Culture Awareness in the Workplace
With globalization interacting with people from all-over the world has become a factor in the life of more and more people.
In the past only a select number of employees would have the task to travel across borders and experience different cultures, behaviors and attitudes.
Nowadays more borders are open, travel has become more affordable for businesses and individuals and technological development is allowing everyone to communicate on a global level.
Moreover, free mobility of the workforce has made workplaces many times more diverse.
While it used to be a science for the ‘enlightened’, today cultural awareness has become a necessity at the workplace.
And while Western society aims for equality and openness, it would be silly to neglect to recognize differences in cultures that may bring up misunderstandings, tense or unproductive communication or even legal trouble.
This article aims to give a very simple list of factors that tend to be the subject of misconceptions, confusion or even conflict.
The first part of the article will focus on cultural characteristics you might want to be aware generally in business with your providers, partners or clients. Those might help you communicate better and be perceived as more accepting.
The second part of the article will focus on diversity in the workplace and how to be more open towards your colleagues from different background.
The third part of the article just aims to give you some practical advice on how to create and preserve cultural awareness.
CULTURAL AWARENESS IN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS
Negotiations are hard enough on their own. Throw in different background and expectations on both sides and you might have a disaster.
Negotiation can happen between customer and provider for pricing, delivery conditions or service level agreements. It could be between international branches for budgets, conditions and policies.
It could happen between employees and employers for compensation, social benefits, working hours or opportunities.
- In some cultures negotiation is a normal way of business. It could be widely accepted that the customer wants to receive the product at the best price, or that the employee wants the most money for their labor. In other countries, it could be straight up offensive. Do research for the power dynamic on the other end – will they expect to have the final say? Approach with humbleness and explain yourself. You do not want to come off greedy or disrespectful.
- In negotiations nuance is very important. If it is not the case that both sides negotiate in their native language, the language barrier could bring up misunderstandings. Misuse of a single word could give one side the wrong impression. Make sure your claim is stripped off of all assumptions based on nuance. Clean your language, too, make sure your speech is plain and straightforward.
- In Japan, you will face great difficulty if you try to do a hard sell. Try a humble approach, with lots of facts and arguments supporting your claims. Let your work be the proof of your words, not the other way around.
Respect of power
In Western Society equality is an important value and therefore hierarchy of power is… annoying.
Flaunting your status or your title would be unbearable to lower level employees who like to think they are your equal. In other places respect towards superiors and seniors is vital.
- Seating arrangements. In the Western world, seating arrangements are rarely done. The number or position of your chair would have little to no significance and even if you happen to take someone’s seat it is usually taken light-heartedly. That is not the case for businesspeople from China and Japan. You have to be seated by rank – the highest in rank from your side will sit the closest to the highest in rank from the other side. Failing to respect the seating arrangement will be quite the embarrassing situation.
- Businessmen from countries such the UK, the USA and most of Europe would go out of their way to eliminate or minimize the sense of inequality. Freedom and justice are highly valued. Employees expect to be consulted for their opinion and for it to be taken into account whenever the situation allows it. Control is highly avoided. Micromanagement is off-putting and suffocating.
Apart from differences in language for non-natives, you should be aware of differences in non-verbal communication.
- Eye contact. In the UK and the United States, keeping eye contact is a sign of confidence in your own position, and trusting the other side. It is a sign of openness towards others. Avoiding eye contact would come to signify concealing something, lying, having difficulty in communication, or straight up disliking the other person. On the contrary, in Japan, prolonged eye contact is considered to be very rude.
- Normally during negotiations businessmen from the United States, Europe and most of the Asian countries would like to keep their distance. Physical contact is avoided even for brief moments. In the Middle East, however, some physical contact is part of building trust in a relationship between business partners. A pat on the shoulder, a light touch on the higher arm – it is a sign of getting to know each other and having a more personal approach. Flinching away, showing surprise or any sort of disapproval of this gesture will be considered offensive.
Openness towards the unknown
Business in some countries have a tendency to work by very rigid codes of conduct. The strict behavior comes from different levels of being accepting of the unknown.
Some want to avoid ambiguities at all costs and therefore they follow order and traditions that could rule out any sort of uncertainties.
On the contrary, workers in other countries find having a lot of rules could be suffocating.
- In the United States the latter is the most prominent behavior. Americans are generally more happy to feel free, and unburdened by rules even if it means they have to change plans or cope with things on the go.
- Similarly, the UK are also generally more accepting of new ideas, however, the British don’t mind having rules for this and that.
- China and Japan are a good example of a country where rules are honored.
