Are you actually recognizing diversity in your workplace?

I’ve noticed an interesting trend in speaking with employers of late: everyone is paying attention to the problems and issues posed by employing “Gen Y” workers. They recognize that there are cultural value differences between the generations, and they work to accomodate those changes. I am, however, very concerned.

While managers focus their energy on motivating a younger work force, they are disregarding the cultural differences that exist within their immigrant workforce. As an example, I had an interesting conversation last night with two chinese immigrant workers that are currently employed at high tech companies here in Waterloo Region. They had some interesting perspectives on working with co-workers that were born in North America.

Please note: the following observations are transcribed from the two people I was chatting with and do not neccessarily reflect my opinions

North Americans talk too much
One of the surprising observations was their co-workers and managers talked too much and lacked focus. They participated in watercooler conversations with their co-workers because it was “normal” but they resented the waste of time. Similarly, one mentioned a manager that always came to chat with her and “wasted” 30 minutes every day. I would guess that the manager was trying to build a relationship with the employee, and wanted to help her be more open with her co-workers, but in the process he was using time that could otherwise be spent on tasks that were more productive (from the employee’s perspective).

North Americans brainstorm too much
Something that came up from both people, was that we seem to love brainstorming – even when it won’t lead to a better or faster solution. They appreciated brainstorming during the creative and business development process, but when it came to implementing a technical solution, they felt the brainstorming practice was significantly over used. They disliked how North American workers would spend time brainstorming and debating, hunting for a perfect technical solution, when really it would be more effective to implement the current (albeit non-ideal) solution, and put it in the field to solicit feedback.

North Americans work slowly
This, of the three observations, was the one that intrigued me the most. In both cases, these employees prided themselves in working quickly and accomplishing tasks ahead of schedule. They actively disliked people that took a long time to complete a task. And, when co-workers complained, these employees interpreted the complaints as “working too quickly was making the rest of the team look bad”. In this case the characteristic they valued (and thought management should value) was “high performing” over “good team worker”.

Although it’s easy to identify explanations for all three observations (e.g. we appreciate a better work-life balance, we have a lower tolerance for risk, we value correctness over speed) there is a more important point. While it’s commonly understood that Gen Y employees have different values and want diferent rewards than do Boomers and Gen X’s, it is often overlooked that people from different ethnic backgrounds may have equally different values and reward systems. Considering how many of our workforce in Waterloo Region are first and second generation immigrants, I find this particularly dissapointing.

In the case of the employees I mentioned before, their managers would probably have more success managing them if they recognized and rewarded their speedy work, and assigned tasks that could take advantage of fast focused labour. They would probably see a more positive response from the employees if they kept the socializing to lunches and recognized break times – not because it’s unwelcome, but because it’s unwelcome when it “wastes” valuable work time.

If you are managing a multi-cultural team, it’s critically important that you keep this in mind; be sure to ask yourself if you are recognizing and rewarding the right behaviour, regardles of their age, gender or race.


VP HCM Products at NetSuite and Founder of TribeHR and Lewis Media. Waterloo Region Enthusiast and active volunteer.


  • I think Canada is particularly bad at understanding how subtle cultural differences influence how people perceive situations because we don’t really have our own real regional differences besides Quebec. I am not sure the issue is being totally ignored but I think the less exposure to other cultures you have had outside of Canada the less likely you are to be able to actually know people perceive things differently.

    Even between two native English speakers (my wife being British), the same words and actions evoke a different emotional response from two very different cultural experiences. It is something to keep in mind especially in the work place.

  • Hi Joseph,

    I found your blog entry interesting –it would have been enlightening to get input from other immigrant groups too.

    There is definitely a lot of attention being paid to the whole generational difference right now. It seems to me that it is just one more element of diversity, not necessarily a distinct issue. When it comes to dealing with any kind of diversity in the workplace or elsewhere, we continue to struggle because dealing well with people is tough – it takes a lot of effort, energy and persistence….and typically goes unnoticed and un-rewarded (most organizations never miss someone who does it exceptionally well until they are gone). That’s why organizations tend to respond to the flavour of the month or the current pressure point (Gen Y right now), to appear responsive (and seen to be doing the right thing), but lose momentum as soon as the spotlight moves on.

    The question is…how do we get people to truly value diversity (not just “deal” with it) and how do we get organizations to value the people who value diversity and can translate that belief system into an awesome ability with people?

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