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For Agatha, a 30-year-old Chinese-Canadian substitute teacher in Toronto, working primarily with white colleagues can often make her feel like an outsider.

She says the energy and style with which many of those colleagues communicate is very different than her own, and makes her feel like she’s somehow not good enough. She feels that cultural gap most in job interviews, and says that it’s led to a dip in confidence, a rise in anxiety and a lack of passion in her work.

This is a common dynamic for people of colour, especially as companies place increasing emphasis on soft skills – those skills which define the way we interact with each other in the workplace.

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In fact, a 2017 study by Google, which analyzed a wide range of employee data accumulated since the company’s inception in 1998, found that of the eight most important qualities in its top employees, soft skills comprised the top seven, while STEM experience came in last. Those soft skills included being a good coach, communicating and listening well, possessing insights into others (including their values and points of view), and having empathy toward others.

And that’s not specific to Google. According to a 2019 survey conducted by educational-technology company Cengage of more than 650 employers and more than 1,500 current and former college students in the United States, it was found that soft skills were the most in demand – desired by 65 per cent of employers compared with 50 per cent of employers seeking out those with stronger technical skills.

The problem, however, is that such traits often imply a certain style of interaction. And because different cultures have different styles of communicating, a barrier can exist when the majority of people look and speak one way, and those hoping to be included look and speak another way.

“The Canadian workplace is culturally regulated to the disadvantage of workers of colour,” explains Lorne Foster, professor of public policy and human rights at York University and director of the Institute for Social Research in Toronto. “Soft skills have become coded language for white favouritism in hiring practices.”

A successful set of soft skills, he says, often equates to culturally conditioned characteristics that normalize whiteness, which creates a difficult-to-reach bar for applicants of colour. These characteristics include, but are not limited to, communication style and patterns of speech and accent, such as “sounding Canadian,” and speaking white standard English.

Much of this bias is due to prevailing stereotypes of certain cultures, and it’s the same force that allows a bold and brash white man to be viewed as confident, even as an outspoken Black or brown woman is seen as cocky or aggressive. And research shows that while East Asian cultures are more inclined to take turns in conversation and use more unspoken context clues, they might be considered anti-social compared with their white co-workers. The soft skills gap, in other words, is evident even in the seeming minutiae.

Phanikiran Radhakrishnan, a professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, teaches a course that specifically addresses this cultural gap with students. The class trains them in how to self-assess their behaviour and communication styles, build affinity groups – a supportive network largely made up of racialized people who can understand what you’re feeling and help with legitimizing one’s identity, networking, collaboration and productivity – and practise speaking with prospective employers.

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For many students, “the prospect of being in the working world is overwhelming,” she says. “They express fear of judgment and judge themselves more, they participate less and have a feeling of confronting and needing to break their own stereotypes of themselves,” she said, referring to those who fear they might display stereotypical characteristics of their own racial group which could be a hindrance in the workplace.

But Prof. Radhakrishnan is optimistic, based on the confidence she has seen bloom in her students. One recent South Asian graduate, she says, came back to speak in her class about how the communication and negotiation skills he learned were of use to him in his job search. “It was wonderful to hear him share … It gives hope that when students apply the soft skills they purposely learn, they can get ahead in their lives.”

However, that doesn’t mean change isn’t needed in the workplace, says Prof. Foster at York University. Various workplace hiring tools, such as skill tests and structured interviews are often more effective at reducing bias than typical job interviews, which function more like discussions or small talk, and often only capture one’s capabilities at a conversational level

Employers can also set universal goals such as increasing the number of applicants from diverse backgrounds making it past the initial screening and to the job-offer stage, and being at or above the 80th percentile for equity in promotions and salary earned after a specific period. Managers are also encouraged to complete cultural-competency training so that they can better identify their own biases and attitudes toward cultural differences.

Prof. Foster adds there must also be a shift to a “cultural add” dynamic versus the current “cultural fit” way of thinking. It means reframing differences as valuable assets that the existing corporate culture is lacking, rather than hiring and retaining more of those whose backgrounds are consistent with what’s already working.

“Cultural fit reinforces lack of diversity, creates corporate monocultures, and feeds groupthink,” Prof. Foster explains. “Cultural add reinforces diversity, promotes the exchange of ideas and welcomes constructive challenges to the way of doing things, he said. “Rather than hamstringing people of colour by requiring familiarity and fit with the status quo corporate culture, a cultural-add mindset focuses on bringing something different to the table that positively contributes to a modern global work force.”

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