A Conversation Between James Hancock and Olena Hart

Our International Professionals Program graduate, Olena Hart, recently interviewed Welcoming Center volunteer, James Hancock. Read their conversation below.

Hello James! Thank you for agreeing to talk about yourself, the company you work for and your experience, as a volunteer, with the Welcoming Center. Could you please introduce yourself first? 

Yes, sure. My name is James Hancock. I am a co-founder and the US president for the business called MWAH (Making Work Absolutely Human). We are experts in people, culture, leadership, development, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. We do that in three main ways. The first one is our unique way of understanding and measuring culture – the mwah. culture dashboard which looks at belonging and a range of other metrics, vastly different to traditional HR metrics like engagement. The second way is what we call our “way of working”, which are really simple “People and Culture” practices to hold culture. And the third way is a knowledgebase for on demand support for any question or topic that comes up. We also have a range of strategic partnerships for workplace training like virtual reality to trigger empathy. 

Why did you decide to become a volunteer for the Welcoming Center? 

This one is a funny story (laughs). I got contacted by the Welcoming Center, I was asked to go to an event just before COVID-19 really hit. I attended the building on Market Street in PhiladelphiaIt was for an employer showcase, showing what the Welcoming Center does and thinking about some of the key topics to both: people who have immigrated into the Philadelphia area and for the employers. I did not know exactly what it was, as I was a new [resident] to Philadelphia. So, I thought, that, maybe, I am the kind of a person that the Welcoming Center is helping. But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it aligned to the work we do! I was happy that such a great organization exists helping immigrants in the region.  

Help always goes both ways: it is a two-way street, in my opinion. So, you help and then people help you…Anyway, as an Australian, what struck you most about life in the United States and employment here? 

I totally agree on your point about helping people, Olena. Life in the US, my expectations coming in as an Australian was that it would be quite similar, a lot of our culture, popular culture we get from the US. When I walk around it looks like Australia in a way, it looks like a modern city. People have different accents, obviously. But it feels 80% familiar, 20% different if I could put it like that. There is a familiarity/unfamiliarity thing going on! 

It’s interesting how you manage to categorize and calculate your experience mathematically… 

Yeah, I say 80/20 but it could be 70/30— it does depend on a day. A lot of differences in speech. Some different expressions that people use, even though both: Australia and the US speak English. There are quite a lot of variations in day to day speaking, so that made me think about… You know, even if I was speaking to someone as a part of the Welcoming Center, what I am saying, probably, is not 100% accurate to what others in the area are saying, if that makes sense. 


 But that’s what we want: different opinions on things, I think. 

Exactly right. And you asked me about the employment side, it is a little different to Australia, not good or bad — just different. I would say that, obviously, [United] States is a much bigger place than Australia. We do have different employment conditions, not to get too boring on things…In Australia we have National Employment Standards, which are 10 mandatory conditions that all employers must make. I think we have got little bits of that here, although there are lots of layers, for instance rules that apply to Philadelphia or Pennsylvania, compared to, let us say, California. The other thing that struck me was the diversity of the market in Philadelphia: a lot of different industries. I think, it is one of the most diverse economies in the entire US, to be honest. You have got a lot of pharmaceutical companies, biomedical, science, health, technology, and anything you could think of, exists in Philadelphia. Which is awesome. 


By the way, if I remember correctly, the first medical university in the US was founded in Philadelphia. Anyhow, what is your preferred topic to discuss with immigrants who take part in the Welcoming Center programs? 

I have done a couple [of sessions]. Most of them are about resume-support, reading, editing, coaching. I think, “Yes, I’ve been a candidate; yes, I’ve been a recruiter within my work”. Then we think about what people would look at, etc. So, I do that. I am not a recruitment person every day, not anymore. So, I can add more value giving personal coaching one to one. I am also incredibly happy to talk about different topic areas and practices within HR. I am looking how I can best help the Welcoming Center and learn from it and its participants in 2021 


In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges any immigrant faces when coming to live in the USA? 

