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February 1, 2022

Don’t let invisible culture gaps impede workplace inclusion

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.

The immigrant experience

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.

Opening the door to belonging

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:

  • Actively engage in affinity groups. I’m part of several affinity groups at Cognizant, including groups for Pan-Asian, women and LGBTQ+ employees. Whether making paper lanterns to celebrate Mid-Autumn Festival with the Pan-Asian group or learning about negotiating with our global affinity group Women Empowered, these groups have given me everything from practical advice, to workplace connections, to the intangible benefits of simply enjoying time with colleagues.

    Be sure to convey to others when a connection you’ve made is valuable. It’s moments like these — like when a colleague in Germany asked me to have a virtual coffee following our lantern-making session — that encourage continued support and participation.

  • Acknowledge important holidays. At the very least, be aware that on big cultural holidays like Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, your Asian colleagues will likely be unavailable. Even when I lived in Hong Kong, I traveled home to be with my family in the US for Lunar New Year. It’s less possible during the pandemic, but even this year, I’ll do the cleaning and preparation that tradition calls for, cook a feast (including rice cakes and dumplings), and remind my parents to give out red envelopes to my nieces and nephews. After all, when I was a kid these “lucky coins” were my spending money for the whole year.

    Even better, ask your Pan-Asian colleagues about their plans for these holidays. It’s in sharing recipes, learning the history behind the traditions, and realizing the differences and similarities in our celebrations that create workplace connections.

  • Turn “awkward” into opportunity. Thanks to Brené Brown, we’ve all learned about having courage to show our vulnerability, which is exactly what it feels like when our cultural gaps are exposed. For people in diverse populations, I suggest just owning up to it and turning them into bonding moments. Shift your mindset from “I feel left out” to “That sounds interesting — can you tell me more.”

    Team leaders and senior managers can help by being aware of employees who seem a bit quiet during group conversations. Maybe tap them on the shoulder and fill them in or introduce a new topic so they feel acknowledged.

  • Establish time for casual conversation in remote meetings. Back in the in-office workplace, before meetings started, we’d usually steal a few minutes chatting and catching up and then get down to business. With remote work, much of that casual interaction has gone away, to the detriment of team dynamics.

    Having joined Cognizant during the pandemic, I greatly appreciate any opportunity to hear about my colleagues’ lives outside of work. When appropriate, meeting leaders might want to consider establishing a few minutes before or after a remote meeting to encourage these personal interactions. 

    My coworkers and I have also had a couple of working sessions in which we kept our cameras and microphones on as we worked on a presentation rather than doing our pieces in isolation. It made us feel more like we were working together instead of just us working at home.

Embracing the human moments

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.

Li Xiu Chen
Senior Director, Global FP&A
Digitally Cognizant blog author Li Xiu Chen

Li Xiu Chen is a Senior Director in Cognizant’s Global FP&A function. She is an analytical and results-oriented leader well-versed in business planning and operational transformation.

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