear, isolation, and confusion that make English language acquisition a slow process.

Personal (Affective) Factors

  • Some refugees and immigrants believe they will eventually return to their homeland and do not need to learn English.

  • The learner may have a learning disability.

  • Psychological and emotional trauma from war and concern for relatives who remained behind can block the learning process.

  • The learner may have undetected physical disabilities, such as hearing loss.

Linguistic Factors

  • New language learners may have limited formal education and lack literacy in their native language.

  • Older people often have greater difficulty learning a new language.

  • A new language often means acquiring a new thought process and ideas in addition to a new vocabulary.

Question: Can we teach English learners certain vocabulary words?
Yes, but have patience; it may take time for the learner to understand and use the words correctly. Not only for vocabulary but for all language skills, passive skills (listening and reading) come more easily than active skills (speaking and writing). While your employees may be able to read and understand English, their ability to speak effectively may lag behind.

Question: Why is my employee’s accent so strong?
There are several possible causes of a strong accent.

  • Adults are less able to replicate new sounds. At birth, humans are capable of producing all the sounds of all natural languages. Children learn to produce and differentiate among only the sounds of their parents’ language. By a very early age, the physical ability to produce and differentiate between sounds of other languages is lost. After this point, it is nearly impossible for most second language speakers to speak without an accent.

  • The sound in question may not exist in the speaker’s native language. For example, the “th” sound of “this” and “these” does not exist in many other languages. This sound is therefore difficult for speakers of other languages to produce without an accent.

  • A distinction between two sounds in English may not exist in another language. In some Asian languages there is only one sound for ‘p’ and ‘f’ which sounds like a cross between the two. It is therefore difficult for speakers of those languages to hear or produce two different sounds in English.

Question: Should I correct my employee’s English?
The workplace is very different from the language classroom. While your employee’s English speaking ability will likely be enhanced on the job, the language classroom is a better atmosphere for concentrating on English language skills. If on-site English classes are available to the employee, then corrections should be left to the teaching professional. If not, consideration should be given to the following issues:

  • Employees may respond differently to being corrected, depending on personality, cultural background, educational background, and learning style. Some may prefer to be corrected while others may feel demeaned or patronized. All of these reactions are normal and valid. Talk to your employee about this issue.

  • Effective communication on the job is key. If an English language error impedes effective communication, work together to reach an understanding. If a grammatical error does not impede comprehension, you and your employee have succeeded — don’t worry about the mistake.

  • Correction should be limited to employment English — not informal conversation.

Learning the English Language
For native speakers of English, it is hard to grasp how difficult it is to learn English as a second language. Consider the following examples:

  1. The farm was used to produce.

  2. The insurance was invalid for the invalid.

  3. They were too close to the door to close it.

  4. After a number of injections my jaw got number.

  5. Upon seeing the tear in my clothes I shed a tear.

These sentences illustrate how words spelled the same may be pronounced differently and have different meanings. This lack of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation is only one aspect of learning English. English grammar, idioms, and writing conventions can also pose significant difficulties for the non-native speakers.

Following are some myths about languages and language learning, a summary of issues related to language learning, and some strategies for working with non-native speakers.

Myths about Language and English Language Learning

  • People with limited English language skills lack formal education.

  • People who do speak English in addition to their first language are better educated and more literate than their counterparts who do not speak English.

  • The vocabulary of other languages is not sufficient to express complicated ideas or describe technical equipment.

  • Vietnamese, Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian people speak a common language.

  • Africans all speak a common language.

  • If a person with limited English ability smiles and nods during a conversation, he/she definitely understands.

  • Limited English speakers always indicate lack of understanding directly so miscommunication cannot take place.

  • Limited English speakers have friends or family who are fluent in English.

  • Limited English speakers are able to read English even if they do not speak it or because they speak it.

  • Command of survival English, such as ordering a meal and asking directions, ensures that a limited English speaker can negotiate a job interview or a clinic visit.

  • Interpreting is just saying the same thing in two languages.

Suggestions for Working with Limited English Speakers

  • Start at the beginning, explain all information and don’t assume immediate understanding.

  • Encourage questions and leave time for clarification and comments.

  • Speak clearly and slowly using a simplified vocabulary. Do not use slang, contractions or “broken” English.

A typical American may give directions to a group of limited English speakers in the following manner:

“Come on in you guys and have a seat.  If you’ve gotta second I want ya ta fill out this thing. I’ll do my best to explain the sample. If you’ve gotta question or two, just wait til the end and I’ll get back to ya. Anything ya don’t know, just give it your best shot or leave it blank.”

Although this is how we really pronounce words in everyday speech, an approach that would be more easily understood might look like this:

“Please come in and sit down. This is an application. I will explain the sample.  Please wait to ask questions. If you don’t understand something, leave the line empty or write in the best answer.”

  • Give directions using a face to face approach (do not speak from across the room). This allows the speaker to assess understanding by using visual cues and to react with body language or a demonstration if lack of understanding is noted. It also eliminates embarrassment for both the speaker and the listener if the message must be repeated.

  • Minimize the use of idioms-some examples: “work like a dog,” “know the ropes,” “bite off more than you can chew,” and “save face.” These are common in everyday speech, but are confusing to most learners of English and might be taken literally.

  • Use charts, photos, or hands-on learning opportunities to clearly demonstrate messages.

  • Use open-ended questions to verify employee understanding instead of yes/no questions “Could you repeat the instructions we just talked about?” is more effective than “Do you understand what I said?”

  • Expect periods of silence while information is being “processed” or translated by a limited English-speaking employee. This is a normal reaction.

  • Initiate conversations, when possible, that are non-work related to build trust. It is can be trying sometimes to communicate with limited English speakers, but making an effort to build relationships is appreciated.

  • Learn how to correctly pronounce the names of all employees. This may take time and many mispronunciations, but immigrant employees will appreciate the effort and acknowledgement.

  • Try not to raise your voice when talking to limited English speakers. It is a natural response when you are not being understood, but it only increases the anxiety of the person you are talking to and increases miscommunication.

New Employee Orientations

Orientation and training sessions for newly hired staff are usually filled with very important job-related information. These sessions are most frequently conducted as all-day oral presentations that are supplemented with written materials. Native speakers of English often find the amount of information overwhelming, remembering only pieces of what was said. But they can easily clarify unclear information by later questioning coworkers, human resources personnel, or a supervisor. While non-native speakers experience the same feelings of uncertainty about information, their lack of language skills exaggerates the gaps in information. These employees are often reluctant to “bother” coworkers or “offend” managers during the first week of work by asking for the information a second time. Consequently, misunderstandings can result in poor job performance, safety concerns, and a lack of workplace cohesion.

Designing and conducting an effective orientation that will allow non-native English speakers to understand the presented information is a good investment for any employer.  This is one of the most valuable strategies an employer can implement to minimize miscommunication in the workplace. Strategies to improve comprehension of employee orientations include reducing and simplifying the language in orientation materials, slowing down the information delivery process, supplementing all sessions with visual demonstrations, and allowing participants to give feedback and demonstrate the knowledge they have gained.

Question: How do I orient my new employee to the job and work site?
Digesting ideas is a slower process in a second language. Employees with limited English abilities may need more than one presentation of the information or additional assistance to completely understand. It is always a good idea to:

  • Break-up orientations into two-three hour segments. All-day orientations contain too much information and are difficult for native speakers of English.

  • Provide a written summary of any important information, with key points highlighted.

  • Tour the facilities and demonstrate equipment as well as safety procedures.

  • Conduct periodic safety drills, role-playing different situations to help employees gain confidence with procedures.

  • Establish a “peer educator” system using established employees to mentor new employees.

  • Develop feedback mechanisms for participants that allow them to demonstrate their understanding of the communicated information.

  • Identify a willing and knowledgeable management person to be a contact for new non-native employees and to give advice if difficulties are not being addressed.

Question: My company sometimes has new employee orientations with people that speak four or five languages. How can we make it effective for all the participants?
If a training session has a number of participants that speak a common language, then using a qualified interpreter can be successful. If there are many languages represented, such a strategy might not be cost effective. Consider using existing workers from the represented language groups as peer educators or mentors. If none exist, then develop materials using visual images with as little English as possible. Videos, photos, role-plays, and hands-on demonstrations can communicate the intent of the orientation session.

Question: How can our company make our immigrant and refugee employees feel comfortable?
It is a challenge to create an atmosphere where people of different cultures are comfortable, especially if they don’t understand everything that is going on around them. Providing an established support person is critical for helping to build trust and reduce potential conflicts. Employees will also appreciate a supervisor who is culturally aware and can identify issues that are rooted in cultural differences. Establishing job expectations that are clearly understood and demonstrating appropriate respect for all employees will be the most important first steps to creating a comfortable cross-cultural workplace.

