When considering how well you’re doing your job and what advancement opportunities lie ahead, it can come down to one key factor: how you are perceived by your boss. A quarter of employees overall said their performance reviews have been negatively affected by their manager’s personal biases toward them, according to a Syndio survey including responses from over 1,000 full-time workers across job levels.
For Asian employees, over 50% said they feel that way, that survey found. It comes amid ongoing debates about meritocracy and as diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are challenged following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year against affirmative action.
“The challenges Asian Americans face at work are often overlooked,” said Katie Bardaro, a labor economist and chief customer officer at Syndio, a pay and equity HR software company. “The biases that they are facing in their day-to-day work is impacting their ability to move up the career ladder,” she said.
Asian employees have long been held to a “model minority” stereotype, where they are often perceived as smart and hardworking yet unemotional and uncreative, according to a recent report according to the Pew Research Center. That report, which includes responses from over 7,000 Asian adults in the U.S., found over 60% said in daily encounters people have assumed they are a model minority — or they are good at math and science yet not creative thinkers.
Unconscious biases and perceptions around those workers lacking communication skills and creativity come out when they are being assessed by their supervisors, experts say, and ultimately impact their ability to emerge as leaders at their organizations.
It’s a phenomenon known as the “bamboo ceiling,” a coin termed in 2005 by executive coach Jane Hyun. Research shows Asian Americans are the least likely group to be promoted to management in the U.S. They represent about 13% of the professional workforce in the U.S. but just 6% of executive and senior officers and managers, according to an analysis of 2018 data from Ascend, a global network for advancing Asian and Pacific Islander professionals in the workplace and corporate boardrooms.
It’s like the glass ceiling, except “bamboo is extremely difficult to break” said Christopher Tang, distinguished professor and Edward W. Carter chair in business administration at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. “It is very difficult for an Asian American to break through the American corporations to move up the ladder,” Tang said.
Syndio talked with a subset of organizations it works with to further understand what Asian workers were experiencing during their performance review process.
They found Asian respondents felt they were getting critical feedback on showing a lack of assertiveness or boldness, “characteristics that in the corporate American culture are viewed as leadership material,” Bardaro said.
Others shared they did have positive reviews but in performance discussions their supervisors focused on tasks and work they had completed, rather than ideas they generated. “Managers are reviewing them around characteristics versus really what their potential is in terms of driving the work or the business forward,” she said.
“This feeling of being put into a box or this lack of ability to be seen as leadership material, you know, it doesn’t only just affect the decisions that are happening for you and your career today, but it just perpetuates year after year after year,” she said.
There are a number of steps managers and organizations should take to mitigate bias across the board and for Asian employees. First they should have more frequent conversations, as “frequent reviews tend to focus on recent results, or results that have been delivered — not personality traits, like the annual reviews can at times,” Bardaro said.
New tech tools can also allow organizations to take a better look at performance review data and whether managers may be harboring unconscious biases that need to be addressed, she said. Syndio’s platform allows HR teams to view data on how employees are being rated based on their race and gender, to discern whether certain staff and managers are impacted by biases. That can prompt further discussions and training to help make managers aware of it and help mitigate it in the future, she said.
Managers should also already receive diversity training, and it should cover cultural differences that could emerge at work that they may have unconscious biases about. Asian employees may tend to be less vocal about their accomplishments because of cultural differences, Tang said. “A lot of times they do the work, they don’t really brag about it.”
Making advancement opportunities more equitable by giving them on a rotation rather than to certain staff perceived to have high potential is another way to mitigate bias. And like other minority groups, gaining more representation in leadership roles will ultimately help change perceptions and give those early in their careers more role models to look up to, he said. Ultimately, “giving them a chance to shine” is key.