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Stephen Chen - Views on Corporate Ethnic Discrimination toward Asian Americans via Case Study

Discrimination and discomfort in the workplace is something not everybody can say they’ve experienced, however, it’s something many people, across various races and backgrounds, can identify with. Recognizing these issues and knowing how to deal with them has proven to be extremely difficult, as it is often swept under the rug and not discussed. I had the pleasure of speaking with Stephen Chen, the coauthor of a composite case study titled The Case of Jessica Chang, which explores, examines, and discusses these exact issues.


I understand you coauthored a study, titled The Case of Jessica Chang, back in the ‘90s, can you explain more about the study and where the idea for it came about?


When I was working for Bell Laboratories, I was involved with helping to establish an employee resource group, they didn’t call them that then, but these are groups within companies that are focused on issues facing a particular group of folks, whether it’s by race, gender, sexual identity, etc. There was an Asian American group there, and I was one of the founders of that group; at its peak we had about 6,000 members across the whole nation. So it was a pretty good-sized group, the company subsidized us, and we were able to hold national conferences where we invited people, not just Asians, because anyone could join, but it was dominated by Asian Americans. So we would get together in some city and have a three to four day conference, and during those conferences we would have workshops, seminars, leadership training, communication skills improvement, and it was during one of those that I heard a lot of stories over the years and put together this composite case, where all of these things really happened, but not to one person; it was just put together like that so you could have a more comprehensive study to work from. So that’s how it started, and once I put it together I started using it and along the way I met several professors, Fred Leong was one of them, who at that time was at Ohio State and very interested in career development for Asian Americans. He mentioned to me that we should write this case study up and present it at one of the American Psychology Association’s national conferences.


What’s your personal take on the study? In other words, how did you and Frederick hope that others in your same position, in the corporate workforce, would view this resource?


There are several objectives, one objective was just alerting managers, in particular non-Asian managers that had Asian employees working for them, that some of these issues existed, and that objective was pretty well achieved, I thought, because we gave this seminar dozens of times and we used the same format that was targeted at managers who had Asian employees, as well as Asian employees themselves. We usually split them into groups and we had a bunch of discussion questions that they would break up into their individual subgroups to talk about. There were a lot of surprises and things you wouldn’t have guessed beforehand, but the bottom line was that most groups weren’t aware of these issues; once they realized, it was like a lightbulb turned on, when most of the time these issues were more or less subconscious. Then the second part of the seminar addresses what to do about these issues now that we recognize they happen; how can we make it better for not only Asian women, but all employees who felt alienated? That came out early, that some of the managers that were more introverted felt many of the same behaviors directed toward them as what was described in the case study.


“The second part of the seminar addresses what to do about these issues now that we recognize they happen; how can we make it better for not only Asian women, but all employees who felt alienated?”


So the case study deals a lot with identity issues and ethnic discrimination, in your opinion, what are the most important issues the case study discusses?


At that time, in Bell Labs, which was a very technical community, the number of Asians kept growing, in terms of percent of the population, and you still see this today. Asians, especially Indian Americans, tend to dominate the technical field, and if you look at engineering and computer science programs, the majority of students are overwhelmingly foreign-born and, in particular, Asian, so that leads to a backlash. I think that was the biggest thing that came out, was that people started resenting the number of Asians in the workplace, so that led to a number of things like backstabbing, not being supportive, taking credit, all the negative things you associate in the workplace started to come into play. The biggest problem was how do you counteract that? Especially since a lot of it is subtle, if you’re in a meeting and you take credit for someone else’s work and you know that person, especially if it’s a woman, won’t speak up, so you just talk like you did it and not her. So some of the training would say, “if you saw this going on and you saw Suzie being bullied and not receiving credit, then speak up for her”, but that’s hard to do, for anybody. Those were some of the ideas when it came to action-planning and how to make these issues better. Or if you’re the manager or supervisor, make sure you call out Suzie first, and give her an opportunity to speak before all the folks that like to use up all the air time get in there.


“I think that was the biggest thing that came out, was that people started resenting the number of Asians in the workplace, so that led to a number of things like backstabbing, not being supportive, taking credit, all the negative things you associate in the workplace started to come into play. The biggest problem was how do you counteract that?”


The case study discusses how things might have been positively improved or been different for Jessica if her company had offered some sort of career development program or if she had adopted a career management strategy. Can you expand on this idea to give advice to others dealing with these issues?


During the time the case study came about, mentoring was viewed as a best practice; it was certainly viewed as something positive that companies should try. For the most part, I think mentoring, at large, has not reaped the benefits that people have hoped, and the main reason is that it’s too formalized and built on an artificial relationship. There has to be a chemistry between the mentor and mentee, and that chemistry has to be based on mutual respect, and a lot of times you go through some lottery and you’re hooked up with some senior VP, who you’ll maybe meet once or twice a quarter, but nothing really happens. The relationships that do work are those built on something solid, where it is based on mutual trust, and I would say it’s a friendship, as opposed to some formal business and forced relationship. Those types of relationships are difficult to achieve, because a lot of times, if you look at Asian immigrants, they tend to hang out in their own communities. When they leave the office they have their own little bubble that they’re part of, and there’s very little mixing; if one is in that bubble and you have the white male that has his bubble, then they have a completely different set of social connections, so how do you get those to intersect? It takes hard work to do that. It’s not easy, but I think the rewards are great, because then you get to know the person and that relationship becomes automatic. When a manager gets to know you and sees an opportunity open, he isn’t forcing himself to think of you, the connection is already there.


One of the conclusions I would draw from the study and what we’ve discussed is that these issues are becoming more apparent with time, but knowing how to overcome them is more of a gray area; do you think people will start to naturally intermingle? Or what are some solid efforts people can put into place, on a daily basis, to help themselves and others dealing with these issues?


That’s a wonderful question and I think sociologists have long debated it. The workplace itself is sort of one big bubble, because it’s kind of divorced from the rest of society, so you can do things inside companies that normally would be very difficult for society in large. So certain instances do work, such as having all-inclusive company luncheons, and I think the companies that will have the best chance of progressing for the better are those with visionary leaders, because there’s no one-size-fits-all, there’s no magic bullet here. Each company has its own culture, it’s own personality, and you can feel it right away. Some companies you just walk in the door and you know right away you don’t want to work there, and then there’s other places you walk in and know that you’re going to love that environment. So it’s kind of indescribable, the Chinese call it ‘qi’, but it’s definitely something that I know when I walk into a building; I immediately get a sense; I know right away if it’s going to be a welcoming place or not. So if we could somehow bottle that, whatever ‘that’ is, that would be cool. If we could fundamentally understand what creates those kinds of environments and try to somehow replicate it, that would be extremely helpful.

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