Body Language and Personal Space

Certain gestures or types of touching have different meanings in different cultures. Since non-verbal messages are rooted in culture they can easily be misunderstood if either the sender or receiver is culturally unaware. Gestures or touching that Americans accept as normal may be inappropriate or taboo in another culture. Similarly, we may feel put off or uncomfortable by what is acceptable in other cultures. Personal space also varies depending on the culture (see question below).

Every gesture sends a message that is understood by those within the culture. For example, it is not uncommon for an American to motion to someone, especially in a noisy room, using a bent finger to call another person to come closer. Among Americans this would be acceptable behavior, but to many Africans, Asians and Latinos this would be interpreted as impolite and rude, a way to call a dog. In a typical work setting, use of this gesture could result in the employee being insulted and the supervisor being confused about the employee’s negative “attitude” without ever understanding the cause. (Of course, many times those from other cultures are quickly able to deduce that what is rude or offensive in their own culture is acceptable in American culture, thus averting a misunderstanding.)

In the example above, neither party is wrong nor at fault, but a cross-cultural misunderstanding exists nonetheless. Such a situation requires openness and a trust level that allows an employee to tell the supervisor that such a motion is impolite in his/her culture. Equally important is that the supervisor not take a defensive stance but use the experience as an opportunity for cross-cultural learning as well as an opening to reinforce a willingness to respect and explore the cultural differences. Although many non-native English speakers try to learn American cultural norms, cultural behaviors are reflexes that take time to change.

Question: Why does my employee look away from me when we talk?
Eye contact is an action that has culturally specific meanings. For example, in some Asian cultures it is disrespectful to look superiors in the eye. A “superior” may be someone who is older or someone who holds a higher position of authority. Gender may also be a factor. A Muslim woman may avoid eye contact with men because she was taught that eye contact is impolite and unacceptable. You may feel that such an employee is not paying attention or untrustworthy when in fact he or she may be demonstrating respect.

Question: Why does my employee stand so close to me when we talk?
Americans stand in a 12 to 15-inch circle of personal space. If someone stands closer than this, it is usually uncomfortable. In other cultures, however, this circle differs in size. In Asian cultures it is usually larger, resulting in people standing farther away from one another. In Latin or Middle Eastern cultures, it is often much smaller. As always, however, individual differences do apply.

Question: My employee refuses to shake hands when she is introduced. Why is this?
Just as personal space allowances differ from country to country, so do rules governing touch. Americans tend not to touch one another (when compared with other cultures), but touching of the arm, shoulder, or upper back is generally accepted in American culture. This rule applies between people of the same or opposite sex, married or unmarried.

In Middle Eastern countries and some Asian countries, however, there are very different rules about what kind of touch is acceptable. In some Asian cultures, for example, it is neither unusual nor necessarily a sign of sexual preference for women friends to hold hands in public. The same may be said of men in Middle Eastern cultures. However, in many Asian and Middle Eastern societies, touching someone of the opposite sex may be carefully avoided.  A Muslim woman may be reluctant to shake hands with a man, even as part of an introduction (see also Cultural Issues: Gender). Some Muslim women have adapted to American handshakes by extending their hands covered with their dress. For further insight into rules governing touch, note your employees’ interactions with those from their own culture.

Dress and Personal Hygiene

In America, dress is often based on personal taste or current fashion trends. In many other cultures, dress reflects status, wealth, religious beliefs, and traditional sensibilities. For women it may be inappropriate to wear clothes that are revealing. Shorts or skirts may be considered taboo. Even a uniform provided by an employer may be considered inappropriate if it includes trousers. In the workplace a balance can be struck regarding dress codes and uniforms. Management and employees can find a middle ground that respects cultural norms while satisfying an employer’s need for safety, functionality and appearance.

Similarly, personal hygiene must be a shared standard that accommodates workplace norms. Employees from diverse cultural backgrounds will not necessarily share the same personal hygienic practices. Nonetheless, a standard of preferred personal hygiene should be communicated. This may necessitate a conversation or orientation for employees who have not been exposed to American standards of personal hygiene.

Question: What is the meaning of head covering among Somali women?
Many Muslim women cover their heads and also wear loose fitting clothing. Some cover their faces. Muslim women adopt this practice, called hijab, in accordance with religious teachings. Hijab means “to hide from view or conceal” and refers to both the custom and the head covering itself. The practice calls for women to cover their heads and necks and to wear loose clothing that does not describe the shape of their bodies. The purpose of this type of dress is to display their Muslim identity with a dignified sense of modesty that does not draw attention from men. Due to safety concerns, some of the loose, flowing dress has caused difficulty for employers who utilize machinery or assembly lines. Consulting with female Muslim employees to adapt their dress for safety reasons may require the assistance of a culturally specific community-based organization or employment counselor.

Question: What should I do when an employee has a body odor problem?
In such a situation the problem must be addressed directly using an interpreter, trusted co-worker or an intermediary with the required language skills. A minimum standard of personal hygiene and cleanliness should be expected of all employees. An employee with a body odor problem or lack of clean clothing most likely does not even recognize that such a standard exists. To respectfully inform the individual is a favor to all concerned, preventing embarrassment and gossip.


All cultures have rules about acceptable interaction between men and women. While Americans generally operate as peers regardless of gender, in many other societies culturally dictated gender roles result in males controlling relationships with females. This is especially the case in traditional rural societies. It may be odd for some men from traditional societies to have female co-workers or a female boss. Likewise, it may be strange for a woman who has never been employed outside the home to have a male, other than her husband or father, giving her instructions.

In the workplace, cross-cultural gender issues can be very sensitive, but fairness and equality must be maintained. Some male employees may feel threatened or pushed around by a female supervisor. Similarly, male supervisors may find it very difficult to supervise female employees. Women from certain cultures are very shy or ashamed to talk to a man not from their immediate family — even if he is the boss. They may refuse eye contact, appear afraid or be unwilling to meet alone in a male supervisor’s office.

Question: Why does my new female employee refuse to shake my hand?
It is inappropriate for some women from cultures with strong religious beliefs, particularly Muslims and Buddhists, to come into physical contact with males from outside their family. Likewise, some Muslim men may not shake hands with a woman, even of higher authority or status. This is not a rule but a generalization that varies from person to person depending upon religious orthodoxy. The refusal to shake hands is not intended to be an insult or a rejection. Conversely, men and women from these cultures who do shake hands when meeting American friends or a new acquaintance are not denying their culture but rather adapting to meet the norms and traditional practices of American life. (See also Cultural Issues: Body Language and Personal Space.)

Question: As a female supervisor, why don’t some of my male employees respect my authority?
Men in many cultures never have to answer to a woman. The authority figure in most employment or family settings is the man. Some male employees may resent or discount the authority of a female supervisor. By not making instructions an issue of personal authority, female supervisors can remove themselves from a potential confrontation. Communicating “the company’s” instructions clearly, consistently and explicitly can prove to be less threatening and more successful.


Most religions prescribe practices concerning prayer, diet, personal behavior, holidays, and even dress. Respecting an individual’s religious beliefs is deeply rooted in our American culture, yet at times religion can have an impact on the workplace that needs to be addressed cooperatively between the employee and management. For example, many organizations hiring Somalis have made significant efforts to accommodate their need to pray during the workday. Such steps can only occur if management understands the cultural significance of the employee’s faith while the employee respects the employer’s need for productivity.

Question: How can we acknowledge diverse religious holidays in the workplace?
Every cultural group has celebrations and holidays to mark important religious and social events. These events may or may not correspond to Christian or American holidays. One solution is to have a general holiday party in organization incorporating different food and customs. Allowing employees the opportunity to share their culture at the workplace — an equivalent of a Christmas party — promotes workplace understanding and respect.

Question: Why is there water on the floor in the employee bathroom?
The five prayers required for a Muslim each day require a “cleansing of the body” or ablutions — washing the face, hands, feet and genitalia. To the dismay of the employer and non-Muslim co-workers, a bathroom sink may be the only option for the employee performing this ritual. It might be necessary to designate a sink for this purpose to better accommodate employees’ prayer rituals and create a cleaner bathroom. Another potential solution to keep bathroom sinks clean and to prevent water from splashing onto bathroom floors is to place a plastic kettle or bucket in the bathroom. Muslim employees who desire to pray can be requested to use these items. Another possible solution is to request that the employees clean up after themselves. Note, however, that the employees would need to return to this task after prayer, as cleaning up after themselves right away would defeat the purpose of purification before prayer.

Question: Do all Muslim employees pray five times a day?
Don’t assume all Muslims have the same religious practices. In all religions there is a continuum of religious practice and beliefs.

Question: Do I need to provide a place for my employees to pray?
RefugeeWorks, a publication of the National Center for Refugee Employment and Self-Sufficiency, has the following to say about this issue:

“Requests for religious accommodation in the workplace are on the increase, requiring employers to demonstrate not only tolerance but also knowledge of employee and employer rights and responsibilities in order to avoid discriminatory practices. If an employee identifies a need for religious accommodation, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission technical assistance publication ‘Religious Discrimination’ advises the employer to take the following steps:

  • Inquire as to the nature of the employee’s beliefs

  • Consider the nature of the conflict between the employee’s religious beliefs and his job obligations.

