The Forgotten Minority

By Jul 1, 2007
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Cover for July 2007 HR Magazine Stereotypes of Asian-Americans not only can limit their workplace opportunities but also can stifle the talents they can offer their employers.

Steve Robbins was born in Vietnam and emigrated to the United States as a child. He did well in high-school math and science classes, but he also showed strong interest in—and aptitude for—the arts and social sciences. “I won a creative writing contest as a senior and sang in a very good vocal jazz group,” he says. 

Nonetheless, his high-school guidance counselor recommended he study engineering in college. His counselor, he says, “seemed to only see me through a stereotypical Asian lens, which allowed her to discount the other pieces of who I am.” 

In fact, Robbins continues, “I actually studied engineering my first two years in college before switching to communications—I wanted to be a sportscaster. My bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. are all in communications.” Today, Robbins, 42, is president of S.L. Robbins & Associates, a Grand Rapids, Mich., diversity consulting firm. Looking back, he believes his experience illustrates the effect of some common stereotypes held of Asians. 

Linda Akutagawa is well aware of those stereotypes. She is vice president of resource and business development for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), a nonprofit leadership development company in Los Angeles. She says Asians are often viewed as quiet, hardworking, technical, good at math and science, passive, family-oriented, nonconfrontational, and antisocial. 

No matter how positive some of those characteristics may seem, they can become the framing for glass walls and a glass ceiling, Robbins says. “Asians can’t move up past certain levels, and can’t get beyond the math/science silo.” Those who are good at math and science may be seen as ineffective communicators and managers, while disciplined and patient employees may be viewed as less creative or less willing to take chances. 

Whatever truth such stereotypes may reflect, the qualities that are found in many members of a group will not be present in all members, says Celia Young of Celia Young & Associates Inc., an organizational development firm in San Clemente, Calif. She was born in Hong Kong and raised in Taiwan, and she describes herself as “a loud-mouthed Asian woman” and therefore out of sync with one image of Asians. 

Young says Asians are often referred to as a “model minority,” but Robbins says that label can be troublesome. He says it can create friction between Asians and other people of color, who may see Asians as “honorary white people” with all the privileges of whites. Yet “the reality is that most Asians face similar discrimination and exclusion as other people of color,” he adds. 

The glass or bamboo ceiling is a persistent barrier for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), according to Mark Wong, a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Their participation rates on corporate boards and in the upper echelons of major companies has changed little, he says. 

Nonetheless, during the year that ended last Sept. 30—fiscal year 2006 for the federal government—just 2.4 percent of all charge filings received by the EEOC were filed by AAPIs. During the same period, blacks accounted for 39 percent of charge filings, whites for 35 percent, Hispanics for 10.1 percent and American Indians for 0.6 percent. The remaining charge filings were submitted by people who did not indicate a race or ethnicity. 

The number of complaints filed by AAPIs may not be surprising given the relatively small population of Asians in the United States. (See “Asians in the United States,” below.) But discrimination against Asians may be underreported. “I work with a variety of different organizations, many of whom have significant parts of their domestic and international workforce that are Asian, often from very different Asian cultures,” says Rhoma Young, principal of Rhoma Young & Associates in Oakland, Calif., and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel. She says some of her clients have encountered reluctance by some Asian employees to complain of inappropriate workplace behavior. 

Recent research suggests a similar conclusion. In December 2005, a Gallup survey reported that 15 percent of all workers perceived that they had been subjected to some sort of discriminatory or unfair treatment. Of those, 31 percent were Asian and 26 percent were black. Wong says the EEOC is examining the Gallup data to see how and why it differs from the agency’s actual charge filings. 

Asian Leadership Style

Stereotyping may result in organizations unwittingly overlooking Asians working in the United States for roles involving leadership and influence. “Dominant culture says a leader has to be the one who stands out [and has] to be visible, direct and know how to solve problems,” Celia Young says. By contrast, she adds, Asian leaders stand with their people and are not the ones who speak the most or are the most visible. 

“Managers fall into two major categories: task-oriented and relationship-oriented. But both can be successful models of management,” says Jeffery Scott Mio, vice president of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans and a psychology professor at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, Calif. “The more ‘traditional’ Asians are, the more they will communicate indirectly, particularly when it comes to confrontation or giving negative feedback,” Mio says. “Giving negative feedback in an indirect manner may not be seen as effective from a task-oriented person’s perspective, but from a relationship-oriented perspective, this can be a very effective mode of providing feedback.”

Managers and employees alike need to understand how Asian culture influences behavior and how that behavior is perceived by others, says Amita Mehta, diversity manager for JPMorgan Chase and HR department liaison to the Asian constituency. 

“In collectivistic cultures, there is much less jockeying to be noticed for one’s individual efforts,” Robbins says. “In fact, such behaviors are shunned, because they place the individual ahead of the group.” 

