What is the ‘cultural tax’ and how can employers avoid ‘the great resignation’?

It’s only recently that Michelle Lim has started introducing herself by her birth name: Min-Shi.

“I used to never do that,” she said.

It was an epiphany that came to her through her work on organizational culture, ethics, diversity and inclusion at the Reserve Bank of Australia.

“[It’s] kind of a ‘cultural tax’ that people from diverse cultural backgrounds have to take on,” she said.

“We feel like we’re being an inconvenience … like even just having to re-say our name, because it’s just not part of the normal vernacular, or it’s not viewed as a ‘normal’ Western name, people just aren’t used to it.”

Ms Lim, one of the finalists in the 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards, is the daughter of a Thai-Vietnamese mother and Chinese-Malaysian father.

One of five children, Min-Shi (Michelle) Lim (right) witnessed the struggles her father, Lim Yu-Leng (left), and mother, Sirikoon Bunluewong Lim (centre), went through.(Supplied)

She said people of diverse cultural backgrounds often feel the pressure to behave like a “model minority” in the workplace.

However, there have been times where bias or racism in the workplace was more explicit.

After a racist incident came to light at a former workplace, Ms Lim voiced her concerns, but said those were met with silence or lip service, so she decided to leave.

“I just couldn’t stay at an organization that didn’t align to my values ​​and principles,” she said.

This alignment of personal and workplace values ​​is becoming increasingly important for young employees.

The pandemic has shifted the way many people perceive their work, with terms like the great resignation, burn out and work-life balance becoming common parlance.

“I think workplaces or organizations tend to fall into this thinking that, ‘Oh, no, we’re losing all these staff because they feel they’re not fairly remunerated,” Ms Lim said.

A woman smiling.  She has long, black hair and a knitted beige shirt.
Min-Shi Lim is also a former classical ballet dancer, and says that creativity has kept her grounded in her work and helped her see things in a different light.(Supplied)

That might be a factor, she said, but it was not the whole story, and there was no one-size-fits-all solution.

“A lot of it comes back to organizational culture again, and it’s that sense of belonging and having psychological safety at work. I think that’s fundamental to keeping staff and ensuring that people feel empowered and can thrive at work.”

That includes having an environment where you feel you belong, having the opportunity to learn and grow, to challenge things, make mistakes, and feel a part of something bigger.

“Work isn’t just a means to an end anymore … we want to be part of something and we want to feel like it’s meaningful.”

Fighting for climate justice

Finding work that aligned with his values ​​was key for Matthew Floro.

A fire burns beyond a mountain range.
One of Matthew Floro’s cases involved representing bushfire survivors.(Supplied: Markus Dirnberger)

The Parramatta man is the son of Filipino parents who came to Australia seeking a better life.

Mr Floro worked at commercial law firms and in the government and non-profit sectors before becoming a special counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, where he specialises in climate change litigation.

“I was always wanting to do something that was a bit more aligned to my values, which are working in the public interest and fighting for justice, fairness and equity,” he said.

“The work that a lot of people do now is based on self-actualisation — living your values.”

Mr Floro — who was also named the 2022 Mahla Pearlman Australian Young Environmental Lawyer of the year — has worked on major environmental cases, including representing the Gloucester community, which wa fighting against an open-cut coal mine proposal.

“It was the first time in Australia, in perhaps the world, that a coal mine proposal had been rejected, partly on the basis of climate change grounds,” he said.

A man with arms crossed and smiling
Matthew Floro says his advice to young lawyers is to be bold, volunteer, take breaks, and look after their physical and mental health.(Supplied)

“In terms of cultural diversity, environmental law has traditionally … favored Western individualist conceptions of governance. But there is a need to consider different ways of thinking about the environment, particularly drawing on First Nations’ heritage and thinking.”

He also helped farmers protect pristine agricultural land near Mudgee and represented bushfire survivors, forcing the NSW Environmental Protection Authority to develop climate policies.

Apart from finding meaning in working for environmental justice, Mr Floro said flexible work was important and becoming more of a priority for young lawyers.

He said there was often an expectation at big accounting, finance and law firms that workers will arrive around breakfast and leave after dinner.