  • Consider the burdens on business created by possible accommodations.

  • Offer an accommodation unless such an accommodation would cause an undue hardship.”

Time and Punctuality

Many cultures have a different understanding of time and being “on time.” Time is a culturally determined concept that can be thought of in terms of nanoseconds or centuries. In this context, does arriving for work ten minutes early or ten minutes late really matter? Yes, it matters to some employers and, no, it may not matter to some employees. Maintaining relationships, socializing and talking, then getting the job done may be the priorities among some cultural groups. Americans may believe that all paid time on the job must be productive. “American time” is a concept that new immigrants and refugees will learn, adjust to, and eventually accept. Employers can enhance understanding and alleviate potential problems if expectations for punctuality and paid time are clearly explained to the employee.

Question: Why is my employee late?
The concept of time is different in every culture. In some Latin American cultures, for example, arranging to meet at 7:00 p.m. may mean that anytime between 7:30 and 9:00 is acceptable. One American teacher in Tanzania found that her school staff meetings often started an hour late and routinely lasted five to six hours! Employees from those cultures may not be aware that the concept of time and its implications differ in American culture. Explain and clarify your expectations about being on time as soon as the employee is hired. What seems to be the obvious may be new information to the employee and may need to be repeated or explained again.

Question: How can I make my employee work faster?
Americans tend to focus heavily on productivity in the workplace — “time is money.” We value completing work quickly and efficiently more than developing relationships with co-workers. Other cultures often place more value on the social interactions that take place during work. Consider how this employer and employee see the same situation differently:

Employer: “Hassan is always so slow getting started. I don’t know why he always lags behind at the lockers. He needs to punch in and get started. We have a lot of work to do! There’s no time for chatting with everyone.”

Employee: “Why don’t people talk to each other here? No one seems to care how others are doing. In my country, you don’t start working until you’ve exchanged news with everyone. It’s so rude that no one stops to greet each other when they come to work!”

Question: How can my office be productive and culturally sensitive?
The output of an employee is directly related to his or her ability to master the skills of the job, to sustain the relationships needed for organizational success, and to feel comfortable and appreciated in the workplace. These combined factors require effective management and excellent communication within a homogeneous workforce. In a cross-cultural workplace the challenge is significantly greater. Try the following recommendations:

  • Take the time to get to know the employee. Daily greetings are especially important as a sign of respect in many cultures.

  • Ask your employee how a similar job would be done in his/her country. This will give you a perspective on your employee’s background, culture, and his/her expectations for how the job should be done. This will allow you to anticipate misunderstanding and clearly indicate what is expected.

  • Ask questions about your employee’s culture, especially if there are behaviors or customs you don’t understand. Knowledge, communication and respect are the keys to a successful cross-cultural relationship. It is not impolite to ask a question if it is done with respect and the intent is to gain knowledge.

Work Performance Evaluations

Other societies often have different systems of evaluating employees, and some have none at all. The evaluation process could be intimidating and even confusing for immigrant employees. It should not be assumed that all employees understand the concept or purpose of an evaluation, particularly self-evaluation. In some cultures meeting privately with your supervisor usually indicates a problem and the evaluation whether it is positive or not, may be misinterpreted as a reprimand. When reviewing an employee’s performance it is critical that the employee understands the scope, purpose, of the evaluation and expectations of the job he/she is performing. Americans can be very direct in confronting issues, particularly if an employee’s work performance needs to be improved. This approach can be interpreted as personal criticism or threatening, especially by people from cultures that are more indirect and subtle than ours. The concept of “saving face” is important in many cultures and may require an employer to present desired behavior changes with a firm but positive approach.

Question: I gave my employee an excellent evaluation with only a few things to work on, but she seemed confused and upset. Why?
Your employee probably does not understand the process of an evaluation. In her country, evaluations were probably not given or were not an opportunity for dialogue. In some other countries, supervisors give instructions that usually are not challenged or even discussed. She may think you are unhappy with her performance but did not want to tell her directly. Explain the concept of American evaluations and explain that she can ask questions and respond openly during the process.

Question: I need a real go-getter. Why is my employee so passive?
Not all cultures value or encourage individuality and the freedom of choice which are common in American culture. In many cultures individual decision-making is rare or not possible — either in the workplace or in one’s personal life. Therefore asking employees to “decide for themselves” may result in blank stares or misunderstandings. This is particularly true among employees who feel that it is the supervisor’s role to make decisions and their role to execute the given instructions.

Encouraging employees to take control of their jobs and demonstrate initiative is a skill that can be cultivated. Employers may need to create opportunities to incrementally build the skills and confidence of employees to make independent decisions.

Question: My employee has shown great work behavior and I’d like to promote her to a lead position, but she refuses to step up to the position. Why?
Reluctance to accept a promotion may be caused by one of several factors.  The employee may fear that accepting the promotion will be offensive to his peers. For example, if the employee is a woman, she may be unable to see herself in a position of authority over men, should the position call for it (see also Cultural Issues: Gender). Or she may be reluctant to move into a position of authority over an elder (see also Cultural Issues: Age, Authority Figures and Hierarchy), even if the senior employee is an American. Reluctance to leave a peer group or insecurity about language ability and cultural savvy may also result in refusal of a promotion. Asking about how a similar promotion might have been offered in her country of origin, or what kind of person there might hold such a position, could open the door to conversation about any fears or inhibitions the employee may have.

Minnesota’s Refugee and Immigration Population

Thousands of refugees have been resettled in Minnesota over the last twenty years. The Minnesota Refugee Programs Office releases refugee arrival reports annually. Refugee Arrivals 2003-2015.

This section offers a brief overview of the country and culture of the largest refugee populations in Minnesota. Each page includes a description of the:

  • Country Profile

  • People

  • Language

  • Religion

  • Arrival in U.S.

  • Minnesota Population



Map of EritreaCountry Profile
Eritrea is a small country of 6.3 million in East Africa. After more than a century of colonization by the Italians, British and Ethiopians, the Eritrea’s gained independence in 1993. Following independence the Eritrean people started building their new country and revitalizing its economy. Their amazing strides forward in improving health, education and the economy resulted in Eritrea being recognized internationally as an African “success story”. In 1998, war with Ethiopia erupted into a bloody on-going conflict. Eritrea is a poor country, which primarily depends on subsistence agriculture. Tourism, shipping and mining are economic sectors that are starting to be explored but are not yet significantly developed. Many Eritreans live in other places besides Eritrea, including Sudan and Ethiopia.

The People
Half of all Eritreans are Tigray and Tigrinya-speaking Christians. People of the same ethnic make-up live across the border in Ethiopia. The other major ethnic group, the Tigreans, is Muslim and comprises one-third of the population.

Eritrea has no government-mandated language. The government uses Tigrinya, Arabic and English. Tigrinya and Tigre, closely related, are the two most commonly spoken languages.

Equal numbers of Eritreans practice Islam and Christianity. The Eritrean Orthodox Church is the largest Christian church. Small numbers of Roman Catholics and Protestants are present in Eritrea.

Arrival in U.S.
Eritreans came to the U.S. as refugees from Ethiopia prior to their homeland’s independence or were already in the U.S., frequently as university students, during the 1980s and received political asylum. During the late 1990s Eritreans came to the U.S. on diversity visas.

Minnesota Population
There may be as many as 2,000 Eritreans in Minnesota with a large community established in St. Paul’s West 7th area.

Ethiopians: Amhara and Oromo

Country ProfileMap of Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a landlocked country in East Africa.  It has a population of 101.1 million people. Since 1980, civil war and ethnic conflict, accompanied by drought and famine, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing and settling in surrounding countries.  At the end of 1998, tens of thousands of Ethiopians remained refugees in neighboring countries.

Approximately, agriculture accounts for almost 41% of the GDP with coffee being the main export. Urban dwellers are often civil servants, shopkeepers and laborers.  Upper-level civil servants are educated at universities, both domestically and abroad.  A high school degree is common among urban residents.  In rural areas education is limited with significant rates of adult illiteracy.

The People
More than 75 ethnic groups live in Ethiopia, but the Oromo (35%), Amhara and Tigrean (33% combined) are the largest. Until 1991 the Amhara dominated political life in Ethiopia even though the Oromo are the largest ethnic group. As a result, ethnic strife has resulted between the Amhara and Oromo. For a period of time the Ethiopian government attempted to impose a national culture upon the entire country. Since 1991 the Tigreans have controlled the nation’s political and economic scene.

