Removing the Roadblocks That First-Generation Americans Face at Work

When my family immigrated from India to the U.S. nearly four decades ago, they had no indication of what a new world would bring. They were filled with hope that this relocation would provide a surplus of opportunities unavailable before. With that hope came a justified reservation about acceptance in a new community, so they applied a strategy many immigrant families deploy: assimilate and prosper.

The goal was not to suppress our identities. In contrast, it was to engage in a new environment with foreigners in a non-burdensome way. Rather than demanding a promotion at their jobs, my parents patiently waited until their hard work was finally rewarded — years after their American peers. Instead of asking for support in their daily duties, they silently took on additional responsibilities to prove their worth. Both of my parents wore their sense of altruism, undying commitment, and unwavering devotion as a badge of honor — blissfully passing these values onto me in hopes that I would replicate their work ethic in my career.

I entered the workforce with my parents’ worth ethic, fearless spirit, and integrity to carry me through my future endeavors. Unfortunately, history repeated itself in an unexpected way. I was exploited for my hard work. My boundaries were constantly being violated by senior leadership. I was petrified when it came to seeking support from my team because I was convinced that this would be a sign of weakness and would tarnish my professional image, ultimately hindering growth opportunities. It created a version of me that I despised: insecure, hesitant, and incredibly docile.

Working as a First-Generation American

My formative years were spent thinking my family environment was unique, but this was far from the truth. Many first-generation Americans face similar challenges as they navigate the societal expectations of two cultures at a very young age, resulting in a unique phenomenon called the “immigrant paradox“. First-generation Americans experience diminishing developmental outcomes, educational achievements, and even mental health challenges because of the racial and ethnic disparities in the U.S. — challenges our parents or even recent immigrants do not face since they immigrate normally post-adolescence.

To exacerbate this experience, first-generation Americans also face immigrant guilt as they try to desperately hold onto the traditions they inherited while harmonizing within a culture their families could not provide any guidance about. Adapting to the Western culture while feeling “othered” can lead to the inability to forge an identity that neatly falls within both cultures, traditions, and experiences. While our families may have had the best intentions in providing us with their wisdom and perceived values of success, it did not translate well into a workplace construct that was built for people who never shared our identities.

This is the cultural seesaw effect that many first-generation Americans face when trying to be successful in the workplace. The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community (and many cultures alike) find it challenging to self-promote, as it goes against our values. We’re taught to be humble and stay under the radar. We have been taught from a very young age to never correct authority figures, as a sign of respect. Similar to how my parents navigated their careers, many AAPI community members hope their hard work will simply speak for itself.

So why is this important for workplaces and leaders to consider as they seek to create equitable and inclusive work environments? Self-promotion and voicing your opinion have become key elements needed to thrive in Western workplaces, but this clearly advantages some and disadvantages others. Further, first-generation Americans and other marginalized communities endure numerous generational, societal, and workplace traumas that create mental health disparities, which can result in an apprehension to advocate for themselves in work environments.

However, if employers take an approach that commits to prioritizing inclusivity across all identities and backgrounds, then we can make progress in our distorted definition of success.

How Leaders Can Change the Narrative and Help Fix a Flawed System

Leaders cannot control how their employees will cope with societal and generational trauma. Yet, it is their responsibility to foster environments where all employees can feel secure in raising their hands for support. In order for this to successfully occur, organizations should closely look at whether current employee behaviors are in fact promoting inclusivity, or if processes and norms need to be modified to provide an equitable landscape for all workers. In my experience in working with global organizations, taking this critical pause before churning out solutions has proven to be a pivotal factor in revamping inclusion.

Assess Your Inclusion Efforts

In order to understand what practices are supportive of inclusion and which are not, a thorough assessment is required. In previous leadership roles, I have successfully conducted this assessment that ultimately evaluates inclusion across organizational and management practices through three specific dimensions: Co-creating success as a team, fostering communities with purpose, and evaluating the effectiveness of feedback mechanisms.

These three dimensions serve as a comprehensive approach to further understanding the organization’s context, culture, and intent in creating substantive inclusion. It also serves as a foundation for leaders to deep dive into prevailing processes to determine if the current company climate integrates the differences first-generation employees bring to the table, and allows them to be part of the decision-making process to achieve strategic objectives.

Once each dimension is thoroughly examined, taking action and prioritizing specific areas that need immediate attention is key. It will foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement from an organizational level, while simultaneously creating new practices where first-generation employees have the security to thrive.

Co-Create Success as a Team

We start with this dimension because our traditional workplace practices define success by emphasizing specific individual behaviors, instead of creating practices that benefit the entire employee population. This divide and conquer approach specifically prevents first-generation employees from determining what success looks like for them, furthering the narrative that their unique insights are less important than the dominant group.

As leaders, you can rectify these practices by first evaluating the level of collaboration and inclusion you provide for your own team. Commence reparative practices and invite all team members to define what success looks like for them. By doing so, you are providing first-generation employees the permission to relinquish their previous notions of the perfect employee, and create a culture of solidarity where they will be more likely to voice their opinions.

