Maximize the Benefits of Your Cultural Identity on the Job

By Chandra Prasad, Special Contributor

Corporate America is perhaps the last stronghold of the “melting pot,” a myth suggesting that all Americans undergo a common form of cultural assimilation. But behind the myth, the American workforce is more diverse than ever. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), minorities and women now comprise two-thirds of all new labor force entrants.

Despite this staggering statistical fact, however, businesses – particularly at the executive level – haven’t changed with the times. In fact, for 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 percent 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 “Angle-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. Skin color may influence one’s career development, but it need not hinder it, 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 the Union Bank of California tops Fortune’s list of the “Best Companies for Minorities”. The company actively recruits minority candidates and is especially receptive to those with foreign language skills. Fannie Mae is another company that supports the corporate development of culturally diverse employees. In January 1999, it elected Franklin Raines to become the first African American Chairman and CEO of a Fortune 500 company.


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 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 (see citation below). 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 You might not know it, but 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/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. But how can one maximize the benefits of a minority status while circumnavigating stereotypes?

The trick 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.

National Institute for Literacy-LINCS

Chandra Prasad, a writer specializing in career and workplace diversity issues, is author of the book, Outwitting the Job Market: Everything You Need to Locate and Land a Great Position (Lyons Press 2004).

Her feature articles have been published in the Wall Street Journal’s Career Journal and College Journal, True Careers, the Career Center, and others.

The former Editor-at-Large of, she has been quoted as a workplace expert by Black Entertainment Television, The Christian Science Monitor, the Gay Financial Network, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Finding Your Dream Job Online. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.