Ethiopia is a nation with some eighty languages and almost 200 dialects. The three main languages are Amharic, Oromifaa, and Tigrinya. Amharic is the official government language. For a period in the 1970’s the government banned Oromifaa and numerous other languages.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Coptic Christian) and Islam are the two main religions in Ethiopia.

Arrival in U.S.
During the early 1980s, many Ethiopian professionals and students already in the U.S. obtained political asylum. They now work in a variety of professional fields and are socioeconomically well established in American society.

More recent arrivals come to the U.S. as refugees, asylees and as permanent residents through family members or the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. Some of these arrivals did not complete their education or acquire necessary skills to compete in the U.S. labor market. Many work in entry-level jobs while attending school part-time to complete their high school, vocational or college education.

Minnesota Population
The Census shows 13,927 Ethiopians living in Minnesota, although local community leaders believe the population is much larger, with the majority being Oromos. Increasingly Ethiopians are coming to Minnesota as secondary migrants from other states due to the strong job market and to be reunited with family. There are an estimated 10,000 Ethiopians living in Minnesota with the Minneapolis neighborhoods of Seward and Cedar Riverside currently having the largest populations.

(Last updated January 2017)


Map of LiberiaCountry Profile
Liberia is a nation of almost 4.2 million people located on the Atlantic coast of West Africa. Former slaves from the U.S. and the Caribbean called Americo-Liberians founded the first republic in Africa, Liberia in 1822. Throughout Liberia’s history it has had very close relations with the U.S. Liberia experienced political instability at numerous times during the 1980s. Civil war erupted in 1990, and throughout much of the decade warring factions disrupted normal civilian life, forcing tens of thousands from their homes and into neighboring countries as refugees.

The People
The Americo-Liberians, an English-speaking minority, make-up only 5 percent of Liberia’s population but have dominated politics. The indigenous ethnic groups include the Kpelle, Bassa, Gio, Kru, Grebo, Mano, Krahn, Gola, Gbandi, Loma, Kissi, Vai, and Bella.

English is the official language and used by approximately 20 to 30 percent of Liberians. Some 20 indigenous languages are spoken in Liberia. 

More than 60 percent of Liberians are Christians, predominantly Protestant. The remainder is Muslim or practices traditional beliefs.

Arrival in U.S.
There are an estimated 250,000 Liberians living in the U.S. Many Liberians came to the U.S. in the 1980s following the civil war. Some came as students but were unable to return to their homeland. A second wave of refugees arrived during the late-1990s as a result of more civil strife in Liberia. 

Minnesota Population
More than 800 Liberian refugees were resettled in Minnesota during the 1990s. In 1999 Minnesota resettled more than 400 Liberians with new refugees expected in 2000. Liberians are scattered throughout the Twin Cities with a concentrated population living in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center. It is estimated that about 35,000 Liberians are currently living in Minnesota.


Map of SomaliaCountry Profile
Somalia is a country of 10.5 million people in the “horn” of East Africa. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the British, Italian and French divided Somali territory among themselves. After World War II, Italy administrated Somalia to prepare it for independence. In 1991 Somalia’s political system completely collapsed, and by 1992 famine and civil war had consumed the nation. As a result, an estimated four hundred thousand Somalis died and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave urban and rural areas for refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. As many as one million Somalis now live outside of their homeland. Clan-based factions continue to divide the country into strongholds marked by fighting and random banditry. 

The People
The Somali people are mostly divided into numerous clans and sub-clans that trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor. Most Somalis make their living off the land and their culture is rooted in a tradition of pastoralism — traveling with herds of goats, sheep and camels. Camels especially are an important symbol of wealth. This lifestyle is reflected in the Somali values of freedom of movement, independence, strength and justice. Prior to the civil war an educated urban professional class emerged, but even among this group traditional culture is valued.

Men are at the center of Somali society and public life. It is acceptable for Somali men to marry up to four wives, but only one fifth of men do so. Somali women have more freedom to be educated, work and travel than many Muslim women, but are nonetheless traditionally charged with all domestic tasks.

Somali is the language of Somalis. Somalis retain primarily an oral culture in which religious and political oratory as well as storytelling, songs and poetry are highly valued.

Many Somalis also speak Arabic, the language of Islam. Older Somalis may have received education in the colonial languages — English in the north and Italian in the south. Some Somalis in Minnesota may also speak Swahili as a result of living in Kenyan refugee camps.

Somalis are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, but like Christians, each individual practices his/her faith with different degrees of orthodoxy. Many social norms in Somalia are derived from Islamic tradition. Islam forbids believers to eat pork products or drink alcohol. Those who strictly follow Islam may not work in an establishment that serves either pork or alcohol. Islam requires the faithful to pray five times per day. Some Somalis will stop work to pray at prescribed times or pray during a break or other arranged time. Somali women may cover their heads and bodies when they are in public in accordance with Islamic tradition.

Arrival in U.S.
Since 1993, Somalis have come to Minnesota as refugees. The majority of Somalis in Minnesota have come as secondary migrants from other regions of the U.S. as well as Toronto, Ontario where there is also a large Somali population.

Minnesota Population
There may be as many as 35,760 to 150,000 Somalis living in Minnesota with 80% residing in Minneapolis, likely the highest concentration of Somalis in the U.S. The majority of Somalis live in the Cedar Riverside, Phillips, and Elliot Park neighborhoods of South Minneapolis. Increasingly, Somali families can be found moving to Metro area suburban communities — Eden Prairie has close to 100 Somali families — and rural Minnesota.

(Last updated January 2017)


Country Profile
Map of Sudan
Sudan is geographically the largest nation in Africa. It’s a population of 39 million citizens that live in a land divided by religion, war and poverty. The government of Sudan and the northern two-thirds of the country are controlled by ethnic Arabs committed to making Sudan an Islamic state. The southern one-third of Sudan is made up of Africans of various ethnic tribes and religious beliefs that have fiercely resisted cultural and religious domination.

Except for the eleven-year peace agreement between 1972 and 1983, Sudan has been at war since 1955. For much of the 1990s Sudan has suffered war and famine, which continue today. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died or fled as refugees to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to escape the fighting and hunger.

In addition, an active slave trade continues to exist in Sudan as northern Sudanese capture and sell ethnic Africans into servitude as domestic help or laborers. About 80 percent of Sudan’s economy is based upon agriculture with 10 percent of the population maintaining a completely nomadic life.

The People
Arabs constitute the majority ethnic group and control much of the country’s political and economic power. In southern Sudan are Africans from various ethnic groups. The Dinka, Funj, Nuer, and Shilluk are some of the major tribes of the south.

Arabic is the national language spoken by about one-half of the population. Most non-Arabs speak tribal languages such as Nuer, Dinka, Anuak, and Zande. There are more than one hundred languages and over 570 ethnic dialects spoken in Sudan. English has become the principal language among formally educated Sudanese of the south while many northern Sudanese also speak English.

Most Sudanese in the north are Sunni Muslims. In southern Sudan the majority practices various animist traditions, which differ depending on tribe. Approximately 5 percent of Sudanese are Christians.

Arrival in U.S.
The resettlement of Sudanese refugees in the U.S. started in 1993.

Minnesota Population
Almost 400 refugees from southern Sudan have been resettled in Minnesota during the 1990s. The majority lives in Anoka County, Northern Hennepin County, St. Paul, and Roseville. Many in the metro area are from rural, farming tribes (Nuer, Dinka, Anuak, Nuba) and have little previous exposure to technology. Educated men often speak English while many Sudanese women have never attended school and struggle to learn English. Adjustment to U.S. culture has been difficult. Refugees from urban tribes (Zande, Mahdi) are more educated and more familiar with technology.



CambodiaCountry Profile
Cambodia is a nation of 15.9 million people located in Southeast Asia.  Since 1975 Cambodia has been the scene of extreme political violence, civil war and human suffering.  The radical communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975 and initiated a reign of terror and genocide that resulted in nearly two million deaths from violence, starvation and disease.  From 1978 to 1989 Cambodia was in a state of civil war.  Hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime and the civil war fled to Thailand as refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Cambodia is an agricultural country — with farming, logging and food processing as major industries.  Some 90 percent of Cambodians do not earn cash income but are engaged in subsistence agriculture.

The People
The Khmer, the largest ethnic group in Cambodia, make up 70 percent of the population.  The Sino-Khmer (Chinese and Khmer mixed) comprises 10 percent of the population.

Khmer is the language of Cambodians.

The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists.  Religious worship was banned during the 1970’s and many Buddhist monasteries and temples were destroyed.  Buddhism is a very strong influence in the lives of Cambodians.  To Buddhists the head is the most important part of the body and one does not touch another person’s head, not even a child’s.  Also, while seated, it is considered impolite to point the soles of one’s feet toward another person.

Arrival in U.S.
Most Cambodians came to the U.S. during the late 1970s and 1980s as refugees fleeing the violence of the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing civil war.  Many Cambodians lived in refugee camps in Thailand for years waiting for the opportunity to be resettled in the U.S.

