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We help foreign-born technical professionals learn the unwritten rules of the American workplace and get promoted to managers and executives.



Published in MS/PH.D. Magazine


The Invisible Engineer

By Octave V. Baker, Ph.D


Despite their reputations as hard working and loyal employees, many foreign-born engineers and scientists face problems moving up the corporate ladder into top managerial and executive positions.


“The foreign-born’s chances of moving into management are not good at all. Look at the proof. At the bottom of these companies, there are lots of foreign-born. But as you go up, there are less and less. And at the top of most companies, there are no foreign-born as general managers,” a Chinese engineer says.


Their problem is twofold. On the one hand, the foreign-born often are victims of stereotyping.  For example, Chinese engineers are seen as passive, reserved, solely technical individuals who lack people skills necessary for management success. East Indian engineers may be viewed as abrupt, argumentative and arrogant.


On the other hand, because of their cultural values and upbringing, these foreign-born may, in fact, lack the skills needed to succeed as managers.


Lack of Visibility


“Americans value certain traits in the their leaders, such as being highly visible, articulate and persuasive. Asians are seen as quite reserved. They are usually not seen as dynamic leaders,” says Albert Yu, an Intel manager who has developed a training program to help foreign-born professionals integrate into the Intel corporate culture.


Yu believes that part of the problem is a lack of visibility on the part of many Asian and foreign-born professionals. He believes that differing cultural values are responsible for their low profile. Asians value modesty and humility. “They believe that if you work hard and do your job, your accomplishments should be recognized,” he says.


“In Asian cultures you are not supposed to blow your own horn and say how wonderful you are. As a result, many Asians and foreign-born often are not recognized for their accomplishments and superior performance,” he says.


Consequently, their careers may suffer.


“Another problem is that many Asians, particularly Chinese, may not feel comfortable talking openly with their supervisors about their career aspirations and ambitions,” Yu says. As a result, their supervisors may not understand where they want to go in the company. Bosses may think workers are happy doing technical work and thus remain unaware that they have aspirations beyond their current positions.


However, morale is an important consideration, especially for high-tech companies. Pat Hubbard of the American Electronics Association says that foreign-born are an increasingly important source of engineers, especially for non-defense companies.


Poor Communication Skills


Still another problem faced by many of the foreign-born is poor communications skills because of cultural and linguistic differences. For example, if they do not speak English fluently, they may have problems expressing their ideas clearly and convincingly. Thus, they may lose credibility in the eyes of their American-born co-workers even if their ideas have merit.


“I know he’s knowledgeable,” a co-worker says of a foreign-born colleague. “But I just don’t understand what he’s saying most of the time. His accent is so strong.”


Additionally, many may experience difficulty in “thinking on their feet” and “speaking off the cuff.” These are essential skills, however, in the fast-paced environment of high-tech companies.


One Taiwanese engineer, for example, confides that he still needs to translate numbers from English to Chinese and then back to English, thus slowing down his response time at meetings.


Additionally, many foreign-born experience problems in listening effectively to and comprehending spoken English.


This problem stems from several sources. For one, their American co-workers may speak rapidly, without pausing. They also may use slang, idioms, buzz words and jargon that the foreign-born may not understand. Second, interactions may be rushed because of time pressures, and there may be little time for adequate communication. Third, the communication may be stressful. All these factors can contribute to the foreign-born professional’s failing to understand important ideas because he or she is so overloaded.


This problem may be compounded by the communication styles of the foreign-born, who may have different styles of listening or who may speak English with the rhythm or intonation pattern of their mother tongue.


For example, Chinese may not ask questions, check information, seek clarification or confirm understanding of important points, even if they are unclear about their points. This reluctance to question is culturally based.


Among Asians, asking questions implies either that the speaker has not spoken clearly enough or that the listener is not smart enough to have understood the first time around. It was a revelation for one Asian professional to learn that asking questions in this culture is interpreted as positively as showing interest and knowledge.


Many East Indians may be perceived as abrupt because they stress different words or phrases than native speakers of English. In the sentence “I want the report,” East Indians may stress “want” while native speakers of English would emphasize all the words equally.


Not Socializing with Colleagues


Many foreign-born do not socialize with their colleagues, although socializing can be important to career advancement. They prefer to interact with members of their own culture. Thus, they may group together during work breaks, at lunch or at social events sponsored by their company.


“My impression is that the foreign-born are less socially active with their colleagues than American-born employees. This may limit their advancement, because they have fewer chances to learn the corporate culture and to promote themselves,” says Patrice Trevoledes, a training specialist at Intel Corp. who works with foreign-born professionals.


However, a Vietnamese professional found herself ostracized by her Vietnamese friends at work when she began going out to lunch with other co-workers. “They consider me too Americanized,” she says.


The foreign-born tend to socialize with one another for several reasons. One is that they have difficulty engaging in extended small talk. But whatever the reason, the foreign-born is isolated from informal communication channels that are essential for integration into the corporate culture and for career advancement.


These informal channels offer a way of gathering information about the corporate culture, its norms, values, beliefs and accepted ways of getting things done. They also are the key to building relationships with co-workers that encourage effective teamwork, collaboration and problem solving.

Cultural differences may be a major obstacle to career advancement for the foreign-born professional.


The Need to Be Flexible


But Intel’s Yu believes that these differences are not necessarily insurmountable.


He advises the foreign-born professional to be flexible. “You do not have to give up your own culture to succeed here,” he says. “You can maintain your culture and at the same time adapt to the local culture. The way you behave and communicate at work can differ from the way you behave with friends, relatives or at home.”


Some do’s for foreign-born professionals interested in career advancement include:

  • Develop assertive communication skills

  • Explore career options openly with supervisors and managers.

  • Set English-language fluency as a high-priority, professional-development goal.

  • Ask more questions.

  • Socialize with co-workers outside one’s own cultural group.


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