While we all put on a slightly different persona when we are at work versus when we are at home, the transition for people who are not part of the dominant culture can be more distinct. Some employees and job applicants of diverse backgrounds describe this as going between two worlds, or flipping a switch, from whom they must be at their workplace to who they are at home or with their community.

For people of the dominant culture, the transition from the home to work can be much easier, since few have a need to change the way they communicate or interact with others. But for people of minority cultures (race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation/identity, economic class), the changes can be as diverse as the people experiencing them.

Hearing directly from people who experience this can help managers and interviewers better understand it. Following are quotes from people describing their workplace experiences walking in two worlds. These are people of multiple cultural backgrounds interviewed for Lila Kelly’s research on diversity in the hiring process, including American Indian, Latino, African American and Asian American.

Ray, a Revenue Controller and American Indian, summarized it in this description of his daily routine: “When I go to work I match the culture of the organization. When I go home, that’s my culture.”

Anton, an Investment Executive and African American, discussed the obvious “switch” in his friend’s voice he noticed at work: “Bob and I were joking about how Ebonics won’t get you a job. Anybody who I know who is black, and who has a job in more of what’s traditionally white America, can turn it on and off. That was always the joke when I worked with Bob, was that you could tell when he was on the phone with a customer or with a friend, because he would answer the phone, ‘[Company name], this is Bob (in a business voice). What’s up? (with a drawl).’ Right away you could hear the switch.”

Sena, a Latina Community Organizer for a nonprofit organization, described a conflict she realized as a child growing up in her cultural community: “We lived in two worlds, the English-speaking world during the school day and then our Spanish-speaking world once we got home. We always lived in two cultures.”

Lakesha, an HR Employment Representative and African American, had this to say: “I literally speak two languages. I’m not saying I come here and I’m not myself, because I am myself. But what I consider myself to be is somebody who has to deal in two different worlds, because I do.”

Mike, a Customer Service Manager and African American, talked about being caught in the middle of two worlds: “Management are saying, ‘You’re one of us,’ and the black staff or the people of color are saying, ‘You’re one of us.’ And I’m both. I have to balance that from a moral standpoint, what is legal, and make sure you don’t infringe upon someone’s civil rights. Also, be true to the mission as well as yourself, so you don’t end up compromising all your ideals and goals. That’s hard sometimes for the dominant culture to understand, because they don’t have to. This is how I have to walk in two different worlds.”

As with many people of different cultural backgrounds, Mike possess skills, knowledge and abilities to be a natural cross-cultural liaison in the workplace. This can be a great asset to an organization, particularly one that is striving to become more diverse and inclusive.

Adjusting to the dominate culture in an organization is often essential for diverse employees to achieve success. This is likely not because it is part of the skills, knowledge and abilities needed for the job. It is because of how important it is for them to fit into the work environment in order to be a valued employee and move up in the organization.

Jorge, a Diversity Manager and Latino, has walked in two worlds for so long it has become second nature to him. “For us bi-cultural people, there always has been a balancing act. You have to balance interests all the time. I think you develop some skill by doing that. I find it easy to do because I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

However, for many diverse individuals, it is not as easy as just flipping a switch. Kia, an Attorney with a law firm and Hmong American, spoke about attending law school and a culture clash she experienced there: “The law profession has been predominantly male and white, and you have to think like a white male in order to be a success. I learned that in law school. I had to reformat my whole way of thinking to take the bar exam.”

In the hiring process, diverse applicants often are concerned about overcoming cultural stereotypes when interviewing for a job, and they work very hard to move beyond an interviewer’s stereotypes and biases.

Sang, a Marketing Manager and Asian American, described her approach to avoid being stereotyped during interviews within the dominant culture of corporate America: “When I go into interviews, I always want to break out of the box in regard to certain stereotypes people have. For example, I always present myself as a real extrovert. I really concentrate on the energy, I am sort of bubbly, very enthusiastic, smile throughout the interview, keep eye contact—that is extremely important for Asians because part of the culture bias is that it’s not a culture that likes to look directly at someone else. So I go after eye contact, I speak loudly and clearly, and gain rapport with my interviewer. I do these things because I don’t want the perception that I am analytical, I am quiet, I keep to myself, I’m different. I want them to identify with me.”

An applicant’s ability to understand and transition between different cultures may be too undefined or vague to include in a job description or on a list of interview questions, and tricky for an interviewer to assess during a job interview. Although, it can be a valuable skill in many aspects of any job that interacts with other individuals, whether they are employees, customers, patients, or students.

Managers’ and interviewers’ awareness of the challenge that many individuals face in having to alternate between work life and home life can help them see this ability as valuable in the workplace. The next step is to work to create a more inclusive and welcoming work environment and hiring process to help make the transition from home life to work life easier for diverse employees and applicants.


Copyright © 2016 Lila Kelly Associates, LLC. Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing, Hiring and Retention – Since 1992. Not to be reprinted without written permission from Lila Kelly. This article includes excerpts from Lila Kelly’s book, Integrating Diversity into Recruiting, Interviewing and Hiring. To stay up to date on all the latest from Lila Kelly Associates and DiversityIntegration.com, subscribe to our monthly newsletter.