Minnesota Population
There are approximately 8,000 Cambodians living in Minnesota with many living in St. Paul and Edina.  The majority of Cambodians arrived in Minnesota during the mid-1980s.


ChinaCountry Profile
For five thousand years China has maintained a rich and lasting civilization. Officially called The Peoples’ Republic of China, the current system of government was established under the Communist regime of Mao Tse Tung in 1949.  China has the world’s largest population with more than 1.3 billion people and is often referred to as “Mainland” China. The island nation of Taiwan is called the Republic of China.  This “break away” government was established by Chinese exiles in opposition to the Communists.  The former British colony of Hong Kong has many English-speaking Chinese while the former Macao colony (near Hong Kong) was governed by the Portuguese.  Both are now part of The People’s Republic of China.

China is a political and economic superpower.  The majority of the population is engaged in agriculture but manufacturing and high-tech industries are developing.  Central government control of the economy still exists while individual freedoms are limited and political dissent forbidden.

The People
The Han Chinese is the major ethnic group in China.  There are 55 additional ethnic minorities, 15 of which are comprised of more than one million people.

The various Chinese dialects make it difficult for the Chinese to understand one another except through the written language.  The two main dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese.  Mandarin is the dialect established by the Communists as the “proper” language of choice to teach in government-run schools and to use in government agencies.  Cantonese is spoken mainly in the south, but its influence is felt worldwide because of immigration to the West from Hong Kong and China’s southern region.

Chinese are likely to be agnostic or atheistic in their beliefs since religion was discouraged during the Communist era. There are small percentages of Christians and Buddhists in Mainland China. Acupuncture, martial arts, Tai chi, feng-shui, and chi-gong have mystical and religious connotations, but the Chinese view them not as religions but as philosophical contributions to their society.

Arrival in U.S.
The Chinese population in the United States dates back to the 1890s, but a large influx of immigrants came in the 1940s.  Chinese university students have come to the U.S. in large numbers throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Minnesota Population
It is estimated that as many as 10,000 Chinese immigrants and persons of Chinese descent live in Minnesota.  Chinese Minnesotans live throughout the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.  The Twin Cities area has the second largest concentration of Mainland Chinese college and university students in the United States.


LaosCountry Profile
There is no Hmong nation or state.  The Hmong have traditionally lived in Laos, Vietnam and China and are an ethnic group, not a nationality.

The People
The Hmong people were farmers in Laos and Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  Many Hmong fought with support from the US against the Vietcong and Communist forces inside Laos.  Following the U.S. withdrawal from the region the Hmong were forced to abandon their homes and seek refuge in Thailand.

The Hmong have always been an independent population living in the mountains of Southeast Asia.  The Hmong culture is traditionally agrarian.

Hmong is a monosyllabic tonal language.  There was no written script until western missionaries devised one in the early 1950s.  Previously the Hmong maintained a purely oral culture.

The Hmong are traditionally animists believing in spirits and the supernatural world, defined as the world that cannot be seen by human eyes. Contact with the spirit world is made through a shaman, a religious and a medical leader, similar to a Native American medicine man or woman.

Many Hmong living in America continue to practice their traditional religious beliefs while others have joined Christian churches.

Arrival in U.S.
The Hmong began coming to the U.S. during the 1970s. There are 150,000 Hmong in the U.S. with Minnesota, Wisconsin and California having the largest populations.

Minnesota Population
The first Hmong family arrived in Minnesota in 1975.  The Hmong population in Minnesota is now estimated at 60,000 with the majority living in St. Paul.  It is believed that Minnesota has the largest Hmong population in the United States.


IndiaCountry Profile
India, located in the Asian sub-continent, has the world’s second largest population with 1.2 billion people and is the world’s largest democratic country.  An ancient civilization, Indian history dates back more than 4,000 years and has been influenced by numerous invading forces and colonial powers including Alexander the Great, Muslim Turks and Afghans, as well as the Portuguese and British empires.

Today, India continues to be primarily an agricultural nation but also has growing industrial, manufacturing and high-tech sectors.  India is both a modern, nuclear nation as well as a stratified and structured society with 360 million people living in poverty.  This contradiction continues to create social and political challenges. Nonetheless India remains a nation of great political and economic importance.

The People
India is an ethnically diverse country with Indo-Aryans and Dravidians comprising more than 90% of the population.  Ethnicity is not the predominant factor that distinguishes Indians.  Religion, socioeconomic status, education and rural/urban differences all contribute to the stratification of Indian society.  In particular, the Hindu caste system, though legally abolished, divides society through an established and rigid hierarchy of status.  The caste system is segmented from top to bottom with intellectuals and leaders on the high end, followed by warriors, farmers and merchants, laborers, and at the lowest extreme, untouchables.  This system makes social and economic mobility very difficult.

More than three hundred languages are spoken in India.  Hindi is spoken by almost 40% of Indians.  English is commonly spoken among the educated.  In addition to Hindi and English there are fourteen other “official” languages in India.

More than 80% of Indians practice Hinduism while another 14% are Muslims.  The remainder is Christian, Buddhist, Sikh and Jainist.  India’s spiritual roots run deep, as it is the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

Arrival in U.S.
Asian Indians are prominent as an educated, middle class subset of immigrants.  Asian Indians immigrate to the U.S. by choice.  They leave India primarily in search of improved economic opportunities, not for cultural, political or religious reasons.  They bring with them the desire to adapt into the professional world while maintaining a great sense of cultural identity.  The U.S. accepts around 40,000 Indian immigrants a year.

A larger number of immigrants are “sponsored” by relatives living here and go directly into the work force rather than going to school.  Once immigrants become citizens, they can sponsor relatives to come to America.  Other Indians in the U.S. acquire H-1B visas given mostly to professionals. This has become very common in the technology industries that recruit Indian professionals to fill labor shortages.

Minnesota Population
The Indian population first arrived in Minnesota in significant numbers in the 1980s.  The Indian population is now estimated at 10,000 with large numbers living in Eden Prairie.


Country Profile
Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has an estimated population of 53 million. The Karen people live mostly on the southeast edge of Burma as well as in part of northeastern Thailand. This area that crosses over into two countries is called the Karen State. A constant revolution and the longest running resistance today was started in the end of the British Colonial Era. The Karen state was given a constitution and certain land borders that the head of the state at the time disagreed with strongly. They refused to sign the Panglong Agreement, which was the basis for the constitution of Burma in 1947; nonetheless, a constitution was granted to the Karen state. The main leading political force, the Karen National Union (KNU), during this time was completely unsatisfied, and the KNU raised a rebellion in 1949 that continues today.

The Republic of the Union of Myanmar used to be referred to as Burma; this change was implemented by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. The reason the state is still referred to as Burma  is because  the Union Solidarity and Development Party is referred as a oppressive regime, making policies that often the majority of the population doesn’t agree with. A retaliation of the citizens of this state often choose to ignore many of the policies of the regime, including the renaming of the state; hence the two names of Burma or Myanmar, both the same place, just different stances.

The People
The number of Karen people in the Kayin state in Myanmar is estimated around 1.5 million people in the Union report, but many other studies report the population of the Karen people is much larger. A more accurate estimate is that 7 million Karen people live in Burma, and about 1 million live in Thailand.

The Karen people speak three main branches of the Karenic languages, Sgaw, Pwo, and Pa’o Karenni. The language is written using the Burmese script.

The majority of the Karen population practices Buddhism, which includes Animism. Around 65-75% of the population are Buddhist, but the Karen of Thailand claim to have their own religion. Around 25% identify as Christian. Around 90-95% of Karen people immigrating into the U.S. are Christian.

Arrival in the U.S.
The Karen people first arrived to the U.S. in 2004. Minnesota is home to the largest concentrated population of the Karen people. Other places with significant populations are California, Texas, New York, and Indiana.

Minnesota Population
According to the Karen Community of Minnesota, in 2017 there were over 17,000 Karen living in Minnesota. Many live in Saint Paul and Maplewood. Around 90-95% of Karen people immigrating into the U.S. are Christian. There are often many celebrations in Saint Paul and Maplewood for the Karen New Year. The Karen New Year is based on the full moon and is traditionally held on the first day of the month of Pyathoe in the Buddhist calendar. These celebrations often include traditional dancing, music, and singing.


LaosCountry Profile
Laos is a small nation of 6.7 million people in Southeast Asia.  Laotians are divided into more than 65 different ethnic groups with eighty percent of the population living in rural areas.  As a result, the economy of Laos is predominantly based on subsistence agriculture.

Laos was the scene of both fighting and significant U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War.  The U.S. sponsored armies in Laos, of various ethnic groups, to help fight the North Vietnamese and Communist forces in Laos.  As a result, tens of thousands of Laotians were forced to flee their homeland for Thailand following the U.S. withdrawal from the region and the Communist take over of Laos. Since 1975 a Communist government has ruled Laos.

