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Communicating across cultures

By Aaron Green, 01/22/2008

You may be surprised to hear that, of the fifty states, Massachusetts is the second most dependent on foreign-born workers. It's true, according to a report from MassInc. In case you're wondering, New York is first, and although California has more foreign-born workers among its population, they comprise a relatively smaller percentage of the overall workforce.

This means that recruiting, hiring, managing, and interacting with workers who are not native to American culture has become a way of life for many Boston area businesses. In fact, Boston has become a "minority majority" city - 59% of Bostonians are not white, 34% speak a foreign language, and 17% of the local workforce is foreign-born (that number only includes documented workers).

For local employers like me, the business case for diversity in the workplace is real. Employees, partners, and customers are more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse than ever before and are becoming more so every day. To grow and compete successfully, businesses will need to understand the diversity around them, communicate across cultures, and integrate diversity awareness throughout their workplace.

Companies that are effective at working across cultures build employee and customer loyalty. They also maximize each employee's potential, which ultimately benefits not only the employee but the company as well.

First step: awareness

The first step to better cross-cultural communication is awareness. Business leaders should gauge their organization's ability to create an environment where employees feel included and where managers leverage the power and abilities of each and every employee.

Take a look around your organization. Consider the way employees dress, the jokes they tell, the way conflicts are handled, and how often employees raise issues of conflict or harassment with their managers. Do they feel comfortable enough to talk about negative or difficult issues? If you're not hearing about issues, dig deeper. It may be that issues exist but that employees don't feel comfortable bringing up the topic.

Look at external diversity, as well. Does your organization reflect the diversity of the community you serve? How do people outside your company perceive you? Can your customers and partners interact freely and easily with your internal employees? Are there outside constituencies you could better reach if you made some changes?

The mistakes made in business because of cultural misunderstandings are too numerous to log here. Examples range from avoiding eye contact, which is a sign of respect in some cultures and a symbol of shiftiness in American culture, to misunderstanding an Asian co-worker's nod as a sign of agreement, to buying a drink after work for a client who is Muslim, to trying to "American-ize" a co-worker's hard-to-pronounce and foreign-sounding name. The cultural values in these examples are neither right nor wrong, yet understanding the differences in cultural norms allows managers and employees to turn these differences to their benefit.

Teaching understanding and sensitivity

Kari Heistad, the founder of Culture Coach International, has some good advice for companies that want to create a culturally competent workforce. Heistad suggests that firms do the following:

  • 1. Acknowledge ... that culture plays an important role in your company.
  • 2. Create ... opportunities where people can learn about each other's cultural identities and viewpoints. This could include training programs, articles in the company newsletter, or even country orientations over lunch that seek to build mutual understanding about cultural identities.
  • 3. Accept ... that cultural differences will occur and that they can be healthy. If a dialogue develops, people will learn, grow, and stretch their minds to consider different ideas and worldviews that they had never thought about before. Sometimes, simply making people comfortable communicating with others from a different culture is a major step.

As employers, our role is to give employees the right tools -- e.g. education, communication, etc. -- so that they can recognize cultural differences and work with them. Teaching new skills in communication, teamwork, and management is critical to the success of today's diverse workforce. Without it, the result is a loss of quality employees and organizational effectiveness.

This diverse new world

The demographics in Massachusetts have changed substantially over the past decade. Leading area companies have acknowledged this fact and are equipping their workforces with the tools required to excel in this diverse new world.

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