"Mending Fences on the Immigrant Frontier": A Call for Better Integration of Demographic Information in Human Resource Management Practice and Theory

Article excerpt

The authors argue that human resource management practitioners and researchers do not adequately take national origin into account when devising policies and theories. It is further asserted that this failure puts companies at risk for both lesser achievement of organizational objectives and potential legal liability (e.g., disparate impact). The background of the legal concept of a "'reasonable man" is discussed in order to provide a possible explanation for why insufficient attention is paid to demographic factors such as race and national origin, and implications for theory and practice.


Three years into "Workforce 2000", the predictions of a much more demographically diverse U.S. workplace have come true. Whether looking at race, age, gender, disability status, or any of the other "protected class" designations, the proportion of previously underrepresented groups has increased substantially. One category that has seen a particularly dramatic rise in recent years is that of national origin, as manifested in the growing number of immigrant workers. Some of this upsurge has come from pre-existing sources, such as Mexico and Vietnam. For instance, in the years 1991 through 2000, there were approximately 2.3 million Mexican and 421,000 Vietnamese immigrants, who accounted for 25.4% and 4.9%, respectively, of all immigrants to the United States, very similar to their proportions in 1981-1990 (22.5% for Mexico, 5.5% for Vietnam) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2002). Other countries, however, are providing an unprecedented contribution to American labor rolls. As seen in Table 1, Somalia, Ukraine, and Sudan are but a few of the nations whose citizens are populating U.S. companies in ever-growing numbers(Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2001).

A parallel trend in many U.S. firms is a move to secure a competitive advantage through strategic human resource management (FIRM) practices (Hitt, Bierman, Shimizu, & Koehhar, 2001).Increased efficiency, motivation, and productivity are three of the major benefits proffered by HRM researchers and practitioners to result from such practices (Gomez-Mejia, 2000). Beyond the potential operational benefits, these practices often have a munificent component as well, intended to provide advantages to the employees as individuals, separate and apart from those accruing to the organization. However, managers often do not use knowledge relating to national origin diversity as a source of strategic information that needs to be taken into account when devising plans of action. When this happens, the two concurrent trends (i.e., increases in both international diversity, and strategic HRM practices) have the potential to conflict in such a way as to "backfire" operationally and/or legally.

Take, for instance, the practice of offering profit-sharing and 401(k) programs to employees. A primary objective of these plans is to, by distributing some portion of organizational gains and profits, recruit and/or retain employees, particularly those with scarce skills, highly desired in competitive labor markets (Vanac, 1998). An associated goal is to improve organizational productivity via improved worker morale and motivation (Kim, 1998). Consider, though, the case of Somalis. Somalis now comprise a growing share of the U.S. work force, with heavy concentrations in locales such as Minneapolis. Prohibited by their Islamic religious beliefs from accepting the financial interest that would accrue from these plans (Suzukamo, 2000), these African immigrants are theoretically forced to choose between honoring their spiritual dictates and participating in a company-initiated program ostensibly designed for their benefit. For organizations employing these Africans, the potential challenge would be to balance honoring religious practices with the inefficiencies inherent in administering separate programs for different employees.

Flexible, or "cafeteria" benefit plans are another HRM innovation of relatively recent vintage. …