The People
The two major groups are the Lowland Lao, which is the largest single group, and the Highland Lao. The largest Highland group is the Hmong community; another Highland group is the Khamu.

Lao is the official language of Laos.  Other important languages are Hmong and Thai.  Some Hmong people speak Lao, but for the most part Lao people do not speak Hmong.  It should not be assumed that Laotians and Hmong can communicate.

Theravada Buddhism is adhered to by 90 percent of the population. Animism is still present among various tribes. Christians represent only about one percent of the population.

Arrival in U.S.
The Lao people have come as refugees to the United States since the early 1980s from camps in Thailand.

Minnesota Population
There are 15,000 Laotians in the Twin Cities area.  The majority of the population lives in south Minneapolis, St. Paul and Richfield.


TibetCountry Profile
Tibet, once an isolated, independent Asian kingdom in the Himalayas, has been a province of China since 1950 as a result of China’s invasion and take-over.  The Tibetan people have endured political and cultural repression during the years of Chinese rule. Much of Tibet’s cultural heritage and many religious monasteries have been destroyed while Tibet’s traditionally devout practice of Buddhism has been suppressed.  Thousands of Tibetans have been forced to flee their homeland as refugees, settling in India and Nepal.

The People
Tibetans are predominantly of the same ethnic origin and traditionally practice the same religion and speak the same language.

Tibetan is the language of Tibet.  Mandarin Chinese was introduced in the 1950s.  Many Tibetan refugees have lived for many years in exile in India and may also speak English.

Tibetans have traditionally been Buddhists with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism, as the supreme political head of the nation. The Dalai Lama was forced into exile in 1959.  For much of the time since their occupation of Tibet, the Chinese have attempted to eliminate the influence of religion in Tibetan life by destroying temples, religious artifacts and scriptures.

Arrival in U.S.
Congress granted Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal a special allowance of 1,000 immigrant visas in 1990.  The visa status required that Tibetan immigrants secure employment prior to arrival in the U.S.  Local organizations, like the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, assisted in finding local employers to guarantee the immigrants jobs.

Minnesota Population
In 1992 Minnesota received 160 immigrants of Tibetan origin.  These were all adults that eventually secured the resources necessary to bring their family members to the U.S.  Presently the Tibetan community in Minnesota is estimated to have a population of 800, the second largest Tibetan community in North America.  Large concentrations of Tibetans can be found in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis and in northern Hennepin County where some seventy families have become homeowners.


VietnamCountry Profile
Vietnam is a nation in Southeast Asia with more than two thousand years of recorded history. Throughout Vietnamese history, a number of foreign powers, including the Chinese, Japanese and French, have controlled its territory. Vietnam’s rich cultural heritage has been influenced by each of these foreign cultures, as well as by America through its almost twenty-year involvement in support of the former government of South Vietnam.

From 1945 to 1975 Vietnam was the scene of significant international conflict. The split that created the separate nations of North and South Vietnam eventually resulted in a Cold War confrontation. The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. In 1975 the Communist government from the North defeated the South and unified Vietnam into a single nation. Political opponents of the North fled Vietnam or faced persecution as well as internment in “re-education camps.”

Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995. Full political and economic exchanges are now taking place.

The People
The Vietnamese people are ethnic Kinh. Ethnic Chinese are a small minority but play an important role in the merchant class. Additionally, there are more than 50 highland minority groups each of which has its own language and culture.

Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. It is also possible that some older and formally educated adults may speak French due to France’s colonial rule over Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese are Buddhists. Taoism and Roman Catholicism are also practiced as minority religions.

Arrival in U.S.
Thousands of Vietnamese fled Vietnam following the Communist take over in 1975. Many of these refugees were persecuted or feared persecution resulting from their support and assistance of South Vietnam and the U.S. Many of them are referred to as “boat people” because they fled Vietnam by boat.

Minnesota Population
Between 1979 and 1999 almost 15,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in Minnesota. The Vietnamese population is currently estimated at 20,000.

Middle East


IraqCountry Profile
Iraq is a country that is part of the Middle East which is located between Europe and Asia. This is a country with a population of 33.4 million people, most of whom are of Muslim ethnicity. Iraq has been scene of extreme political violence, human suffering, and wars. Currently, Iraq is an Islamic, democratic, parliamentary republic with Jalal Talabani as the president and the Prime Minister being Nouri al-Maliki. America and Iraq have been at war with each other since early 2003 after the terrorist attack of 911. This war has left millions of Iraqi citizens dead and feeling the country and has lead to other political issues both within and out of the country.

The People
Shiites is the largest ethnicity in Iraq followed by the Sunnis. In Iraq men make up the majority in the workplace and political power. Women still do not have very many rights and have less/no power.

The two official languages in Iraq are: Arabic and Kurdish. With other regional languages such as: Aramaic, South Azeri, Armenia, and Persian can also be found in Iraq.

Islam is the predominant religion in Iraq with about 97% of the population following. Christianity is the second religion that is found in Iraq.

Arrival in U.S.
In the past decade is when we have seen a increasing in Iraqis fleeing to the United States. Before that there were not many Iraqis fleeing to America and this could be due to issues within Iraq.

Minnesota Population
There are about 2,000 Iraqis living in Minnesota. The majority of them have arrived in the past decade.


SyriaCountry Profile
Syria is a country that is located directly to the west of Iraq with a population of about 23 million people. Syria is much like Iraq in dealing with political violence, civil war, human rights and suffering. The current President is Bashar al-Assad and the Prime Minster is Wael Nader al-Halqi; however, due to the political structure the president has more control on what happens in the country. Currently, Sryia is facing one of the largest refugee’s crisis with millions of families trying to flee to other countries. This is the result of violence and the collapsed infrastructure within Syria.

The People
Syria is a mix of Arabs and Aramean who migrated from other parts of the Middle East.

The official language is Arabic. Arabic-speakers make up about 90% of the population while the other 10% are Kurdish. Kurdish is mainly spoken in northeastern regions.

90% of the population in Syria is Islamic while the other 10% is Christian. Islam is the most common religion that can be found in the Middle East.

Arrival in U.S.
Within the past decade the United States have been seeing more and more Syrian refugees. This could be dues to many reasons within the country and wanting to flee their homeland.

Minnesota Population
There are approximately 3,000 Syrian refugees living in Minnesota. The majority of them have arrived in the past decade.



RussiaCountry Profile
Russia, nearly twice the geographic size of the U.S., is the largest country in the world. With a population of nearly 143.5 million people. For centuries Russia has been a great political power, the source of abundant natural resources and has possessed a highly developed culture of literature and the performing arts. From 1922 to 1991, Russia and its surrounding states were merged into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Within the Soviet Union the state controlled all aspects of daily life — the economy, education, employment, health care, and housing. The individual had little freedom or decision-making ability. Dissent was not tolerated. All industry and agriculture was state owned and operated. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Almost a dozen independent states were created following the collapse and break-up of the Soviet Union with Russia emerging as a free democracy with a free market economy. The transition from Communist rule to an open democracy has not been easy. Crime, unemployment and declining standard of living have caused severe hardship for many Russians. Ethnic tensions, suppressed during the Soviet era, are on the rise resulting in persecution of some groups.

The People
Russia is comprised of more than 120 ethnic groups. Ethnic Russians account for 82% of the population.

Russian is a Slavic language that uses the Cyrillic script. Sometimes there can be confusion between our Latin alphabet and the Cyrillic as some letters look the same or similar (Latin “p” looks the same as a Cyrillic “r”). Although Russian grammar is very different from that of English, some English vocabulary may be recognizable because it is similar to Russian.

Religious expression was not officially tolerated during the Soviet era. The Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion and has regained strength since the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the Communist era, Christian Jews were often persecuted for their religious beliefs.

Arrival in U.S.
The U.S. has experienced significant Russian immigration during the 20th Century with each wave of immigrants being directly associated with political events in Russia. The most recent waves, during the 1970s and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have resulted in large numbers of Russian refugees arriving in Minnesota. The majority of Russian refugees coming to the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s were Jews escaping religious persecution. During the 1990s intolerance of Christian churches other than the Russian Orthodox Church has resulted in Russian Baptists, Pentecostals, and other religious minorities coming to the U.S. seeking religious freedom.

Minnesota Population
As many as 11,000 Russians live in Minnesota. Many Russian Jews live in large communities in St. Louis Park and downtown Minneapolis. Christian Russians (Pentecostals and Baptists) have settled in Minneapolis as well as suburban Hennepin County, including Plymouth, Hopkins, and Eden Prairie. Russian Jews and Christians, while sharing a common language, may not share a common cultural identity and tension between their respective groups can exist. In addition, not all Russian speakers are necessarily Russians. Russian speakers may be members of a non-Russian ethnic group from one of the fifteen different republics that made up the former Soviet Union (e.g. Ukrainians and Estonians).

