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Tips for Supporting Multiculturalism at Work

Multiculturalism increases diversity within the workplace, allowing all team members to benefit from new ideas and perspectives. Exposure to multiple points of view may spur innovation and creativity, making multiculturalism beneficial for organizations of all sizes. Follow these tips for supporting multiculturalism at work to take advantage of these benefits.

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What is multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism, also called cultural diversity, is the presence of several distinct ethnic or cultural groups within a workplace. For example, let’s say you manage the IT department of an international corporation. You may have employees with American, Pakistani, Indian, French and Japanese backgrounds.

Even if team members have the same ethnic background, they likely belong to various cultural or identity groups. One example is a team composed of employees of different religions or sexual orientations.

Benefits of multiculturalism at work

Multiculturalism has several potential benefits. In some cases, having employees from diverse ethnic backgrounds makes it easier to come up with ideas for new products and services.

For example, an employee with Mexican-American heritage may use their cultural knowledge to suggest foods and beverages that may appeal to Hispanic consumers. This creates additional opportunities to generate revenue and relate to your customers and the community. 

Another potential benefit of multiculturalism is that it may help your company provide better service. If customers can connect with employees who speak their language or understand their unique needs, there’s a chance they’ll keep buying your products. 

Finally, multiculturalism makes it easier to solve complex problems. When team members have the same backgrounds, they tend to approach problems from the same perspective. Hiring employees from diverse backgrounds introduces new perspectives to the workplace, enabling team members to come up with creative solutions to some of the most pressing challenges.

8 tips for supporting multiculturalism at work

Although multiculturalism has many benefits, it does pose a few challenges. Multicultural teams may have to overcome language barriers or adapt to cultural differences. Fortunately, it’s possible to overcome these challenges, ensuring that your organization benefits from having team members with diverse backgrounds.

1. Get familiar with Hofstede’s cultural dimensions

Geert Hofstede developed the cultural dimensions theory to help people understand how a person’s culture affects their behavior in a variety of situations. 

  • Power distance: Power distance refers to how the less powerful members of a culture feel about the unequal distribution of power. In some cultures, people expect power to be distributed unevenly. Other cultures promote equality.
  • Individualism-collectivism: In an individualist culture, people tend to focus on their own needs. Collectivist cultures value what is best for the group as a whole.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: Uncertainty avoidance describes how members of a culture feel about ambiguity. Some people embrace ambiguity, while others become anxious when they lack certainty about the future.
  • Masculinity/femininity: Masculinity/femininity describes the traits valued by a culture. Some cultures value assertiveness and heroism, while others value cooperation and nurturance.
  • Short-term vs. long-term orientation: Cultures with short-term orientations tend to focus on the present, while cultures with long-term orientations tend to focus on preparing for the future.
  • Indulgence vs. restraint: Cultures with high levels of restraint rely on strict social norms to suppress personal desires. In contrast, cultures that value indulgence tend to put a premium on having fun and enjoying life.

Once you understand these dimensions, you can use them to make better management decisions. For example, if you know that a team member comes from a culture with a high level of performance uncertainty, you can make an effort to reduce ambiguity as much as possible.

If one of your team members comes from a collectivist culture, they may not respond favorably to individual recognition. To make them feel more comfortable, you may want to give a team award instead of calling them out individually, acknowledging their culture’s desire to contribute to the good of the entire group.

2. Provide training on cross-cultural communication

If your team members haven’t worked in a multicultural environment before, they may not know how to navigate the complexities of working with colleagues from diverse backgrounds. To create a cohesive team, make sure each employee receives training on cross-cultural communication.

Language is only one aspect of communication, so it’s important for team members to receive in-depth training. For example, a gesture that’s perfectly acceptable in one culture may be considered rude or obscene in another culture. A robust training program may help team members develop the skills they need to communicate effectively with one another.

3. Include team members in different time zones

If you have team members scattered all over the world, make sure you account for different time zones when setting deadlines and scheduling meetings. Employees may have to adjust their schedules, but you shouldn’t make the same team members come in early or stay late every time.

For example, if you schedule a meeting for 9am Eastern, employees on the West Coast have to log in by 6am. If you schedule a meeting for 5pm Pacific, employees on the East Coast have to stay until after 8pm. Make things as fair as possible by varying your meeting times.

4. Avoid promoting stereotypes

Now that you know how to accommodate cultural differences, avoiding stereotypes is important in supporting multiculturalism in the workplace. A stereotype is a generalized belief about people of a specific race, religion, ethnicity or cultural group.

Stereotypes are harmful because they often lead to discrimination. For example, if a manager believes that women aren’t as capable as men, they may exclude female team members from important projects.

Here are a few things you can do to avoid making decisions based on stereotypes:

  • Use objective criteria: Rather than making decisions based on gut feelings, use objective criteria, such as the results of skills assessments.
  • Be transparent: When you make a decision, be as transparent as possible. You may not be able to share confidential information, but you should let team members know what factors you considered.
  • Educate yourself: Read books, attend lectures and use other sources of information to learn more about stereotypes and the harm they cause.

5. Build a strong diversity and inclusion program

If your company doesn’t already have a strong diversity and inclusion program, take time to build one. Overtly promoting diversity is a great way to show that supporting multiculturalism at work is one of your top priorities.

The first step is to collect data related to diversity. Check your latest EEO report or create a custom report in your HRIS to determine if your company needs to do a better job attracting and retaining diverse talent.

Once you identify potential areas for improvement, get buy-in from senior leaders. The most successful diversity and inclusion programs have strong support from top management.

As you implement each element of your program, get feedback from employees at every level of the organization. Collecting feedback gives you opportunities to improve each aspect of a D&I program, making it more successful.

6. Address problematic behaviors

If you’re truly committed to supporting multiculturalism at work, it’s necessary to nip problem behaviors in the bud. Your employee handbook should list unacceptable behaviors and outline the consequences for each one. For example, if a team member makes stereotypical comments toward a colleague, you may issue a written warning and require the employee to complete sensitivity training.

7. Choose the right leaders

Employees look to executives for guidance on how to behave. If your leaders don’t display desirable behaviors, team members may be confused about what you expect, leading them to discriminate against colleagues from different cultural groups.

Any time you have an opening for a management or executive position, make sure the interview process includes some questions about each candidate’s experience working with multicultural teams. Use behavioral interviewing to determine how candidates are likely to respond to the challenges of managing a diverse group of employees.

8. Celebrate diversity

Your workplace may be a melting pot of cultures, each with its own traditions, celebrations and values. By recognizing and celebrating this diversity, you can help build a sense of belonging and respect. 

  • Understand the significance. Being able to respectfully celebrate a culture goes beyond simply knowing the dates of  important holidays. You should also understand the significance of a particular holiday’s history, its traditions and what it means to those who celebrate. For example, the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) is a day to honor and remember loved ones who have passed away, whereas Ramadan is a month of fasting, reflection and community for Muslims.
  • Get employee insights. When it comes to making sure celebrations, events or office parties are respectful and appreciated, your employees are your best source. Ask them if and how they would like to see their culture celebrated. Some may enjoy a company-wide celebration while others may want something smaller (or nothing at all).
  • Provide a way for people to connect. Important dates like Cinco de Mayo,  and Passover provide opportunities for people to form bonds.. Employees may want to form an affinity group to connect with others who share their same culture. These groups can be formal or informal and at times can help educate others about their beliefs.
  • Be inclusive and respectful. Not everyone may want to participate in every celebration, and that’s okay. Invite teams to join, but participation should always be optional. Moreover, your focus should be on creating an inclusive environment, to ensure that any celebrations do not exclude or alienate any group.
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