Diversity 101: Dealing with Cultural Differences in the Workplace
Your office has hired a new employee who recently immigrated to Canada from Singapore. Although she seems nice, you notice she never directly looks at you when speaking and avoids eye contact with others in the office. At first, you find this unsettling and wonder if she has something to hide or is even ignoring you. After mentioning it to a friend who has travelled to Singapore, however, you learn that direct eye contact can be considered aggressive or rude in that culture.
This is one example of misunderstandings that can take place at work due to basic cultural differences. Because the workplace is more culturally diverse than ever before, relating to co-workers can be a bit more challenging and the approach you take may call for some extra effort.
So, what can you do to make the most of your culturally diverse workplace? Below are some cultural cues that can help everyone avoid misunderstandings and work more harmoniously on the job.
Become an international 'student.' Taking the time to learn about co-workers' cultures can benefit all of you. Not only does it show you're interested in their culture, but it can help you understand any habits or behaviours which are different than those you are used to. Knowing that face-to-face communication is preferred over e-mails for people from some cultures, for example, can help you better understand and relate to co-workers from those regions.
Find a common connection. There are subjects that can be considered taboo when talking with colleagues, especially when you are just getting to know them. To be respectful of someone's personal beliefs, avoid talking about religion, politics or salaries and stick to universal subjects like food, family or sports. International matches in sports like soccer and cricket take place year-round and are easy to keep on top of. Asking co-workers if they follow their home nation's soccer team and its World Cup chances is a good way to start a conversation and shows a genuine interest in improving or increasing communication.
Try role reversal. Take the time to put yourself in your co-workers' shoes when language barriers or differing viewpoints become frustrating. If English is your first language, dealing with someone who has adopted English as a second language may sometimes seem time-consuming or challenging, but imagine yourself not only trying to communicate, but to work and succeed in a country where your mother tongue isn't widely spoken. Be aware of making cultural references, using slang or telling jokes that not everyone will understand and take the time to make sure you and co-workers are on the same page. Make yourself available if a colleague needs further clarification, as some workers may be shy to ask questions. Becoming aware of the obstacles new immigrants face in the workplace is a good way to practice the old adage of 'treating people the way that you would like to be treated.'
Leading to a New Understanding
As a manager or people leader, you can also ensure your employees embrace cultural diversity by setting an example. Build an inclusive workplace and:
Acknowledge cultural differences. Recognize cultural holidays and practices and try to develop an understanding of religious observances.
Forget "all work, no play." Have potluck lunches once a month or host team-building seminars which unite your staff. These events allow people who wouldn't normally spend time together to get to know everyone and appreciate them on a personal level.
Create a diversity committee. Designate a group to specifically deal with personal culture, communication and inclusion issues in the workplace and also act as a resource for new employees who are recent immigrants.
With the spread of globalization and increase of immigration each year, the workplace is more culturally rich than ever before. While this may sometimes present challenges, understanding and respecting diversity can help you, your colleagues and your workplace to thrive.