Good one! Well, my experience is a little different from most peoples’. I know that I am here for a certain period of time at this stage. I am not sure how long that will be exactly. Although, at the moment, it should be two years. The things that an immigrant permanently coming to the US feels will be similar, and different. I think, certainty/uncertainty, ambiguity and learning a new culture will be very big. And, basically, stability. I think we are all looking for some stability in our lives, we know the work we want to do, we know the types of relationships we want to build with people. When you come to a new place, that feels different. It takes you time to build confidence to do what you have done before, what are you looking for, and so I think, that one of the biggest things to learn is to find the things that you know and seek different people out whom you could learn other things from. If you feel open to change, it works best. But I speak English as my first language, even though we have those different expressions and accents, it is the same language. I can only imagine how difficult it would be if you were learning English or had a different level of fluency in it. That would be challenging. Work also makes a big difference. If you have it, or your partner does. I am not saying anything particularly revolutionary, but I the challenges are similar. The other thing is such a strange time we are all in right now. The timing feels bad for people all around the world. I think that is something to factor in to. 


As we all know, no employment system is ideal. If you could fix one problem with the American employment system, what would it be? 

Well, that is hard for me to say. I feel I could give an answer, but it would be a very politically correct one, probably. I think one key issue in the employment system that is being considered right now with President Biden and Vice President Harris in office is the minimum wage. A big part of me says: “Of course, we should do that!”. We need to have a minimum standard. Australia has that—a minimum wage that is reviewed periodically to support people. 


What is the minimum wage in Australia? 

It is about $755 per week or $20 per hour in Australian dollars. It roughly translates to $584 USD a week or around $15 USD an hour. The thing that is different here [in the United States] is healthcare. Obviously, health funds from employment make a lot of sense. In Australia with that wage, healthcare comes under the Medicare system. Yes, you can get more insurance but there is a baseline system that is available to everyone. So, I think there will be things that will be looked at here under this administration. The tricky part of that comes in balancing the needs of business, and we cannot ignore that many people’s employment relies on helping the medical system, like insurance brokers, etc. It is a very complicated problem, but I hope there will be a good, sensible and fair outcome. 


If you could describe the United States in three words to give it an embracing characteristic, which words would you use? 

That is a really great question. I have my thoughts on where the United States is now and where it is trying to get to. Is that okay? 


Sure! The Hill We Climb, right? Like in Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem. 

That was a phenomenal poem from Amanda, so inspirational. I think the word that has been used so much is, and I cannot disagree with it in any way, “divided”. We see that if we look at election results, we see that in opinions in different media. Ultimately, we are divided here in many ways. That is clear. The word for where we want to be moving is “unity”, searching for ways to come together. I am not trying to show an affiliation to any political party but having a human approach to work in our business, I think unity makes a lot of sense, that is so important! So, I would say: “divided” or “division” versus “united” or “unity”. That is the biggest pair of words! The other word would be “uncertainty”. We had a really long period of uncertainty; I know these are big words. I think, we have been super uncertain, it is created some of the division. I think what we are trying to do this year is to create certainty, understanding, whether it is pandemic or anything else. And what is my last one? I am sure it will come back to me at some point… 


I am moving to my last question: when you are going to go back to Australia, do you think there will be people or things you will miss? 

I do, I think you get used to things, and to what you do and try to find, what you seek out in someone and what people are trying to get in you, just to create a sense of belonging and a sense of community. So, giving an example of our neighbors, even amid a pandemic they try to help us. Fit in, belong, learn about the local ways. Eventually, when it is time to go home, I will miss friends and connections I have made here, customers I have worked with. 

And I like all sports, so the USA is great for a sports lover like me! I thought my love of sports, as an Australian, was high, but it turned out to be not so high in comparison with the love for sports in the States. In America, my love for sports is like this (showing a little bit with his fingers). Americans are so crazy about sports! I have never seen so many people dressed in sports attire during the season. I love it, that will be missed! 

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