Additionally, forging rules of engagement, understanding preferred communication styles with others, and finalizing what support leadership should provide at the start of a project maintains boundaries for each first-generation employee. Eventually, if you keep inviting opinions to the table — and revisit conversations about success definitions on an agreed-upon timeline — the stigma associated with raising concerns will slowly diminish. Further, maintaining these work relationships and reciprocally committing to meet each other’s needs will allow for an equitable decision-making process and boost morale among all team members.

Foster Communities With Purpose

Arguably, this may be the most important component of the inclusion assessment, because it offers up a safe haven for first-generation employees to discuss how they navigate unique workplace stressors that only apply to them. Employee resource groups (ERGs), for example, have been incredibly popular for organizations trying to increase their inclusion efforts. However, they often fall short because they lack accountability or a specific mission. In my experience, I have seen ERGs solely being leveraged as an after-work social gathering — which is important, but does not cultivate corrective practices in the workplace that first-generation employees deserve. In order to make these communities more effective, I recommend finding a business sponsor who is already practicing inclusive leadership to lead the ERG with empathy and strategy.

In a previous role, I acted as the business sponsor and supported the launch of a similar ERG with a six-month action plan. The first two months were to simply connect as a community — to decompress and speak about how our community is marginalized in particular ways. The third and fourth months were used to transition into strategy. We examined questions such as: How can we empower ourselves to ask for support? What specific actions do we need leadership to take for us to continuously feel empowered in order to bring value back to the organization? These conversations were often difficult, and sometimes quite emotionally draining because it required many of us to revisit how our immigrant guilt manifests itself in the workplace. This is why the business sponsor of any ERG should be well-equipped and skilled to facilitate these conversations.

Lastly, the fifth and sixth months were dedicated to building a case to senior leadership in the specific work practices that needed to be amended in order for us to feel valued, included, and guarded in the workplace. A specific proposal was then developed with a coherent communication plan derived from the roundtable discussions we had in previous months. As we co-created this plan, each member of the ERG was invited to provide feedback and voted for the top concerns we wanted to address.

With this collective support of the ERG community, we were able to establish new norms across client projects to address capacity constraints, enhance cross-collaboration with teams, and determine accountability measures across all levels. For many of the ERG members, this success came with a unique sense of ownership of their careers that had seemed foreign before. People in the community had been accustomed to remaining silent, trailing back to the generational trauma many of us carried as we navigated through various challenges into the workforce. However, this success was a glimmer of hope that self-promotion could actually lead to tangible results, fundamentally changing the way the business operates.

Evaluate the Effectiveness of Feedback Mechanisms

While employee feedback through engagement surveys has become popular over the years as a definitive measure for enhancing inclusion, many first-generation employees will hesitate to offer their insights. Due to our complex identities, feeling othered, and lack of role models that share our identity, we feel compelled to assess the work environment first to determine if speaking up will be celebrated or punished — regardless of whether the feedback is imperative to change working conditions. To counteract this, leaders should actively analyze what type of culture they are promoting in order to retrieve an accurate glimpse of the work environment. Without this core component in psychological safety, employee engagement surveys will remain a false illusion of the organization’s actual reality.

For example, if your goal is to decrease employee burnout by seeking suggestions through engagement surveys, evaluate the type of behavior you are celebrating prior to seeking feedback. If you are amplifying an employee working at all hours, allowing others to accept every client demand, or creating a false sense of urgency, you are not fostering an inclusive environment for others to raise their hand for support. In fact, you are telling your employees that this is the golden rule for everyone to follow. First-generation employees will not feel safe to provide feedback in addressing these negative workplace stressors because the organization inadvertently supports this type of burnout behavior. Regardless of how well-intentioned your surveys are, harmful work environments will negate any efforts to make substantial change and eradicate any creditability amongst your first-generation employees. However, if the end goal is to create sustainable and inclusive work environments, call out toxic behaviors as regularly as you can, making it known these are not expectations for employees.

Once there has been a careful examination of workplace practices, seeking individual feedback via engagement surveys, team forums, or even via 1:1 meetings can further prove to empower first-generation employees. This continued course of action achieves a positive cycle of consistency where self-advocacy is encouraged, rather than expecting first-generation employees to overcome their reservations without the proper groundwork.

Furthermore, as you seek feedback, carefully analyze the perspectives of your first-generation employees. You may not always agree with their feedback or even fully understand their point of view. However, it is still your responsibility to do your best to implement changes if your end goal is inclusivity. Once this process is underway, an important consideration is not to have the feedback stay idle. Ultimately, if feedback goes unheard, it can create an environment of mistrust between you and first-generation employees. Keep in mind that this specific group would have done a great deal to overcome their own internalized stigma in providing the feedback, in hopes that the culture of work would be transformed. Communicate how you will address the feedback and remain agile. It may be possible that you will need to spend some time deciphering feedback from your first-generation employees or have another follow-up questionnaire to clarify points when it comes to their working conditions.

. . .

As organizations continue to correct a flawed system by building inclusion for all communities, it is imperative to support those who may not be able to advocate for themselves. First-generation employees sit at a unique juncture in applying determination and diligence in a new era of work, continuously shifting between cultures. Organizations need to create an environment where we can shed our layers and authentically thrive in the hopes of creating a more equitable world.

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