The popular advice to “bring your whole self to work” is hard for minority employees.
If they share too much about their cultural background, they risk being professionally penalized or socially ostracized by the majority. To play it safe, many minority employees downplay their differences in the workplace.
But a new study from Wharton management professor Rachel Arnett encourages minority employees to speak their truth. Across three experiments, she found that when those workers engage in rich and meaningful conversations about their backgrounds, it can make their majority colleagues more — not less — likely to include them at work.
“The simplest and biggest takeaway is that differences don’t need to be a source of division and stigma,” Arnett said of her study titled “Uniting Through Difference: Rich Cultural-identity Expression as a Conduit to Inclusion,” which was published last month in the journal Organization Science.
She said her research helps reconcile a longstanding dilemma for minority employees who have felt forced to choose between authentic self-expression and professional success.
“If there is a part of yourself that you want to bring to work that relates to your cultural background, there is a way to do that that is synergistic with success. Rich cultural-identity expression is one of the pathways to doing that,” Arnett said. “It can relieve a lot of anxiety that people from minority backgrounds experience, and that’s the takeaway that is most personally meaningful to me.”
Arnett is biracial and grew up in Chicago’s South Side, where she learned to navigate the social complexities of racially divided neighborhoods. Her life experience motivated her to study how people can overcome differences and create deeper understanding.
Yet as an academic studying organizational behavior, she was disappointed to find that an overwhelming number of studies identify cultural expression as a source of professional risk.
“It’s hard for me to believe that bringing attention to difference is always bad,” she said. “That’s what a lot of the literature suggested, and I was looking for ways to debunk this assumption.”
“If there is a part of yourself that you want to bring to work that relates to your cultural background, there is a way to do that that is synergistic with success.”— Rachel Arnett
What Is Rich Cultural-identity Expression?
In her paper, Arnett emphasizes that it’s not idle chitchat about the weather or weekend plans that brings employees closer together. Simply revealing information that hints at cultural differences doesn’t do the job, either. What works is what she terms “rich cultural-identity expression” that moves beyond the superficial to reveal parts of the inner self that are connected to one’s cultural identity.
For example, along with telling her co-workers that she went to an African American festival over the weekend, a Black employee can talk about how the festival made her feel closer to her Nigerian roots. Instead of declining a lunch invitation because he is fasting for Ramadan, a Muslim employee can open up to his co-workers about why the religious observance is important to him. And instead of talking about the latest Oscar-buzz film, a Korean American employee can talk about how it felt empowering to see a predominately Asian cast on the big screen.
Arnett said rich cultural-identity expression increases inclusivity and professional opportunities in three ways. First, it causes people to have more respect for their minority coworkers. By sharing culturally relevant information, minority employees may be able to debunk or reframe stereotypes held by majority colleagues and raise their social worth.
“When you consider the possibility that coworkers already have their preconceived stereotypes about different cultural groups, rich cultural expression will only take you uphill from there,” the professor said. “You give people the ability to change how they view you and your background. It can elevate the status of that person’s group membership in the eyes of others.”
Second, rich expression fosters closeness because sharing personal information about cultural differences is an act of trust. It signals to majority colleagues that they are confidants who will understand and appreciate what is being shared.
Third, when minority colleagues share, they increase the majority group’s learning. The more they believe they can learn from a minority employee, the more likely they are to include them in both professional and social interactions, like adding them to a big project or incorporating their opinion.
“The last thing I want to do is give people a false impression that there is no risk at all in opening up with rich cultural expression. When it comes to some of the most contentious negative topics … you may have some mixed results.”— Rachel Arnett
Positive vs. Negative Topics
Arnett wanted to know whether rich cultural-identity expression can be effective not only when covering positive topics, such as the pride that a person feels in his or her background, but also negative topics such as experiences with prejudice and discrimination. For the most part, she found that both positive and negative topics were well received. For instance, minority employees in her studies were supported by their colleagues after richly discussing topics such as difficulties with immigration or racial barriers to career success.
However, Arnett did find one exception. In her third experiment, Arnett wanted to test what would happen when the conversations about culture touched upon negative topics that are particularly contentious. In the study, white participants were paired in an online chat with a Black female co-worker named “Latoya” whose responses progressed from small talk to detailed conversations about slavery and police confrontations, tension-filled topics that can be anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable for white Americans.
While the conversations did result in greater social inclusion, the results on the professional side were mixed. The white co-workers were more willing to write Latoya a strong letter of recommendation, but they were less willing to include her in work tasks.
Arnett said the negative finding is important because it tempers expectations that all deeply personal conversations about race and culture are beneficial in the workplace.
“The last thing I want to do is give people a false impression that there is no risk at all in opening up with rich cultural expression,” she said. “When it comes to some of the most contentious negative topics — things like slavery or encounters with the police — you may have some mixed results and people need to be aware that some risks remain.”
“I hope this research encourages people to take that initial leap, but when they are ready as opposed to being forced to do so.”— Rachel Arnett
Rich Cultural-identity Expression in Practice
Arnett has seen managers apply her findings successfully in their own workplaces. After learning about Arnett’s work, one leader at a Fortune 5 company noticed several employees mentioning Diwali during a meeting and asked if they wanted to share more with the group. As the conversation unfolded, more members of the team volunteered to discuss their own unique cultural identities and experiences. Afterward, several people confided that it had been a strong team-building experience.
Based on her study, Arnett summarizes five recommendations for managers to help create a more open and inclusive workplace:
- Cultural expression should be voluntary. Minority employees should not be forced to explain their cultural backgrounds for other people’s benefit. Rather, people from minority backgrounds should open up in their own time and in ways that help them feel more authentic or connected. Arnett adds, “I hope this research encourages people to take that initial leap, but when they are ready as opposed to being forced to do so.”
- Create safe spaces for minority workers to volunteer information about their cultural backgrounds, whether in meetings or social events.
- Share personal information, especially in ways that show vulnerability. When managers set that precedent, it helps minority employees feel less marginalized and more empowered to share their own stories.
- Show engagement. When a minority employee makes a culturally relevant statement or observation, think of this as a potential opportunity. Consider asking a question like, “Is that something you feel comfortable discussing further or sharing more about?” This shows a willingness to engage but still gives the other person control over how much they want to open up.
- Focus more on listening, learning, and supporting the other person, rather than passing judgment on the other person or their group. This is because the listener’s opinions may be colored by stereotypes or biases in a way they don’t realize. For example, think of a Black employee broaching a topic like a fatal encounter between a police officer and another Black person. In response, a coworker may give their opinion on how they interpret encounter, and perhaps unintentionally imply that they think the Black person is at fault. These are difficult topics to unpack, but the goal of rich cultural-identity expression is to connect with other people, not divide.