By Judy Shen-Filerman

Many professionals who have come from other cultures are not used to the way Americans socialize at work. Our sarcastic humor, our “how was your weekend as a passing-by comment” make make many non-natives feel on the periphery and unwelcome in work circles.



Professionals have mentioned not understanding the humor or feeling odd standing in the circle but not able to offer up interesting or engaging contributions to the conversation. They find that Americans freely express their opinions, which is unusual for many whose cultures are more subdued in mixed company.

As a result, these individuals feel isolated and lonely, believing they are valued only for their technical contributions, but not welcomed into the larger social context. This has profound implications, when managers realize that some of the best ideas at work result from simple conversations in which many non-native individuals are missing. Moreover, social disengagement also may lead to lower engagement and organizational loyalty. So what can managers and leaders do?

1. Begin to recognize who is not in your everyday conversations. Make a point to invite them into the water cooler conversation or group lunch. Become curious about them and ask questions about their family, native countries, and hobbies. Help them feel that the whole person is recognized at work, not just their brains.

2. Proactively ask for their input on matters official and unofficial. Many want to engage, but feel most comfortable if they are asked or invited. Most have a depth of knowledge and ideas, but will share only when prompted and invited.

3. Be comfortable with not knowing their culture. Nowadays, in the pursuit of political correctness, many steer away from asking coworkers about their family or practices. If you stay open-minded, individuals can learn a lot about other world cultures and establish new relationships. For example, when Easter occurred this year, I noticed how many international individuals I was coaching asked me why the Easter holiday was so important or why was there an Easter bunny? These places of difference can be a wonderful point of discovery and engagement.

Eliminating bias is actually about expanding one’s horizon and recognizing there are many right ways to approach any one situation. Practice opening yourself to not knowing and genuine curiosity. If you engage with the individuals who are different your view of your colleagues will expand. If you are a manager, this open-minded approach will not only produce empathy and acceptance, but will also create better work relationships and improved work results.