February 01, 2022 - 518 views|
As we celebrate Lunar New Year, let’s also celebrate the cultural differences that are part of workplace diversity. By doing so, we’ll advance inclusion for all.
Chances are, you’ve met someone like me. I’m the one who, at my first job out of college, had no idea how to order a drink at the bar during happy hour. When everyone was talking about baseball, I didn’t know what an inning was, let alone how many are in a game. When everyone recalled the jokes on the previous night’s late-night comedy show, I was the one who looked lost.
None of these things are integral to performing my role as a senior director of finance. But as an Asian American woman who immigrated with my family to the US from a village in China when I was 5 years old, these seemingly unimportant and certainly invisible disconnects can be the difference between feeling I belong, or not, in the workplace.
Growing up, there was no one who could teach me about cultural nuances. My parents are hardworking immigrants making ends meet and raising four kids. My mom was a seamstress, and my Dad worked at a restaurant. We eventually opened a small takeout place to get by. My siblings and I, though, were determined to do well in school — we innately knew it was our path to a different kind of life.
My dedication led me to graduate at the top of my class at New York University (NYU) even while working two part-time jobs and pursuing two majors (psychology and economics). As you can imagine, that also meant I was too busy to enjoy the social activities that college offers. This helps explain why I felt like a fish out of water when I got to my first job as a business analyst at a multinational professional services firm.
Skip ahead a couple of years, though, to my next job as a senior finance analyst at another global consultancy. It was there, at a dark and loud bar in Chelsea, Manhattan, with my new coworkers, that someone noticed my deer-caught-in-headlights look and decided to help me out. What had seemed so intimidating and confusing — getting a drink at a place that serves drinks — was suddenly quite doable. My teammate didn’t see me as ignorant or weird; she simply recognized it was something I didn’t know and filled me in.
Even better, my colleagues soon began seeing my various gaps in understanding as just me being me, quirks and all. In addition to filling me in on cultural subtleties, it became a bit of a joke — but one I was fully in on this time.
This combination of people noticing my knowledge gaps, helping to do something about it and — maybe most important — recognizing I’m the kind of person who can laugh about it is what made me feel I really belonged. More so than being a crash course in jargon, context and what a pitcher does in baseball, what mattered was the connection I felt in being seen and having people reach out, with information, caring and humor, to forge that connection.
By now, we all know the business case for diversity, and that employees’ sense of belonging is vital, particularly in our remote-work world. From my vantage point, there are so many ways for all of us — diverse populations, business leaders and workplace colleagues, alike —to bridge the gaps between us and ensure we all feel we belong:
In the end, workplace belonging is even more important to people than any award you could bestow on them. At my second consulting job, I was honored when the country leader presented me with an award for core services. But what really touched me was the one he gave me for “Li-isms” — the phrase he coined for all the naive comments I make or questions I ask about US culture.
Along with the award was a list of these Li-isms that my colleagues had compiled, from my over-reaction to hearing someone was just “pulling my leg,” to answering “this big” (fingers two inches apart), when IT asked how big (gigabytes) my thumb drive is.
At that moment, I realized how much it meant for my cultural gaps to go from the elephant in the room to a celebration of our differences. It’s shifts like this that will bring inclusion amid diversity in the workplace.