As workplace dynamics continue to evolve from the effects of the pandemic, it’s a good time to check in on your organization’s cultural health. One perennial problem for some companies: the presence of bias, which can emerge in a whole range of behaviors both subtle and overt, unintentional and deliberate, and frequently can be directed at employees from “different” cultural backgrounds.
In my work as a coach, I’ve often encountered individuals who experience unfair, biased, and sometimes abusive treatment in the workplace and who, for a variety of reasons, are unable or unwilling to advocate for themselves. Cross-cultural coaching often surfaces disturbing situations – for example, a foreign-born employee is identified by upper management as a candidate for coaching so he can “look like us and sound like us.” Told for what may be the first time that his accent or body language is an issue (not “crisp” or “polished” enough), the employee often does not have the tools, or the confidence, to respond.
Cultural Awareness…or Toxic Culture?
While developing good communications skills is certainly important for professional advancement, in some situations, singling out foreign nationals for these “developmental opportunities” can be based on limited or misguided information: one manager’s spotty interactions with multinationals in her workplace, or a well-meaning but unconsciously biased senior colleague looking to “upgrade” certain individuals on the team. As I observed in “Performance Evaluations of Multicultural Employees: Three Things to Keep in Mind,” multicultural employees may also be unfairly evaluated at performance review time, due to culture-based misperceptions or expectations, or a general lack of cultural competence across the organization.
Lack of cultural awareness is a big part of misdiagnosed performance issues. But even worse, some assessments of “problems to be fixed” stem from a toxic culture in which foreign employees (and others who are considered “different”) experience bias, marginalization, and even exclusion. In these cases, being told that you should get coaching can be perceived as a negative and reinforce the potential for stigmatization, unless it is carefully presented as a benefit (see my CLO article “When It Comes to Coaching, Messaging Matters”).
Abuse Can be Subtle
Overtly abusive behaviors in the workplace are usually (at some point!) identified and addressed. But the more nuanced, less obvious forms of abuse that multicultural employees—among others who are different— often experience are harder to recognize as signs of a toxic culture. One multicultural coaching client shared that “Sometimes my manager will ask me to do a presentation and only give me five minutes to prepare. This is really hard for me to do because I don’t have enough time to gather my thoughts and practice my words, and it makes me very nervous.” And many of our coaching clients, even those at senior levels, still report that they feel left outside of “the boys club” or do not believe that their organizations make an effort to be inclusive of those from different cultural backgrounds. (This can happen even in organizations that offer workplace diversity programs.) Other foreign-born colleagues may be feeling the same, but without a shared advocate, they could remain voiceless. Does this sound familiar?
The behaviors that enable these feelings must be called out in the moment and eradicated before they become endemic: “Because employees look to and learn from managers, they come to understand that this type of interpersonal mistreatment is acceptable behavior in the company. In essence, employees start to think that “this is how it’s done around here,” and this belief manifests itself in a toxic environment that tolerates abusive acts.” (“Time’s Up for Toxic Workplaces,” HBR June 2020)
In a toxic culture, it can be frowned upon for employees to challenge those in upper management, so these behaviors may go unchecked. The HR and learning team may be unintentionally complicit if they do not feel supported in addressing the problem. Over time, even one abusive manager can poison an entire corporate culture, yet may never have been followed up with until it’s too late.
Where the Coach Comes In
As a coach, being invited into these organizations/situations and having the opportunity to be a voice for foreign-born employees is both exciting and daunting. Success requires an honest assessment of need for both the employee and the manager/management team – and a good measure of cultural competence. It also requires the courage to bring your observations, “warts and all” to your internal points of contact, typically management, human resources, and training or learning officers. What I’ve learned is that being a coach involved in multicultural work often means becoming an advocate.
Coaches can help in surfacing some of the underlying issues in a toxic culture, but we cannot affect enterprise change, since we are not part of the culture. We can, however, provide appropriate tools—from accurate assessments to tailored programs—advocate for individual multicultural workers, and help HR to raise awareness of where cultural understanding is lacking. As I wrote last year, “HR leaders can enhance cultural competence at the management level through training and ongoing communications initiatives, providing practical guidance that might address, for example, how to handle communications challenges facing multicultural employees, or sensitizing managers to non-verbal cues signaling a cultural disconnect.” (“Performance Evaluations of Multicultural Employees: Three Things to Keep in Mind”)
Coaches can help surface toxic issues (all while preserving coaching client confidentiality, of course), and help determine what role such behaviors might play in an employee’s motivation, engagement, and performance. In addition to developing and recommending support mechanisms for foreign-born employees to increase their cultural competence, we can provide tools and offer insights for management teams, to help them develop and even improve upon diversity training programs. At the end of the day, however, real change must be driven internally. Otherwise, sooner or later the talent marketplace will catch up with the toxic employer, and reputational erosion will follow.
Is it time to take a close look at your culture and the dynamics at play in shaping it? Remember that even though abuse isn’t always visible, its effects are always damaging.
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What Matters to Multicultural Employees
A few years ago, Springboards ran a survey of coaching clients who were foreign-born employees working for a US company. We asked them to pick the top three career benefits they looked for when researching prospective employers. Tools and programs that help these employees grow professionally overwhelmingly topped the list. Organizations offering these tools—including coaching, training, and mentoring—clearly stand to benefit as well: from increased employee loyalty, longer tenure, and positive referrals to colleagues. That has the potential to be a win for everyone.