"The corporation for me is a theater, and I try to remember to stay in character."
That's the blunt response from one African-American executive to a dilemma that dogs many people of color in American workplaces: Even as multicultural fluency is increasingly prized in today's global business environment, the very people who represent that diversity feel shut out.
People of color too often feel that they have to hide their true selves at work, according to "Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Multicultural Professionals into Leadership," a new research report from the Center for Talent Innovation. More than 35% of African-Americans and Hispanics, as well as 45% of Asians, say they "need to compromise their authenticity" to conform to their company's standards of demeanor or style. Forty percent of African-Americans — and a third of people of color overall — feel like outsiders in their corporate culture, compared with 26% of Caucasians.
"Companies have been good at creating a workforce that looks different," says Andrés Tapia, author of The Inclusion Paradox. But, he adds, "they've fallen short when it comes to understanding how to develop a corporate culture where all employees feel included, respected, comfortable, and able to do their best work."
Fewer than a third of Asian-Americans feel very comfortable being themselves at work, according to earlier research from the CTI (PDF). An Indian vice president at a multinational pharmaceutical firm recounts being told by her boss that her Anglo-Indian accent was "too stuffy." She, like many others interviewed in our studies, avoids referring to Hindu holidays, discussing cultural mores with coworkers, or wearing anything that might be perceived as too ethnic. "You lead a dual life, you absolutely do," said another Indian senior manager. "There is an inhibition. You just don't want to talk about it. And I'd never dream of wearing a sari to work."
African-American men and women struggle with the conundrum of how to be assertive without courting the historic stereotype of the "angry black." "My style is direct," says one senior executive. "In the back of your mind, you wonder and worry whether you're perceived as being demanding and confrontational." Notes a focus group participant, "You start to be less of who you are. You start tiptoeing." As a result, career-oriented black women often suffer from what Ella Bell, a professor at the Tuck School of Business who studies race, gender, and social class in organizations, calls "bicultural stress" related to the need to hide their real selves at the office.
Overall, people of color are 37% more likely than whites to feel that they need to compromise their authenticity at work in order to conform to conventional standards of executive presence. "You're like a chameleon, constantly changing the way you are," observes an African-American network TV manager.
When people of color feel that they have to mask a rich cultural heritage or other aspects of difference, CTI research shows they are apt to feel isolated at work, and mistrustful of and less loyal to employers. That, in turn, leads to disengagement and a greater likelihood of leaving.
One remedy: Sponsorship can turn the uncertainties and insecurities of difference into the confidence and vision of career success. With sponsorship, according to CTI data, protégés of color are 65% more likely than those without a sponsor to be satisfied with their rate of advancement. Having this advocate in the workplace enables them to feel more comfortable being themselves and do their best work. Knowing that someone has their back dampens the distrust and discomfort that ultimately leads to a multicultural brain drain. As a result, protégés are nearly 60% less likely to plan to quit within a year.
As the country diversifies, companies need to realize that just having a diverse set of talent isn't enough. If your employees aren't comfortable at work, everyone suffers. Isn't it time to celebrate people of color for what they are, rather than stifle their valuable gifts?