Your Career Q&A: Discrimination or Something Else?

By Martin Yate September 11, 2018
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​Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I was born in India, came to the United States for college and have been working in HR for 10 years, gaining a bachelor's degree in business administration along the way and supporting it with SHRM-CP and SHRM-SCP certifications. I am currently pursuing my master's degree in business, with the goal of becoming an HR business partner. I'm dedicated, professional and play by the rules, but, while I consistently outperform my peers, I am lagging far behind them when it comes to promotions. I don't know what else I should be doing. Am I being discriminated against because of my name and skin color? 


It is possible that you are being discriminated against. As an immigrant myself—though I am white and English, as you can see from my picture—I am attuned to the indignities and injustices that other immigrants can suffer ad infinitum. Here are some observations I've made along the way. 

Racism

Racism is real, of course, but I cannot tell if it is affecting your situation. I'm all for focusing on how to effect change in my future rather than focusing on things like bigotry that I can do nothing about—and, unfortunately, bigotry exists even in our profession. I was on a Facebook chat last year in which an immigrant research scientist was wondering if his name and skin color were holding him back. The most shocking comment came from someone in Texas who worked in HR, who said, "I don't even bother to read resumes with foreign names." It is appalling that there are people like that in HR.  

Communication

The immigrants who experience the greatest success are those who assimilate most seamlessly into U.S. culture. Communication skills play a big role in that assimilation. You might have the most brilliant mind in the world, but, if your speech is heavily accented, much of what you say could be missed, especially when you talk quickly. Those with influence over your professional future may not realize just how much you bring to the table.

I notice this often with immigrant clients for whom American English is a second language, but for many years I was never quite comfortable in finding a respectful way to address it directly until I met two of your countrymen. One spoke with a classic Long Island accent, and the other sounded as if he could have been born and raised in New Jersey. They had both climbed very high and very fast, though neither had been in the U.S. for more than 15 years.

I complimented them both and asked how they had managed to adopt American English speaking styles. They each responded with the same handful of behavioral changes they had made in their daily lives (which I have paraphrased here):

  • "I have my car radio and smartphone tuned to NPR. I hear well-spoken Americans addressing issues of the day. I get to keep up with current affairs, and I can practice words and phrasing that are difficult to get my tongue around."
  • "I listen carefully and practice with everyone I can hear, everywhere, all the time."
  • "I have the TV on all the time at home, not to watch but as an ongoing language lesson."
  • "I ask my Indian friends to help me by speaking only American English. It's hard, but we have all benefitted from the practice, the encouragement and, especially when we catch each other mispronouncing words, the laughter."
  • "I noticed that the faster I spoke, the more my natural accent interfered with others' comprehension of what I was saying, so I trained myself to say less but say it more clearly so that I would be better understood."

Names

I was coaching an IT guy in Silicon Valley recently by the name of Tony Chen who said, "Tony is not my real first name, but no one could pronounce [my real first name], and Tony is closest to it." Having an Americanized name has been traditional for immigrants going back to the U.S.'s earliest days as a nation. It might be worth considering if people have difficulty pronouncing your first name. This is a very personal choice, and I'm not saying you should. I'm just sharing my experiences and observations; it may be worth thinking about. 

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.

Packed with practical, honest, real-world guidance for successfully navigating common HR career challenges, Martin Yate's new book, The HR Career Guide: Great Answers to Tough Career Questions (SHRM, 2018), is available at the SHRMStore. Order your copy today. 

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