Cultural Diversity in the Workplace, Part 1

4 Essential Skills

by Dr. Richard T. Alpert, Ph.D.
President, Diversity Resources Inc.

From our increasingly diverse domestic workforce to the globalization of business, cultural competence is arguably the most important skill for effective work performance in the 21st century.

What is cultural diversity in the workplace? Culture refers to the values, norms, and traditions that affect the way a member of a group typically perceives, thinks, interacts, behaves, and makes judgments. It even affects perceptions of time, which can impact day-to-day scheduling and deadlines. Get an overview of all key aspects of diversity at the resource center.

Cultural competence, in brief, is the ability to interact effectively with people from different cultures. This ability depends on awareness of one's own cultural worldview, knowledge of other cultural practices and worldviews, tolerant attitudes towards cultural differences, and cross-cultural skills.

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The more different cultures work together, the more cultural competency training is essential to avoid problems.  Cultural problems can range from miscommunication to actual conflict, all endangering effective worker productivity and performance. Training videoson diversity are excellent for developing awareness and respect.

Managing Cultural Diversity in the Workplace

Developing cultural competence results in an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people across cultures, and work with varying cultural beliefs and schedules. While there are myriad cultural variations, here are some essential to the workplace:

  1. Communication: Providing information accurately and promptly is critical to effective work and team performance. This is particularly important when a project is troubled and needs immediate corrective actions. However, people from different cultures vary in how, for example, they relate to bad news. People from some Asian cultures are reluctant to give supervisors bad news - while those from other cultures may exaggerate it.

  2. Team-building: Some cultures - like the United States - are individualistic, and people want to go it alone. Other cultures value cooperation within or among other teams. Team-building issues can become more problematic as teams are comprised of people from a mix of these cultural types. Effective cross-cultural team-building is essential to benefiting from the potential advantages of cultural diversity in the workplace

  3. Time: Cultures differ in how they view time. For example, they differ in the balance between work and family life, and the workplace mix between work and social behavior. Other differences include the perception of overtime, or even the exact meaning of a deadline. Different perceptions of time can cause a great misunderstanding and mishap in the workplace, especially with scheduling and deadlines. Perceptions of time underscore the importance of cultural diversity in the workplace, and how it can impact everyday work.

  4. Calendars:  The business world generally runs on the western secular year, beginning with January 1 and ending with December 31. However, many cultures use other calendars to determine holidays such as New Years or specific holy days. For example, Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on a different day from western Christians. For Muslims, Friday is a day for prayer. Jews observe holidays ranging from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. These variations affect the workplace as people require time off to observe their holidays. A cultural calendar is a helpful tool to ensure meetings are successful, and deadlines are met.

 So how does one develop cultural competence? Be sure to enjoy part 2 of this article, featured in our next newsletter. We'll explore strategies, skills and techniques for helping people develop cultural competence.

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