Latin America

Central Americans

Central AmericaCountry Profiles
Seven nations comprise Central America — Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. While the region shares a common language and deep historical roots, each nation has developed its own distinctive political, economic and social structures as well as unique culture and character. Central American nations also share a common economic dependence on agriculture with light industry and manufacturing as growing sectors. Throughout the region, rural poverty and growing populations have led to increased urban migration, resulting in large expanding cities with poor living conditions.

Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua spilled over into the entire region resulting in political repression and extreme violence. The U.S. recognized very few refugees from Central America. Central American migration to the U.S. throughout the 1980s and 1990s has primarily been for political as well as economic reasons..

 The People
Originally populated by indigenous peoples, Central America was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th Century. The descendants of the Spanish colonizers have mixed with indigenous peoples over the centuries. Central Americans are ethnically mixed with minorities of Europeans and indigenous peoples remaining. About half of the people in most Central American countries live in rural areas. The majority of Central Americans are literate.

Spanish is the official language of most Central American nations, but each country has its own accent, colloquialisms and lexicon. In several countries the indigenous populations have retained their native languages.

The majority of Central Americans are Roman Catholic. An increasing number of Evangelical Christian churches are growing in popularity.

Arrival in U.S.
Estimates for the number of Spanish speakers in the Twin Cities vary greatly. It is approximated that about 120 legal immigrants come to Minnesota from Central America each year. They are usually here for political, economic, and educational reasons.

Minnesota Population
As of 1996 there were approximately 2,600 Central American immigrants living legally in Minnesota. The majority live in the Twin Cities, with the greatest number residing in Hennepin County.


MexicoCountry Profile
Mexico, located on the southwestern border of the U.S., has a population of approximately 122.3 million people. For almost two thousand years indigenous cultures including the Olmecs, Mayans and Aztecs populated Mexico. The Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th Century launched the mixing of European and Native American cultures.

Mexico and U.S. relations have endured times of tension and even war, but for most of the 20th Century the two nations remained closely linked politically and economically. Today Mexico is a highly developed nation with an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing and tourism. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has increased trade with the U.S. and investment in Mexican industry. Poverty, both rural and urban, and population growth continues to drive Mexicans to search for economic opportunity in the U.S. Millions of Mexicans migrated to the United States during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

The People
Mexicans are predominantly mestizos — a mix of European and Indian descendants. Indigenous populations remain primarily in southern Mexico and comprise about 30 percent of the population. Europeans decedents live largely in urban areas and makeup about 10 percent of the population.

Spanish is the official national language spoken by 95% of the population. In addition, there are some 50 indigenous languages in Mexico that are each spoken by more than 100,000 people.

Mexicans are predominantly Roman Catholic. The Virgin of Guadalupe is the nation’s patron saint. Protestant and evangelical Christians are also active.

Arrival in U.S.
Latino Americans, including persons of Mexican descent, are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are largely concentrated in California and the U.S. southwest, but increasingly they are living throughout the country in both urban and rural areas.

Minnesota Population
More than half of Minnesota’s 125,000 immigrants from Latin America are Mexican. Hennepin and Ramsey counties have the largest populations of Mexicans as well as Mexican-Americans. South and Northeast Minneapolis, West St. Paul, St. Paul, Richfield, and Bloomington all have growing populations of Mexicans from both rural and urban areas in Mexico. Over 90 percent of Mexican immigrants are employed, frequently with two jobs, and a strong emphasis is placed on family, church and community. Employment opportunities and family connections are increasingly drawing newcomers to Minnesota.

Immigration & Citizenship Information

The decision to become a U.S. citizen is a significant life choice. While the citizenship decision may not directly impact the employer of a permanent resident, it is important for an employer to understand the process and eligibility requirements for naturalization.

Requirements for Becoming a U.S. Citizen

  • Legal permanent resident of the U.S. for five years, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen.

  • Resident for at least three months in the state where you are applying for citizenship.

  • 18 years of age or older.

  • Possess a good moral character.

  • Successfully pass a citizenship test to demonstrate basic English skills and knowledge of U.S. history and government.

Advantages of Becoming a U.S. Citizen

  • Citizens have the right to vote in local, state and federal elections.

  • Citizens can run for public office.

  • Citizens can legally bring immediate family members to live in the U.S.

  • Unmarried minor children who are permanent residents automatically become citizens when both parents or the custodial parent acquire U.S. citizenship.

  • Citizens can receive full Social Security benefits while living in most foreign countries.

  • Traveling to some foreign countries becomes easier.

  • Citizens cannot be deported, unlike permanent residents, for committing some criminal offenses.

Disadvantages of Becoming a U.S. Citizen

  • An oath of allegiance to the United States and renunciation of loyalty to country of origin are required.

  • Property ownership in the country of origin may become a problem.

  • A work permit may be required to work in the country of origin.

  • The right to vote in the country of origin may be lost.

  • Citizenship in the country of origin may be lost.

The I-9 Form: Employment Eligibility Verification

What is the I-9 Form?
The I-9 is the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) form that employees and employers complete to establish identity and eligibility to work in the U.S. Employees must complete Section 1 of the form by the end of the first day of employment and the employer must complete Section 2 within three (3) days of the beginning of employment. Employers are subject to civil or criminal penalties under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 if they fail to properly or timely complete the form.

The I-9 form is to be retained by the employer as a basis for determining eligibility for work in the U.S. for three years after the date of hire or one year after the date employment ends, whichever is later. If necessary, the I-9 Form shall be made available for inspection by appropriate federal officials.

 When do I need to complete the I-9 Form?
Every time any person is hired to perform labor or services in return for wages or other remuneration. This requirement applies to everyone hired on or after November 7, 1986.

 When don’t I need to complete the I-9 Form?

  • Persons hired before November 7, 1986, who have been continually employed.

  • Persons employed for casual domestic work in a private home on a sporadic, irregular, or intermittent basis.

  • Persons who are independent contractors.

  • Persons who provide labor to you who are employed by a third party or contractor (e.g. employee leasing).

Where can I obtain I-9 Forms?

  • The INS Website located at: https://www.uscis.gov/

  • A limited number of forms are available through the local INS office: Immigration and Naturalization Service
    2901 Metro Avenue, Suite 100
    Bloomington, MN 55425

  • I-9 Forms can be photocopied provided both pages are reproduced. The I-9 instructions must be available to the employee during the completion of the form.

 How is the I-9 Form completed?

Section 1: Employee Information and Verification
The employee completes this section on the first day of employment.

If the employee is unable to complete Section 1 by him/herself or if the employee needs the form translated, assistance may be provided. The preparer and/or translator must read the form to the employee, assist him/her in completing Section 1, and have the employee sign or mark the form in the appropriate place.

The preparer or translator must complete the “Preparer and/or Translator Certification” block on the Form I-9.

The employer is responsible for ensuring that Section 1 is completed properly.

Section 2: Employer Review and Verification
Employees must present an original document/s (photocopies are unacceptable) to the employer to establish identity and employment eligibility.

An employee may only use receipts in lieu of original documents when (1) the receipt is for a replacement document where the original has been lost or stolen (receipts are not acceptable for initial issuance of employment authorization documents, drivers license or identification cards, social security cards, etc), (2) the arrival portion of the Form I-94 indicating temporary evidence of permanent resident status, or (3) the departure portion of the Form I-94 indicating refugee status. Documents accepted as receipts for the replacement or refugee status are valid for 90 days, at which time the original document must be provided by the employee to the employer. The temporary evidence of permanent resident status receipt is valid for 360 days.

Section 3: Updating and Verification
Employers must complete Section 3 when updating and/or verifying the I-9.

Employers must update and/or verify the Form I-9 not later than the date the employee’s work authorization expires as listed in Section 1.

Some things to remember:

  • Do not focus on the employee’s immigration status but rather on the documents they provide and whether the documents show identity or eligibility to work according to Section 2.

  • Employers must accept whatever documents offered by the employee as long as they appear to be genuine, relate to the person providing them, and are listed on the reverse side of the Form I-9. It is illegal to ask employees for specific documents. The employee must present original documents as requested under Section 2. Receipts for any of the documents on the lists are usually acceptable for 90 days. By the end of the receipt period the employee must provide the original document(s).

  • Do not rely solely on the information stated here. The INS “Handbook for Employers” (INS Form M-274) can be ordered by calling:

Request Forms: (800) 870-3676, or online at https://www.uscis.gov/

Employers in Minnesota may contact the St. Paul District INS Office at (612) 313-9052, or (800) 255-8155 for further information about employment laws relating to employer sanctions.

Employers Please Note
Immigration officials are encouraging refugees needing documentation for employment to obtain an “Employment Authorization Document” (EAD) by filing INS form I-765 with two photos. No fee is required for the first application for refugees or asylees. The I-765 is available online. 

