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by Pepi Sappal | March 10, 2009


In an episode of the television series The Apprentice, a female Asian contestant made a poor impression on real-estate mogul Donald Trump, who dismisses the losers with his sharp, "You're fired."

"She was indecisive and nonconfrontational compared to her majority counterparts. And when Trump chided her, she didn't really confront him," says Vincent Yee, president of Boston-based National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP).

Traits such as modesty and humility -- valued in Asia -- can be misinterpreted as a weakness or low self-esteem in the U.S., says Denise Wolfe, a Filipino-American, executive coach and diversity trainer in Pasadena, Calif. In her experience, Asians tend to be "more concerned about the well-being of a group, as opposed to the individual self," she says. "To maintain harmony, they will be reluctant to complain. But the downside is that important issues may not get raised because corporate America equates 'no complaints' with 'no problems,' " says Ms. Wolfe. "Generally, Asians believe that if you work hard and give your best, you will be recognized and promoted. But that's not necessarily the case in the Western corporate reality."

When talking about diversity in the workplace, there is no single view -- either of what members of certain ethnic groups or nationalities are like, or whether there even are specific personality traits or values that characterize a group, or whether such traits or values should surface in the office. But some members of minority groups do at times feel that values considered positive in their culture can be detrimental in the U.S. corporate workplace. On the other hand, there are those who feel such differences can work to their career advantage.

Carmella Gomez, a marketing executive at a Miami consumer-goods company, says, "It's very common for minorities like me to be overlooked for promotion," because of assumptions about Hispanic behavior. "Hispanics are often criticized for bringing family matters into the workplace, so I concentrate on being professional and getting the job done and play down any biases or stereotypical behavior to help me get ahead. Basically, I'm a completely different person at work compared to who I am at home," she says.

Yet, she feels she recently missed out on a promotion -- a job offer that would have required an out-of-state move -- because she "reverted to stereotype" and "was uncomfortable about moving to another state away from her family."

Unwillingness to move or relocate far from family can be "a big drawback for many Hispanics," says Abe Tomas Hughes, chairman of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE), a Chicago nonprofit.

For Greg Hinton, vice president of talent acquisition at U.S. Cellular, the image of African-Americans as argumentative or overly aggressive rang true early in his career. "In my younger days, I, too, spoke up and, looking back, I did offend people, who subsequently didn't feel comfortable around me," says Mr. Hinton. "Not being able to understand the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness can be a problem for African-Americans. There's a fine line between the two. African-Americans don't like to give in, because they interpret it as 'selling out' or 'surrendering themselves.' "

Some minority employees are becoming more reluctant to reveal much about their culture, background or heritage. They fear being stereotyped in ways that might hinder their career prospects, especially at higher levels.

They may feel they've become caught between two worlds. "They homogenize who they are in order to fit in at work," says Rosanna Durruthy, president and chief talent strategist at Aequus Group, a human-capital-development consulting firm in New York. "But then they step back into who they really are when they get back home -- a bit like Superman with two different identifies."

She believes that in suppressing their cultural identity, minorities could be doing themselves a disservice. "Not only is it physically and emotionally draining to have two separate identities, but unless you reveal the real you, you may be losing out on opportunities, too," Ms. Durruthy says. "There's a fine line between cultural identity and what others perceive as stereotype."

She argues that by hiding cultural identity and focusing strictly on work, minority employees fail to use their culture, heritage or background to build personal relationships and share values -- a skill companies expect from leaders. The result: Top management feels it doesn't know the personality behind the mask, and minorities miss out on opportunities.

Cultural traits can be an asset, says Mr. Yee. "Asians are great at leading [and] building teams, and they are usually bilingual, which is a great asset, too," he says. Mr. Tomas Hughes agrees. "Unique language skills are an added bonus. For example, Hispanics with Spanish and Portuguese linguistic skills are increasingly being sought after," he says.

Being bicultural is a huge plus, says Ana Herrera-Malone, director of marketing and development for the National Society of Hispanic MBAs (NSHMBA). "Being familiar with another culture...makes individuals more tolerant," she says. For example, she says, she's from Colombia and is used to doing more with fewer resources. "That kind of creativity is great as it gives us minorities more of an edge in the workplace," she says.

Revealing concern for family is a positive, Ms. Durruthy says. "It can help others recognize your motivations and build trust, which is what eventually results in opportunity," she says. "In fact, when looking for leaders, management doesn't just want people who can deliver, but wants to know the real them, i.e., what drives or motivates them."

Coaching or mentoring can help professionals decide whether and how to reveal "the real you." Professional organizations and affinity groups can help, too, says Mr. Tomas Hughes. HACE, for example, offers courses such as "building confidence and presence" and "how to get out of comfort zone" to help with personal development.


Filed Under: Workplace Issues