How to Stop the Asian 'Brain Drain' in Your Company

Why are so few highly educated and ambitious Asian Americans making it to the top of corporations?

Asian-American employees are more likely than white employees to value being highly compensated, to place importance on having a powerful position and to ask for stretch assignments, pay raises and promotions, but most don't rise higher than middle management in America's corporations, according to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation.

The report, "Asians in America: Unleashing the Potential of the 'Model Minority," found that what keeps most Asian Americans from making it to the top are subtle workplace biases fueled by the stereotype that Asians are passive and lack the necessary social skills and assertiveness to move up the corporate ladder.

Companies are at high risk of losing Asian talent because too many Asian Americans feel stuck in their positions. Barbara Adachi, national managing principal of the Initiative for the Retention and Advancement of Women at Deloitte, No. 8 in The 2011 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, and an Asian American, says, "The Asian community is a very large economic force both inside and outside of the U.S. The more you understand what's going on globally, and the impact that China and India are having on the world, the more you will recognize the importance of having Asians be part of your organization and leadership team."

Asians' Frustration

The report was compiled from a national survey of nearly 3,000 Asians residing in the United States (51 percent born in Asia and 49 percent born in the United States, Canada, Europe or other countries), as well as focus groups and interviews. Findings show:

  • Twenty-five percent of Asians feel that they face workplace discrimination because of their ethnicity, while only 8 percent of Blacks, 9 percent of Latinos and 4 percent of whites believe that Asians are treated unfairly in the workplace.
  • Nearly half of Asian employees (48 percent) report that conformity to prevailing leadership models—having to act, look and sound like the established leaders in their workplace—is a problem.

  • Only 28 percent of Asian employees say they feel very comfortable "being themselves" at work, versus 40 percent of Blacks, 41 percent of Latinos and 42 percent of whites.

  • Forty-six percent of Asian employees have a mentor in their professional life, making them 15 percent less likely to have a mentor than their white colleagues.

  • Asians are more than three times as likely as whites, and significantly more likely than Blacks and Latinos, to reduce their ambitions, work fewer hours and consider quitting because of issues of bias.

DiversityInc Top 50 Comparatives

Representation of Asian Americans in senior levels of U.S. organizations is higher in the DiversityInc Top 50 than in the U.S. industry in general. Asian Americans account for just 1.8 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 4 percent of the CEOs in the DiversityInc Top 50. (See also: Where's the Diversity in Fortune 500 CEOs?)

As a subset of the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, DiversityInc ranks The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Asian Americans. They are:

No. 1: Deloitte

No. 2: Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide

No. 3: Johnson & Johnson

No. 4: IBM

No. 5: PricewaterhouseCoopers

No. 6: Kaiser Permanente

No. 7: Abbott

No. 8: American Express

No. 9: Procter & Gamble

No. 10: Wells Fargo

DiversityInc chose these companies for this list based on empirical data, including rates of participation in Asian employee-resource groups, demographics for the workforce, new hires, management levels, promotions into and in management and the composition of the board of directors. Consider these facts:

  • The DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Asian Americans' boards of directors average 6.3 percent Asians, compared with 2 percent nationally. (Source: Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics [LEAP])

  • Their top level of management (CEO and direct reports) is almost 5 percent Asian, compared with less than 2 percent in the Fortune 500.

  • Asians represent an average of 13.6 percent of their companies' workforces, compared with 4.8 percent nationally. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)

  • Asians represent an average of 14.3 percent of managers in their companies, compared with 6.1 percent nationally. (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics)
  • The percentage of Asian new hires is more than double their percentage in the U.S. workforce.

Using ERGs to Advance Asian Americans

The Center for Work-Life Policy report highlights three focus areas: gaining visibility and sponsorship; combating isolation; and enhancing and showcasing leadership skills. Employee-resource groups are an excellent vehicle for this. (See also: Best Practices: Talent Development.)

Case studies from Deloitte, Merck & Co., Time Warner and KPMG (Nos. 8, 15, 28 and 29, respectively, in the DiversityInc Top 50; Deloitte is No. 1 in The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Asian Americans) in the report show how ERGs and other programs aimed at helping Asian Americans improve their employee satisfaction, retention and promotions.


Deloitte started a program called Communications for Technologists (C4T), for professionals in the technology-service line, many of whom are Asian. The goal of C4T is to improve participants' writing and speaking skills to communicate more effectively with clients.

Most participants are nominated for the program based on recommendations from their managers, but a growing number request permission to participate, particularly in advanced courses such as executive communication. By developing the skills to communicate effectively and clearly, Asians and others at Deloitte are overcoming communication-related barriers to their career advancement.

Merck & Co.

In 2007, Merck launched a program to promote the professional development of its Asian talent in the United States with a series of interactive sessions focusing on cultural fluency for Asian employees as well as managers of Asians. Participant surveys showed consistent improvement in their comfort level in speaking up in both one-on-one meetings and large-group settings, understanding management expectations and making presentations, among others. Managers of Asians said the program was an important employee-development tool. After three years at Merck Research Laboratories with more than 90 graduating participants, the program is expanding to Asian employees globally.

Time Warner

Time Warner's Asian-Pacific Exchange (APEX) resource group provides a common meeting ground for all of the Asian employee-resource groups within the corporation but also reaches out to connect with similar groups at other corporations to provide networking opportunities. APEX is now affiliated with 33 Asian employee groups in New York City. This year, the group will partner with Ascend, a national Asian leadership organization, to do a panel about the outlook of digital media. Ascend will invite members to participate in its workshops on negotiation skills, personal presentation skills and other key leadership capabilities.


The Key Account Rotation Program, created in 2009, rotates associates from across all business lines through high-profile accounts to gain client exposure, develop credentials and broaden their networks. The results have been gratifying, says Kapila Anand, co-leader of KPMG's Asia Pacific Island Network (APIN) resource group. "Over 95 percent of the associates in the program have successfully completed 300 to 400 hours on a priority account." Anand says.

APIN leaders identify accounts or client events and the individuals that might have interest in the account or event. In some cases, individuals are directly assigned to specific accounts; in others, they are invited to client events where they have a chance to share their expertise in an informal setting. "We say, 'Here's a particular account that can be matched with a manager with specific competencies.' It's connecting dots that people didn't perceive to be connectable," says Anand.

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