The receipt for this application is not acceptable for I-9 purposes. Employees with an EAD must apply at least 90 days before the expiration date on the EAD for an extension of employment authorization. If an employee fails to timely file for an extension, employers may be obligated to terminate the worker’s employment until the new EAD is obtained. Employees should receive their new EAD in the mail (if approved) within 90 days, and may take their receipt to the local INS Office for immediate issuance if it has not arrived at the end of the 90-day period.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)
2901 Metro Dr., Suite 100
Bloomington, MN 55425
Phone: (800) 375-5283

INS Hours:
Monday – 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Friday – Closed to the public.
(subject to change)

U.S. Citizenship Procedures

Glossary of Terms

Acculturation: The process of incorporating values, beliefs and behaviors from the host culture into the immigrants’ cultural worldview. 

Alien: A non-citizen of the United States.

Animism: The belief system practiced among many tribal peoples in which all objects, living or not, have a spirit. Furthermore, it is believed that spiritual beings are capable of intervening in human affairs.

Asylum-seeker: A person who has entered the U.S. either legally or illegally and, once here, applies to the INS for permanent residency due to persecution or serious danger in his/her country of origin.

Asylee: A person who is granted asylum is an asylee. Asylum is applied for and granted after entry into the U.S.

Citizen (U.S.): A person born or naturalized in the U.S., owing his/her allegiance to the U.S. while being entitled to its protection.

Culture: A learned set of feelings, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, material traits and behaviors shared among a group of people and reflected in their communication, symbols and social patterns.

Culture Shock: A form of anxiety that results from an inability to predict the behaviors of others or act appropriately in cross-cultural situations.

Diversity Visa Lottery Program: An immigrant visa which is made available through a lottery to people who come from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. The State Department’s National Visa Center holds the lottery every year and chooses winners randomly from all qualified entries. Anyone who is given a visa through the program is authorized to live and work permanently in the U.S. Lottery winners will also be allowed to bring their spouses and any unmarried children under the age of 21.

Economic Migrant: A person who voluntarily leaves his/her country of origin purely for economic reasons.

Ethnic Conflict and Civil War (impact on workplace): Refugees who are in the U.S. as the result of civil war, ethnic conflict, or persecution in their native land. Tension and animosities can arise between individuals and groups of refugees as a result of a shared history of conflict in their homeland. One should be aware that a shared language, nationality, or appearance doesn’t always mean a common bond of cultural understanding and/or friendship.

Ethnocentrism: The perspective that one’s own values and way of life are superior to those of groups that are different.

Green Card: The informal name for the card issued as proof of registry as a legal permanent resident of the U.S. It is officially INS Form I-551. The card’s name reflects the fact that at one time its color was green.

Immigrant: A person who voluntarily leaves his/her country of origin and is admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident.

Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS): An agency of the Department of Justice, responsible for enforcing the laws regulating the admission of foreign-born persons (i.e., aliens) to the U.S. and for administering various immigration benefits, including the naturalization of qualified applicants for U.S. citizenship.

Internally Displaced Person: A person forced to flee his/her home who does not cross an internationally recognized border. This movement may be due to natural or man-made disasters, armed conflicts, or situations of generalized violence. 

Interpreter: A person who accurately facilitates oral communication between two or more individuals who do not speak a common language.

Islam: A major world religion practiced by more than one billion people. Persons practicing Islam are called Muslims. The Qur’an, or Koran, is the Muslim holy book. The five fundamental obligations, or “five pillars,” of Islam are:

  • “There is no god but Allah (God) and Muhammad is his prophet.”

  • Offering of prayer five times every day at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sundown and evening.

  • The voluntary giving of alms to the poor and needy.

  • Fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.

  • A pilgrimage, called the hajj, to the sacred monuments of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) once during one’s lifetime.

Muslims normally congregate on Fridays at noon for a sermon and group prayer. Islamic law prohibits Muslims from eating pork or shellfish, drinking alcohol, gambling, and paying or receiving any form of interest. Accordance with these prohibitions varies depending upon an individual’s level of orthodoxy.

Limited English Proficiency (LEP): The inability to communicate fluently in English, requiring assistance to fully comprehend oral and written English.

Mutual Assistance Association (MAA): A private, non-profit organization operated and managed by a group based on ethnicity and/or national origin that provides cultural and linguistic support services and activities.

Muslim: A person who practices Islam. Muslim is not an ethnic or political identity, but rather a religious one. 

Muslim Prayers: The Islamic practice of praying five times every day at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sundown and evening. Before each prayer, Muslims purify themselves by washing their hands, arms, head, face, feet and genitalia. Muslims pray on the ground, using a mat or rug, and face east toward Mecca, prostrating themselves while reciting prayers.

Non-Immigrant: A person given permission to enter the U.S. for a specific purpose and for a limited period of time as a tourist, visitor, and/or student.

Public Assistance: A government entitlement or direct benefit to an individual in the form of cash, services, goods, or tax credits.

Ramadan: The Muslim holy month of fasting, prayer, and religious devotion that is determined by the lunar calendar and can fall during any season of the year. Most Muslims will abstain from eating, drinking any liquid, and smoking from dawn to dusk for 28 consecutive days. Sexual activity is also proscribed. The conclusion of Ramadan is marked by “Id al-Fitr” (feast of bread breaking), a celebration of rejoicing in which new clothes are often worn.

Refugee: A person who has fled his/her own country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of his/her race, religion, nationality, ethnic group, political opinion, or association with a particular group. Refugees are entitled to legally work and receive public assistance in the U.S. and can apply for legal residence after one year. Refugee is a specific immigrant status that is determined before entry into the U.S.

Refugee Experience: There is no typical “refugee experience” that can be generalized, but there is a common truth — a refugee’s life is altered forever. Refugees are forced to leave their homeland and often spend many years in refugee camps. Violence, war, or the fear of persecution disrupts life, splits families, and sends people fleeing for safety. Refugees often suffer severe trauma as well as emotional and physical hardship. They may have witnessed killings, sometimes of family or friends, experienced torture or sexual violence, and lived with the uncertainty of whether they would survive until safety could be reached.

Sponsor: A sponsor can mean: (1) a church group that agrees to assist a newly arriving refugee family to adjust to their new home; (2) one of eleven national Voluntary Agencies (VOLAGS) with which the U.S. Department of State contracts to resettle refugees through affiliated local agencies, often called “National Sponsors;” or (3) a “Local Sponsor” or anchoring relative who has filed papers to bring a family member to the U.S. as a refugee. The INS requires that most immigrant applications have an “Affidavit of Support” filed by the sponsor of the person intending to immigrate to the U.S. This agreement binds the sponsor to support the immigrating individual financially.

Secondary Migrant: An immigrant or refugee who has settled in one location in the U.S. and then relocates to another city or state for reasons that could include family reunification, joining a larger established cultural group, and/or finding employment, educational or economic opportunities.

Supporting Family Abroad: Many refugees and immigrants, both legal and undocumented, leave behind immediate and extended family members. In addition to supporting their families in the U.S., many refugees and immigrants face enormous pressure to provide financial assistance to their family members who remain in their native country or in refugee camps.

Translator: A trained person who accurately produces a rendering from one language to another in a written form.

Undocumented Person: A person who is in the U.S. without being a recognized refugee, immigrant, legal non-immigrant, or asylum-seeker and who does not intend to apply to the INS for permission to reside in the U.S. legally. Sometimes referred to as an “illegal alien.”

Voluntary Resettlement Agency (VOLAG): Private, non-profit organizations that are contracted by the Department of State to settle refugees in a community. For the first 90 days, the voluntary agency arranges for a refugee’s food, housing, employment, medical care, counseling, and other services to help the refugee make the transition to economic self-sufficiency. Minnesota has seven agencies that help resettle refugees.

Additional Resources

  1. Corbett, Sara, “From Hell to Fargo: The Lost Boys of Sudan Land in America” The New York Times Magazine, April 1, 2001.

  2. Fadiman, Anne, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Hmong vs. U.S. medical cultural practices) Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997.

  1. Gardenswartz, Lee and Rowe, Anita, “The Managing Diversity Survival Guide: A Complete Collection of Checklists, Activities and Tips” Business One Irwin/Pfeiffer and Company, September 1994

  1. Loden, Mary “Implementing Diversity. Best Practices for Making Diversity Work in Your Organization” McGraw-Hill, August 1994

  1. Rasmussen,Tina, Roe, Richard “Diversity: The ASTD’s Trainer’s Sourcebook” McGraw-Hill, October 1995

Suggested Online Resources

  1. Center for Immigration Studies at www.cis.org

  2. National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights at www.nnirr.org

  3. University of Washington, “Ethnomed” – abundant ethnic and medical information about Seattle’s immigrant communities at www.ethnomed.org.

  4. United States Refugee Resettlement Program website – information about refugees and their preparation for life in the U.S. at www.culturalorientation.net

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