Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Distinguish Yourself As a Culturally Diverse Candidate


United States of America has perhaps the most diverse work force in the world ( I am sure that UK would come a close second). According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), minorities and women now comprise two-thirds of all new labor force entrants. I have been writing about the need for cultural diversity in companies in this blog and the benefits of cultural diversity.

Having worked in US and UK, I have seen the advantages of being a culturally diverse candidate - they can bring a unique set of talents, cross-cultural communications skills, sensitivity & tolerance towards other cultures, foreign language skills etc. So in this article, I wanted to give a few tips on how an employee can leverage his/her cultural diversity.

Workforce is Diverse, But not the Top Management

Top management -- particularly at the executive level -- haven't changed much with the recent times. In fact, with all the diversity programs and initiatives that companies claim to embrace, the working world's upper echelons still look very much like they did in the 1950s. A whopping "97% of the senior managers of Fortune 1000 Industrial and Fortune 500 companies are white," reports the DOL's Federal Glass Ceiling Commission. Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes women in business, reports that almost half of minority female professionals lack influential mentors and informal networking opportunities with their colleagues. Evidently, Corporate America continues to cling to an employee model that favors "Anglo" and "Anglo-looking" employees.

Does this mean that minority professionals must abandon their unique cultures, values, languages and ideas in order to get ahead? Not at all. Take Indra Noovi, CEO of PepsiCo for example. Indra being a women from Indian origin has been noted for wearing traditional Indian dress - Saree at major business meetings. Projecting one's cultural identity in a positive way can enhance one's career development - Especially in this climate of increasing corporate diversity.

Historically, companies advocated diversity because it was "the right thing to do." Now a stronger motivation has entered into the picture: money. Quite simply, diversity is beginning to make good business sense.

As the U.S. becomes more of a global marketplace, businesses must adapt in order to succeed. According to "Current Status and Future Trends of Diversity Initiatives in the Workplace," a study by the National Center for Research in Vocational Education, the top reasons why companies are embracing diversity are financially-motivated: "to improve productivity and [to] remain competitive."

If money is a such a strong factor, it comes as no surprise that some of the companies are appointing culturally diverse candidates to the top office. Here is a short list of Indians who have made it to the top office:

Rajat Gupta : CEO of McKinsey
Indra Noovi : CEO of PepsiCo
Rono Dutta : President of United Airlines
Rakesh Gangwal: CEO of US Airways
Sanjay Kumar : Former CEO of Computer Associates
Aman Mehta : CEO of HSBC
Arun Sarin : CEO of Vodafone
Desirable Differences

Twenty years ago, many minority employees had to downplay their cultural backgrounds on the job. But now, for perhaps the first time in American history, employers are classifying difference as an advantage. For employees, this is the time to maximize the benefits of cultural identity. The following are personal attributes that may also qualify as business assets:

  • Language skills
    No matter what the industry, chances are that a company's client base is diverse, maybe even international in scope. Fluency, or even proficiency, in different languages is a highly desirable asset. If you have strong foreign-language skills, put that information at the top of your resume, not at the bottom. When employers are choosing between two job applicants, fluency in a foreign language can be a deciding factor. If you are already at a job, or interviewing for a new one, mention how speaking another language is a true asset. Perhaps it enables you to attract new clients, simplify business travel, or communicate more easily with international offices or customer bases.

    While foreign-language skills are in demand, fluency in English is still a business priority. If English is not your first language, consider building stronger literacy skills. Check with local schools about the availability of daytime, evening or weekend classes in English. LINCS, a service of the National Institute for Literacy, provides a great list of updated literacy resources. Perhaps you are already competent in English, but want to shine. You can bolster your skills by enrolling in an English or public-speaking course. In the business world, strong communication skills and persuasiveness are universally valuable.

  • Cultural sensitivity.
    Familiarity with different cultures and peoples is an employment skill. What is proper behavior in one culture may be tactless or even rude in another. If companies expect to broaden their global reach, they must understand and account for these differences. And what better way to do so than to employ workers who have an "inside perspective?"

    As with language skills, it is critical to educate your employer on the benefits of your heritage or background -- benefits that might not be immediately apparent. Perhaps you are an immigrant who has already made major cultural adjustments. This ability to adapt shows resilience and strength, two very favorable business qualities. Maybe you are familiar with Chinese culture and comfortable dealing with clients in this sector. If you are biracial or of mixed background, you may be more flexible, diplomatic and open-minded around a wide range of people. While you don't need to spell out these assets in an interview, a brief but pointed reference to them can certainly work in your favor.

  • Unique talents or perspectives
    At a job interview, you may be asked personally explorative questions: What do you consider your best or worst qualities? Describe an experience that has taught you a valuable life lesson. Who do you consider your role models? While these questions might not seem work-related, they are meant to give the interviewer a sense of who you are, how you work, and whether or not you would fit into the company's atmosphere. In this sense, they are work-related and should be answered carefully.

Traditionally, job seekers have tried to suppress their differences, especially if they were not born in the U.S., spoke different languages or engaged in culturally specific pursuits. But these differences are exactly what make any workplace more dynamic. If you have unique attributes that you owe to your upbringing or heritage, tell your interviewer about them. Perhaps your culture has instilled in you an especially strong work ethic. Maybe your family raised you to be highly self-motivated and driven. This information may not be appropriate in a cover letter, but it is at an interview -- especially if your interviewer is trying to get a sense of what you would contribute as an employee.

A Word of Caution

One's ethnic identity can be advantageous in the workplace, yet it can also be a burden. Too often employees are stereotyped or otherwise typecast into specific roles that are limiting and debilitating. No one wants to be a company's "token" African American or East Asian employee. In view of recent terrorist attacks, it is a career disadvantage to associate culturally with the orthodox Muslim community.

The secret of success is to maintain balance. An employee should never magnify or overplay any one aspect of his or her identity, as this encourages labeling. You may want to belong to a minority networking organization at your company, but this should not be your primary concern. Remember that career success relies upon an array of factors, performance being the most important. While your cultural identity can be an asset, dedication and career development don't necessarily rely upon it.

Closing Thoughts

In today's global economy, companies have realized the value of a culturally diverse workforce. Prospective employees from diverse backgrounds can benefit from this new found corporate awareness. Bring the advantages of your cultural diversity to the table and back it up with excellent performance - And that will be a sure-fire formula for success at work.

2 comments:

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