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Engaging Asian American Employees

By Melissa J. Anderson

According to this year’s Asian Pacific Americans Corporate Survey released by the Asia Society, companies can tap into a significant advantage by better engaging their Asian Pacific American workforce.

While the vast majority of respondents indicate loyalty to their companies, many of them say they don’t feel like they really belong at their companies. Additionally, satisfaction with growth and advancement slows as APA employees get older. APAs born in America and those who immigrated to the US earlier in life tend to have higher levels of dissatisfaction than their APA counterparts who immigrated to the US later on.

Working harder to engage these groups would provide a competitive edge, though. For example, the report explains, the APA market is valuable, and growing more so every day. Yet the respondents indicated that their companies had better knowledge of the markets in Asian countries than the Asian Pacific American market.

By better tapping into the rich knowledge base of APA employees, companies could gain an advantage with APA customers and clients, as well as help engage their APA high performers.

Corporate Satisfaction and Belonging

Jonathan Saw, senior advisor for APA Research for the Asia Society, pointed out that one of the reports’ biggest findings was the dichotomy between loyalty and job satisfaction. “83% of APA employees said they care deeply about the future of their companies. Yet only 49% said they felt like they belong at their companies.”

“We would expect these numbers to track more closely. And, it makes you wonder what signals in the workplace are broadcasting an alienating message. One possible reason is the lack of Asian American role models and their absence in senior leadership,” he pointed out.

Less than half (48%) of respondents said there was an ample representation of APA individuals in key positions in their companies, and only 39% reported APA individuals in senior management. Looking up to a role model with a background similar to their own can help employees of any minority background see themselves as leaders as well.

Only 55% of respondents said they felt they are able to reach their full potential as an Asian Pacific American at their companies.

The report also showed that Asian Pacific American employees who were born in America were less likely to report being satisfied with their growth and development opportunities at their companies. Similarly, APA employees who immigrated to America grew more dissatisfied the longer they had lived in the US.

The report explains:

“APAs with a strong American identity share the same job and career expectations as their non-APA counterparts and are thus more aware of workplace inequities that ultimately impact them. The result is an overall erosion in the optimism and enthusiasm they had at the start of their career.”

On the other hand, the study continues, “APAs with less time in the U.S., or who moved to the U.S. later in life, have higher satisfaction due to both different priorities and less awareness or focus on the inequities they encounter.”

Saw also noted significant attrition of APA employees at the mid career level, and pointed out that the issue was not necessarily the pipeline: “Where are they going? It’s not about getting Asian Americans in the door. But somehow, something is making them jump.”

Engagement Opportunities

According to Saw, the data points out a few significant opportunities for companies to engage their APA employees. “In a very real sense, companies are still bound to this ‘country of origin’ lens – whether their employees’ ethnic origins are of Chinese versus Japanese versus Indian, et cetera. What the data shows is that is not the appropriate focus.”

He continued, “The main differences between APA employees is their time in the US or whether they have an American identity. An American-born individual with a Chinese background has more in common with an American-born person of Korean, Indian or Vietnamese descent, than with more recent Chinese immigrants who came to the US just five years ago.”

Similarly, he said, companies could make more of a distinction between the Asian market and the Asian American market. While 61% of respondents say their company leadership understands the Asia Market, only 53% said company leadership understand the Asian American market. “Asian Americans are very cognizant of their companies’ efforts in the Asian markets, but this is not the same as efforts focused on the Asian American market,” Saw explained.

“There’s also a problem of lexicon,” he continued, “Many people use the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Asian American’ interchangeably. With the increased focus on Asia for many companies, it is important that this distinction be made even clearer in the workplace. What a company does in Asia doesn’t ‘count’ in terms of engaging APA employees.”

Companies hoping to engage their Asian American employees should do more to tease out the nuances between the values and desires of those who feel more culturally American and those who have immigrated to the US more recently. Similarly, they should work to implement training that helps the broader workforce better understand the differences between Asian Pacific Americans and Asians.

Saw noted that copies of the full report can be purchased on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Asian-Pacific-Americans-Corporate-Survey/dp/0615643388/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340215844&sr=1-9&keywords=Asia+Society+Survey

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