Asian respect for elders and hierarchy can affect employee behavior during meetings. “If a senior manager is leading the meeting, you don’t want to overstep bounds by not respecting the hierarchy,” Mehta says, even if it means being perceived as a wallflower. 

Some leaders mistakenly believe that Asians who don’t speak up either lack knowledge or don’t care about an issue, says Pat Dawson, group president for the polyurethanes business at Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich., and management sponsor of Dow’s Asian Diversity Network (ADN). But he says excessive talking may be perceived as weakness in Asian culture. “Just because someone is not verbal doesn’t mean they are not capable.” 

Robbins says Asians may not disagree with others in public out of a desire to enable another person to save face. Someone who nods, therefore, may not be agreeing with the speaker but simply may be acknowledging that the speaker is being heard. 

One-size-fits-all leadership or assertiveness training is not the solution, experts say. Instead, companies must first make room for relationship-based leadership styles and cultural values while harnessing the unique experiences and knowledge each individual brings to the table. 

Awareness Pays Off

Robbins says most organizations are not at all aware of the issues affecting Asian employees. But this is beginning to change as organizations clamor for the education and skills that Asian employees often have. 

One reason Dow Chemical started the ADN in 2000 was to help the company retain talent. Asian stereotypes can result in limited career opportunities for those with Asian backgrounds, Dawson says. “If that happens, we’re not going to retain the best talent.” 

Moreover, companies that understand their Asian employees will be better able to understand their Asian customers, according to Michael D. Lee, president of EthnoConnect, a multicultural marketing and training firm in Dublin, Calif. “If customers of any culture are not treated with sensitivity to their culture when they come into your store or office, they won’t do business with you.” 

This does not mean all Asians should be treated the same, however. “You have to be very careful ascribing traits to a composite ‘Asian’ population, when there are often distinctly different behaviors from separate Asian cultures,” Rhoma Young wrote in an e-mail response to HR Magazine. 

“There is a tendency for us, as Americans, to want to bucket people,” says Jignasha Amin Patel, director, global talent sourcing and inclusion, for chip manufacturer Freescale Semiconductor in Austin, Texas. But this can create challenges for a group as diverse as Asians, who come from various cultures and have no common language or shared heritage. 

Mio, who was born in Los Angeles to American-born parents of Japanese descent and speaks only English, says that he, like most Asian-Americans he knows, has been asked, “ ‘Where did you learn to speak English so well?’ It is obvious the individual does not perceive me to be American,” he says. 

Issues for HR

“HR professionals must recognize that Asians can be screened out from the very start of the hiring process by culturally insensitive practices,” Lee says. For example, Asians may understate their qualifications because of their tendency to be humble. And since Asians are not as verbal as other cultures, he says, they may not do as well in employment interviews. 

Asian employees also may be uncomfortable completing a self-assessment as part of a performance appraisal or providing candid comments in a 360-degree performance appraisal, says Rhoma Young. 

Mehta notes that they may misunderstand their role in the performance management discussion and miss out on an opportunity for candid dialogue and better feedback. 

Lee says most Asian employees prefer to be recognized as part of a group or team rather than individually. They may not feel motivated or rewarded by recognition programs such as “Employee of the Month.” 

“Asians are not supposed to brag about their own accomplishments,” Mio says. Instead, someone else who knows about the accomplishment is supposed to “give face” by making it public. The act of directly pursuing a more prestigious job may be perceived as the equivalent of bragging, he adds. 

Celia Young says Asians often lose out because they believe that their work will speak for itself. Whereas white American children are often told they can do anything but have to achieve success on their own, she says Asian children are told that if they work hard their boss will take care of them. 

Raising Self-Awareness

“Many Asian immigrants are aware that there is a cultural difference between themselves and the organization in which they work,” but they lack an understanding of the written and unwritten rules for success in their companies, Akutagawa says. 

And American-born Asians tend to be unaware of how their cultural values influence their work behavior because they assume they are influenced more by American values than Asian values, she adds. They also may misunderstand how their work behavior is interpreted and perceived by non-Asians, who may impose stereotypes, regardless of whether individuals exhibit culturally influenced behavior. 

Increased cultural awareness and Asian-focused leadership development are two aims of the Asian American Business Network at the Chubb Group of Insurance Cos. in Warren, N.J., according to Kenneth Chung, a vice president of Chubb and co-chair of the group. “There are universal leadership qualities that all employees need, but there is some leadership training that is necessary specifically for Asian-Americans” to help them overcome cultural traits that are more pronounced within the Asian community.

Jackie O’Sullivan, manager of workplace diversity for IBM’s Asian constituency, says, “For a long time, we thought we were doing so well with Asians; we have a high recruiting and attraction rate. But when we dug down deeper and looked at the numbers, we were able to see that it was mostly within the technical career areas. We now place a high focus on leadership development for our Asian employees.” One offering is a five-day residential leadership development program provided by the LEAP organization and geared toward Asians. It teaches people how to hold on to their values, beliefs and culture, she says, while operating successfully within the American workplace. 

