The traits that make US firms less likely to hire Hong Kong Chinese over white applicants, according to Stanford study

You might think appearing unflappable in a job interview an asset, but what US employers see instead is an enthusiasm deficit, research shows. A cultural critic isn’t surprised by the findings, and says Asian job applicants are typecast.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 7:10pm

Hong Kong Chinese job applicants typically appear calm and collected in interviews, but their composure could lower their chances of being hired by companies in the West, particularly the United States, a study shows.

The research by Stanford University, with input from scholars at City University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, considered how potential employers react to cultural differences in the way applicants show emotion.

Chinese employers bullish on hiring over next 12 months

It found the tendency of Hong Kong Chinese to be calm and even-tempered a handicap because American employers favour passion and look for job applicants who ooze enthusiasm.

The findings are based on studies, involving a total of 1,041 participants, that focused on different scenarios at five employers. In four of the studies, the researchers compared Americans – both white and Asian – living in the United States with Chinese from Hong Kong.

“In the US, career counsellors and job advisers often tell applicants to be excited and enthusiastic when applying for jobs. It is important to recognise that this message is shaped by our culture, and it may not be right or feel natural for everyone,” says Lucy Zhang Bencharit, a co-author of the report and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Stanford.

Melbourne, Australia-based image consultant and branding coach Jon Michail, who has numerous Hong Kong clients, says his observations tally with the Stanford findings.

“The report, from my experience, is a fair demonstration of what happens in the workplace. Chinese- and Hong Kong Americans are definitely less demonstrative than their American colleagues. And at times, even if a Chinese- or Hong Kong American intuitively wants to display a more charismatic image, they pull back because it’s not culturally their thing to do and hence they won’t do it, as it risks losing face.”

For American companies that want their staff to appear enthusiastic, such reticence is problematic, the survey concludes.

In one experiment, participants were expected to imagine they were applying for an internship and were facing stiff competition. They were asked to file a mock job application with a video to introduce themselves. Afterwards, they were asked what emotions they had intended to convey to the imaginary employer.

While Hong Kong Chinese sought to appear unflappable and allay any sense that they might be a bundle of nerves, European Americans were keen to express enthusiasm. The vast majority of European Americans – 86 per cent – said they aimed to express a sense of excitement. By contrast, fewer than half – 48 per cent – of Hong Kong Chinese set out to seem eager.

The difference in attitude was mirrored in the way participants spoke. For instance, European Americans were more inclined to use gushing statements such as “I am passionate about the work” and “I’m really enthusiastic about this position”.

As part of the same study, staff at an American company were shown video applications from three candidates with comparable academic credentials – one of them animated, another calm and the third neutral. Of the 300 who viewed them, 47 per cent preferred the excited applicant, whereas only 23.7 per cent picked the calm one and 29.3 per cent the neutral one.

“The findings … don’t surprise me,” says cultural critic Ellen Wu, director of the Asian-American studies programme at Indiana University Bloomington in the US Midwest.

Wu says that Asians are automatically typecast as reserved. In Western culture, Asians have long been regarded as “all the same” and stereotyped as mysterious and inscrutable – short on “affect” and personality, she says.

Why so many Americans are dropping out of the job market

White people, by contrast, are more likely to be seen, treated, or judged as individuals by others, including potential employers, says Wu, author of The Colour of Success, which charts the change in perception of Asians in the US from a “yellow peril” to the “model minority”.

The perception of Asians as lacking in emotion may also explain why relatively few occupy top positions in the US corporate hierarchy. A widely cited 2015 report on diversity in Silicon Valley, aptly titled “Hidden in Plain Sight”, found that at five tech giants – Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Hewlett-Packard and Intel – Asians were well represented in junior-level posts but less visible at management and executive level.

The report, from my experience, is a fair demonstration of what happens in the workplace. Chinese- and Hong Kong Americans are definitely less demonstrative than their American colleagues
Image consultant Jon Michail

While Asians comprised 27 per cent of the workforce on average at the five companies which took part in the study, just 19 per cent were managers and 14 per cent executives, according to the report, produced by the Asian professional group Ascend Foundation. In contrast, 62 per cent of professional staff and 80 per cent of executives were white. Women were one-and-a-half times more likely than Asians as a whole to have an executive role, the Ascend study found.

Study co-authors Buck Gee, Denise Peck and Janet Wong paint Asians as remote and technically minded. They fail to see that they need to show vision and soft skills that reflect a high “emotional intelligence quotient”, or EQ, the authors found.

Soft skills are vital, they say, and reserve is an ingrained cultural impediment.

“As aptly expressed in the popular Japanese proverbs ‘the nail that sticks out will be hammered’ and ‘the quacking duck gets shot’, Asian culture is more concerned with the dangers of speaking out. By contrast, in Western cultures, we are advised that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease’. In short, we were more likely to give a promotion to someone who had actually asked for it,” the authors write.

Jane Hyun, a former human resources executive who coined the term “bamboo ceiling”, says reticence raises some critical questions. “Why is he not saying anything? Why is she so quiet? Why is he not taking initiative?” she said in a 2016 interview.

In fact, says Hyun – who has managed recruitment for the likes of Deloitte and JP Morgan – such an interviewee is trying to show respect for the manager’s authority. Unfortunately, deference stemming from good intentions can be misread and result in an unfavourable performance rating in interviews.

“As I started working in corporate America … I realised it’s not just about working hard but knowing how to communicate what you’re doing: having the right mentors and sponsors, and connecting with people in a way that people understand what you’re doing and the value of what you’re trying to achieve,” says Hyun.

Stanford study co-author Professor Jeanne Tsai, director of the Culture and Emotion Lab in the psychology department at Stanford’s School for Humanities and Sciences, takes a tougher line. According to Tsai, it is mainstream culture rather than Asian professionals that needs to change.

“If we really want to benefit from diverse workplaces, then we have to broaden our views of what emotional qualities we look for in the ideal applicant,” she says.

Zhang Bencharit blasts the assumption that exuding missionary zeal is the only way to thrive in an organisation. In many tasks, a calm, level-headed employee may outperform an excited and passionate one, she says.

Image consultant Michail agrees. “The last thing you need or want as an organisation is all the team to be similarly excited and enthusiastic. Unfortunately, due to the superficial aspects of Western and American culture, at times this can be a problem for Chinese- and Hong Kong Americans – and other cultures for that matter,” he says.

Michail adds that it’s important to strike a balance with “the right amount of yin and yang – enthusiasm with calmness”.

Tough at the top

The term “bamboo ceiling” dates to 2005, when it was coined by leadership strategist Jane Hyun in her success guide Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. The guide addresses the barriers faced by Asian Americans in the professional sphere, such as stereotyping.

According to Hyun, Asians are routinely treated as a “model minority” – nerds with no leadership potential. Educated, ambitious, industrious and focused on getting the job done, they expect to be rewarded in time.

“Yet, somehow, your hard work isn’t paying off, and you watch from the sidelines as your colleagues get promoted,” she says. Suddenly there’s pressure to be a rainmaker who wields influence and attracts clients.

IBM plan could give Hong Kong graduates opportunities at tech giant

She says Asians in the workplace may also be hobbled by Confucian values: filial piety, the importance of family, deference to authority, communal decision making, priority of duty over personal rights, humility and suppression of feelings. That outlook jars with a Western corporate culture tied to individualism and competition, resulting in frustration.

“The top of the career ladder seems beyond your reach. Perhaps you’ve hit the bamboo ceiling,” she writes.