Legacy in Labor

Herrison Chicas explores how children of immigrants carry their parents’ experiences into the workplace.

Herrison Chicas
Carolina PhD student Herrison Chicas studies the unique experiences children of immigrants have in the workplace and in life based on their parents’ influence and background. (photo by Megan Mendenhall)
May 23rd, 2024

When Herrison Chicas’ parents immigrated to the United States from a civil war-ravaged El Salvador, they sacrificed all they had for a better life.

With only a second-grade education, his father found a job as a dishwasher making three dollars an hour before moving to construction work. His mother cleaned the homes of other Long Islanders when she wasn’t cooking and cleaning for her own family.

Every day, Chicas would see his parents come home exhausted from their long days, but they always had time to talk to him, cook a meal, and spend time with their kids.

Over time, their perseverance rubbed off on him. In May 2024, he received a PhD in organizational behavior from the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. He’s a first-generation college student and double-Tar Heel, having received his undergraduate degree in psychology and sociology from Carolina in 2013.

His research aims to better understand the unique experiences children of immigrants have in the workplace and in life based on their parents’ influence and background.

“Being very close to my family and my parents and trying to better understand their life story and how that has impacted mine has been a big part of my identity,” he says. “That’s led to a lot of the work that I do now.”

A boomerang effect

Immigration to a new country means new beginnings. It can also mean losing the identity and life you imagined for yourself.

“In general, all of us have a certain view of how our life is going to turn out,” Chicas says. “What’s interesting for a lot of immigrants is that there is a big event that happens in their own country that forces them to leave. For my parents, it was war.”

Using archival data and survey software, Chicas studies children of immigrants across Europe and the U.S. — who make up approximately 25% of the population under 18 years old. This means that in 10 to 15 years, this group will be leading workforce growth.

This steady increase can already be seen today. According to the Cato Institute, from 1995 to 2022, immigrants and their children accounted for 70 percent of all civilian labor force growth.

Because of this, it’s becoming more important to understand incoming employees and their backgrounds, which is where Chicas comes into the picture.

“The experiences parents have at work affect their behavior at home, and the experiences employees have at home, especially when they’re young, impacts their work,” he says. “It’s sort of like this boomerang effect that’s happening where one generation affects the other across home and work.”

The parent-child contract

Throughout his research, Chicas has noticed the significant psychological discomfort that comes with immigrating to a new country. Many parents, including immigrants, alleviate distress of any kind by pushing their lost dreams onto their children — and hope they’ll fulfill them.

This has both positive and negative outcomes. While children of immigrants are succeeding in the workplace, relative to those with native-born parents, some are living a life they don’t want.

“What we’re finding out is that children of immigrants tend to build this psychological contract with their parents,” Chicas says.

“Imagine a contract, but this one is built over time, implicitly, through talking and negotiating with parents. The immigrant parent comes to this country through sacrifices, and the expectation is that their child validates that sacrifice by succeeding in this new country, which is why children of immigrants tend to attain greater status.”

Other parent-child situations, such as school sports and academics, can exhibit the parental pressure of a foregone identity. But it is much more extreme for children of immigrants because of the sacrifices their parents have made.

Unfortunately, this kind of control often stifles the child’s autonomy. Instead of love being unconditional, it becomes transactional, resulting in a negative self-schema — a harmful self-concept and image of themselves.

These schemas simulate future failures by exacerbating distress, according to Chicas. Not only are we psychologically stressed from not feeling worthy, but we create simulations of the future that are catastrophic.

Even though accomplishments are achieved, they come with an emotional toll.

But is there anything that can be done about this? Thanks to Chicas’ work, that conversation is being put into action.

A safe space for employees

The next step in Chicas’ research is working with UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members to apply what he’s learned to the individual contributor level.

Negative self-schemas affect cognition, which affects behavior. Chicas believes that therapy is the best way to alleviate this psychological pain in individuals. He hopes to show more people that it is possible to reconstruct these maladaptive schemas of themselves.

Organizationally, he wants to help companies become more aware of their role in determining workforce mental health and how to best support employees.

When employees work with negative self-schemas, they often feel unworthy and think there is no one who will support them in their workplace. Some might procrastinate to feel immediate relief from their psychological distress. These distractions can reduce their drive, quality of work, and overall job satisfaction.

“I think an important place to start is recognizing the holistic nature of the employee,” he says. “The employee does not start when they enter your organization but with their past and their parents. It’s all intertwined.”

This summer, Chicas will move to Atlanta, Georgia, to join the faculty at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and he plans to continue this research.

“We should do as much as we can to help individuals maximize not only their potential at work, but their potential as human beings,” he says. “That’s where I want to have the most impact.”

Herrison Chicas is a PhD graduate of the Department of Organizational Behavior within the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and a Royster Fellow. He graduated in May 2024.