Why is it important to understand cultural differences?
Understanding the results of cultural differences is an important part of managing a diverse team. Employees’ cultural backgrounds can give employers insight into the reasoning behind their habits and behaviors in the workplace. Once you have knowledge of the various ways culture can impact how people act at work, you can mediate conflicts and provide relevant motivation to each employee. Help people from under-represented groups feel respected by being supportive of their culture and educating others about how to behave respectfully at work and work together efficiently.
Types of cultural differences in the workplace
The concept of culture combines a range of elements from people’s upbringing, history and community. This means that there are many characteristics that can cause cultural differences in the workplace. A diverse workplace has people of different ages, experience levels, religions and economic backgrounds. Some of the key cultural aspects that impact employee behavior at work are:
People’s outlook and values tend to vary based on their generation. Someone’s generation can have an impact on their ideas about professionalism, collaboration, communication, leadership, work ethic and workplace culture. Baby Boomers tend to be loyal to an employer and expect to have a long-term career at a single workplace, believing that success comes from making sacrifices and working through the leadership structure. Millennials highly value work-life balance and seek consistent opportunities for growth, even if that means moving on to another company, project or position.
Ethnic, racial and national backgrounds have a significant impact on workplace norms. Some cultures are more direct about communication while others have indirect habits in the workplace. Similarly, certain countries expect employees to always defer to leaders and wait to be given opportunities, while others require employees to take initiative and hustle to be recognized.
Religious affiliation has a strong impact on people’s values, which can affect their workplace behavior and priorities. Religion can impact what people perceive as ethical behavior, influencing their decision-making in the workplace. People have the right to express their religion, so it is essential for businesses to have policies in place that are respectful to people’s individual beliefs while also upholding fair standards of conduct for clients and customers.
Education level can be a part of someone’s background that affects how they fit into a workplace environment. People with different educational experiences have different types of cultural capital that they use to solve problems and approach situations in the workplace. Because many employers hire for positions based on education or equivalent work experience, this can result in people with drastically different education levels working on the same projects and implementing different methodologies based on their own educational background.
Examples of how cultural differences impact the workplace
Each cause of cultural differences in the workplace can manifest in several ways depending on the environment and the unique backgrounds of your team members. Some of the most common examples of cultural differences in the workplace are:
Culture and generation often impact how people dress. For example, many Sikh men wear a turban as part of their religious commitment. Dress code restrictions on headwear can infringe on their right to religious expression in most circumstances. Another instance of cultural differences in dress code is younger generations who value personal expression dressing more casually at work than older generations who value conformity and traditional professional dress.
Different cultures have their own expectations about giving and receiving feedback in the workplace. For example, in China it is uncommon to criticize workplace superiors in any way. Someone who moved from China to the U.S. may be less vocal in group conversations because they expect to be called on by a manager before they share their ideas.
People from different backgrounds communicate differently depending on how they were raised. For example, people with European backgrounds tend to expect high levels of eye contact and directly say what they mean in conversations. They can be more comfortable rejecting requests and saying no. People from Native American cultures, on the other hand, can see direct eye contact as intimidating or disrespectful and use indirect communication to be polite, making suggestions instead of demands.
Related: What Is Culture in Business?
Employee ideas about teamwork and individualism can also show up in the workplace. Some people were raised to be independent and problem-solve on their own, while others rely on teamwork and community to be successful. For example, Gen X and Gen Z are both characterized by being more independent, while Millennials and Baby Boomers are more team-oriented.
Strategies for approaching cultural differences
Once you can recognize cultural differences, you can take steps to be proactive about managing their impact. Try these tips to create a culturally affirming workplace where people of different backgrounds can work together successfully:
Learn about your employees
While maintaining respectful boundaries, learn about the unique experiences that each of your employees brings to the workplace. Understanding the background of everyone on your team allows you to research their cultural norms and prepare to accommodate them.
Host diversity training
Requiring employees to attend diversity training can create a more understanding environment and equip employees with the strategies they need to work with people who have different cultural norms.
Acknowledge holidays and celebrations
Avoid assuming that all employees celebrate the same religious and national holidays. Celebrate cultural holidays equitably to make sure your team knows that you respect their beliefs equally.