O’Sullivan says employee networking groups offer a key opportunity for employees to gather, share interests and network. She says it’s also important for companies to assign a staff person to serve as a program manager and focus on diversity and the needs of specific constituency groups. 

Mehta agrees that employee network groups provide a great means for executing ideas but recommends that the groups first prioritize the issues and come up with long-term and short-term action plans. 

Organizations must have involvement in diversity and advocacy from the top, Patel says. “When our senior vice presidents selected the board for the Asian culture team, we told them they didn’t have to pick all Asians because there are different perspectives that need to be heard,” and because mixed leadership can lead to opportunities for reverse mentoring. 

Patel says companies should also provide Asian employees with access to local organizations representing Asian professionals. 

“While Asians need to learn how to gain access to executives, executives also need to take steps to provide meaningful opportunities and promote visibility of such talent,” Akutagawa says. “It needs to be a two-way approach.” 

Asian employees at Dow are learning there are times when they do need to speak up, Dawson says. But he adds that non-Asian leaders are also learning versatility, so they can use the best of Western culture and Asian culture. He believes that the Asian emphasis on relationship building is worth emulating. “Through relationships you can solve a lot of problems … you can find new options for how to make money for your company … you can work things out within a community,” Dawson says. “Deep relationships allow you to run a better company.” 

Culturally Competent Management

Ultimately, organizations must adapt to allow for different styles, says Celia Young. Most managers have no time to customize a developmental process for each employee, but that is what is required to manage a diverse workforce effectively. “It’s like raising children—you have to pay attention to them … to know what they need,” she says. “It doesn’t take extra effort; it takes a different kind of effort.” 

Managers often are reluctant to coach employees from different ethnic backgrounds because they don’t want to offend people, Jane Hyun, author of Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling (Harper Collins, 2006), said at a Conference Board diversity conference last March. She outlined four steps to provide constructive coaching feedback to employees from different ethnic backgrounds:

  • Describe what you see and observe.

  • Explain how you feel when you see the behavior.

  • Identify why the behavior impacts your team.

  • Identify what you would like to see next time.

“The first step to becoming more cross-culturally competent is to become genuinely cross-culturally curious,” Robbins says. “Ignorance and arrogance are great stumbling blocks on the path to cultural competency. Humility and curiosity are much better partners in the journey.” 

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is online writer/editor for the Society for Human Resource Management.

Web Extras

SHRM audio: Excerpt of an interview with Jackie O'Sullivan, manager of workplace diversity for IBM's Asian constituency

Online sidebar: Cases Closed

Survey: The Dream Team: Delivering Leadership in Asia (Korn/Ferry)

Quiz: American Cultural Awareness (EthnoConnect)

Quiz: Company Cultural Competency (EthnoConnect)

Web site: Asian Nation


Asians in the United States

The American Community–Asians report, drawn from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 American Community Survey and released by the bureau in February 2007, reported that the household population of Asians represented 4.7 percent of the total U.S. household population at that time. (Household population figures exclude people living in institutions, college dormitories and other group quarters.)

More than two-thirds were U.S. citizens, either through birth (33 percent) or naturalization (37 percent). About 63 percent of Asians ages 5 and above reportedly spoke only English at home or spoke English very well.

Nearly half of all Asians and two-thirds of Asian Indians had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with about 30 percent of non-Hispanic whites ages 25 and above.

Asians had higher median income and nearly double the average home value compared with non-Hispanic whites. However, about 12 percent of Asians lived below the poverty level, compared with about 9 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Three groups—Chinese, Asian Indians and Filipinos—accounted for about 60 percent of the Asian population.

The 10 states with the largest Asian populations were, in order, California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia and Massachusetts. Those states altogether account for about three-fourths of the total Asian population in the United States.


Making Connections

Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, a Los Angeles-based company, recommends these steps for engaging Asian employees:

  • Start, or encourage the formation of, an Asian-American business resource group to provide opportunities for Asian-American employees to learn and practice new skills.
  • Recruit and encourage Asian employees to participate early in their careers in rotational programs that will give them broader exposure to different parts of the enterprise.
  • Design talent-management programs to reach further down into the talent pool and identify minorities who can be cultivated by executives and given stretch assignments that will lead to advancement opportunities.
  • Engage Asian employees in conversations about how they feel they can best contribute to their full potential.
  • Encourage employees to build a broad network within and outside their companies and beyond their ethnic/racial communities.
  • Mentor and coach Asian employees so they understand how they can be most effective and successful while preserving their ethnic heritage.
  • Be open to Asians taking on increased leadership and management roles as well as visible operational or line positions.
  • Encourage risk-taking.
  • Coach senior leaders on the “Asian value proposition” and help them identify opportunities to better leverage this constituency in their workforce.​
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