To get ahead,
get out of your comfort zone
Visible minorities can do a lot to
sidestep perceived barriers in the workplace
Globe and Mail:June 30, 2007: WALLACE IMMEN
Yim Chan found comfort in discovering other
Asian immigrants with whom she could identify working in her department when
she moved to Canada from Malaysia in 1979 and took a computer lab job at IBM
But she resisted the temptation to confine her relationships within that
"I knew it was important to go beyond my own minority group, and network and
get advice from a wider perspective to help me prepare to move up in my
career," Ms. Chan says.
Evidently, that was the right thing to do. In the 28 years since, she has
had 15 promotions, including this year being named chief privacy officer for
Markham, Ont.-based IBM Canada, with a second role as global privacy
executive for the Armonk, N.Y.-based parent company, International Business
Ms. Chan says such networking was one strategy that helped her overcome the
barriers that many visible minority managers and executives who responded to
a groundbreaking survey released this week said they have encountered in
their climb up the corporate ladder.
The study, Career Advancement in Corporate Canada: A Focus on Visible
Minorities, found that many professionals from visible minorities have
perceived a lack of fairness in career advancement processes, along with an
absence of role models, inequality in performance standards and fewer
high-visibility assignments sent their way than their white colleagues.
The results were based on the experiences of 12,000 non-minority managers
and executives as well as 4,500 who identified themselves as visible
minorities. The respondents had an average work experience of 20 years in
While the report recommended that employers address the issues, minority
employees themselves can do a lot to sidestep or avoid the barriers, advises
Wendy Cukier, associate dean and founder of Ryerson University's Diversity
Institute, which did the study along with diversity research company
The most critical barriers that showed up in the study revolve around being
excluded from office networks, and a lack of mentoring and encouragement
"But these are things that can be developed informally, and there is nothing
to stop you from picking up the phone and asking for advice, from
approaching someone at a meeting or inviting someone out to lunch," Ms.
Most people are actually happy to help if asked, she says. And such
approaches will also help overcome another barrier: learning the informal
processes that aren't apparent in organization charts, she says.
For instance, many decisions about staffing new projects and promotions are
made before opportunities are officially announced, she says.
Cultural differences may make people reticent to ask questions or seek
advice because they worry about not seeming competent or plugged in, Ms.
Cukier says. "But if you don't ask, no one is likely to tell you about
While they are asking, they should also tell.
Many members of visible minorities are reluctant to blow their own horns,
which trips up those unfamiliar with the Canadian way of doing things, says
Lisa Mattam, principal of The Mattam Group in Toronto, which does training
for new Canadians on how to work in a Canadian environment.
"In North America, we are comfortable with self-promotion. But in Asian and
even Canadian aboriginal communities, it is not commonplace to take personal
credit for an accomplishment; you always give credit to the team," Ms.
In many other cultures, there is also an assumption that experience speaks
for itself and other people know what people do by their title, Ms. Mattam
That's not necessarily the case in Canada, so it's important to remind
superiors about contributions and accomplishments, and take deserved credit
for them, she says.
|Assertiveness training can help, she suggests. "In many
other cultures, brevity and modesty are cardinal virtues," Ms. Mattam says.
But, "in North America, we place a premium on self-confidence and
assertiveness. If you don't develop an outgoing approach, you may not get
the attention you need to get recognition and be the winning candidate when
interviewing for new positions," she says.
Through it all, people must stay true to themselves, Ms. Cukier cautions. In
fact, people have things to offer just by being from somewhere else, she
"As a member of a visible minority, you can work so hard to fit in that you
feel nervous about talking with colleagues about the unique knowledge and
different approaches you may have," Ms. Cukier says.
"But one of your unique strengths is an understanding of
another culture and a different perspective," she advises.
"That's going to make you more valuable as the economy becomes increasingly
diverse and global."
Cultural differences create potential
barriers to career advancement for members of visible minorities. Here are
tips to get around them from Ryerson University's Diversity Institute:
Come up with long-term career targets and
a timetable for meeting them.
Identify education and experiences you are lacking to meet your goals,
and develop plans to obtain them.
Social rules are often unspoken but are key to getting along well in an
organization. Pay attention to and emulate those standards.
Get into the loop. Visible minorities often feel excluded from social
interaction and gossip that can illuminate opportunities. Make an effort to
Relationships in your own ethnic group can provide support but networking
across the organization and industry is crucial for making connections that
lead to career gains.
Find a mentor, be a mentor
Develop a supportive relationship with someone higher in the organization
who you want to emulate. Don't restrict yourself to your own ethnic group.
Don't assume your résumé or track record speak for themselves. Ensure
that colleagues and supervisors know your contributions.
People often feel constrained by culture or personal qualities. Make
requests for information, advice and help you need.
Don't be limited by fear of the unfamiliar or being embarrassed. Moving out
of your comfort zone is a sign of enthusiasm.
See differences as strengths
You have unique knowledge, perspectives and insights, and communicating
them makes you valuable to the team.
Don't rise to perceived slights
You cannot control how other people treat you, only how you react to