- Being punctual. The famous proverb ‘Time is money’ says it all. Time is valued a lot in Western societies. In the United States and Germany, for example being punctual is almost a religious act. In many cases, the organizational structure and the workflow will literally mean a messy schedule equals losses. Well, time is not as important for every nationality. The Spanish, for example, have a reputation of being more laid back in that respect. Arriving late for a meeting, however, might result in a difficult conversation with the average German businessman.
- The Japanese have important routines in everyday business, which includes, for example, exchanging small gifts on a first meeting. The way the Japanese handle their business cards is curious. A business card is considered to be an extension of the businessman’s identity. The rule is, make sure you give your business card with the side printed on Japanese towards the person, holding it with both your hands. When you receive a card back, never put it in your back pocket or your wallet. Never fold or play with the card. Read it briefly and put it away. It should go in your business card holder. And if you are already seated, it should stay on the table in front of you for the entirety of your meeting.
- While Asian countries such as China and India tend to score low on the Index of Indulgence vs. Restraint, countries such as the USA, the UK and Sweden score higher. That means they respect personal goals and needs more than discipline and restrain. They tend to be more optimistic and feel more justified when they cater to their personal needs, when they spend more time on their hobbies, when they give in to their impulses.
- Japan is an example of a culture that is always oriented towards the group and rarely towards the individual. The Japanese believe acting as a group brings strength and stability. The individual, on the other hand, is vulnerable. This belief manifests itself in differences in business practices – for example, giving credit. An individual will never be singled out for an appraisal, unless someone would want to embarrass them. Appreciation is usually shown for the entire team.
- Americans are often seen as example of ultimate individualism. The States are a popular example of the notion of free-wheeling capitalism. They believe ultimately individualism leads to a higher level of personal responsibility, where no one wants to have their efforts lost in a group and no one group wants to drag the dead weight of a slacker. They believe this culture creates a sense of healthy competition in the business environment and with that comes benefit on a microlevel. Every employee is expected to be able to show proof of their contributions and talents. And results – personal accomplishments. It is supposed to boost personal creativity and ingenuity and, on a larger level, encourage entrepreneurship.
CULTURAL AWARENESS IN THE WORKPLACE
Holidays & traditions
- A big and popular crime against cultural awareness is organizing a Christmas party, instead of a Holiday party. There is nothing bad in celebrating Christmas, unless you exclude all other religions. So, make sure you do not sneak in Santa, reindeer and a tree without adding symbolism for other holidays. How to achieve that? The easiest way is to make sure you have diversity in the party committee,
- Another example of a holiday that is often disrespected is Ramadan. The holiday is supposed to be a cleanse of the soul and body. Muslims are to abstain from eating, drinking, alcohol, any sort of drugs and sex to put a stop to their giving into temptation. For one month during the early summer, be respectful of this tradition. Do not organize luncheons or invite your Muslim colleagues to lavish events they cannot attend to.
- Some countries are more accepting of immigrant holidays than other. However, try not to get too excited for someone else’s holiday. You can have an appreciation for their culture, but don’t steal their thunder.
- When in doubt, ask. People will not expect you to know all of their traditions, beliefs and honored rituals. Feel free to express some healthy curiosity and go as far as they want to take you. Do not meddle in their business more than you have to, but show that you embrace them.
- In the USA and Europe dress code is a way of self-expression. Even in the corporate environment boundaries are being broken in the name of comfort and personal freedom. Millennials by now account for about 30% of the workforce and they drive a movement for a more relaxed, laid back culture. Gender equality is another factor. Commenting on the length of a woman’s skirt could be considered offensive.
- The Japanese typically tend to be quite conservative when it comes to dress code. Business suits are key. Neutral colors are used that would blend in a crowd. Women wear plain clothing with minimum jewelry and simple accessories.
- In the UAE modesty is not just the widely accepted style, it is protected by law. While exceptions are being done for tourists and businessmen and -women, it is considered really disrespectful if a lady’s shoulders and knees are not covered.
More often than not, the dress code of an immigrant to a culture should be respected. That is, unless it represents an issue for their personal safety or is an undue hardship for the employer.
For example, a lady wearing a hijab could be harmful for her if she works in a factory where she would lean over machines with fast moving parts – it becomes a safety issue.
- Western countries strive for gender equality. As a matter of fact, as The Guardian reports: ‘Emotional intelligence, people skills and flexibility, attributes that have traditionally been seen as more feminine qualities, will be particularly highly valued’ in the future – one of the results of a study predicting the values of future leaders. On the contrary, in some countries a man and a woman cannot even shake hands. A woman’s significance will be underestimated even if she is the only decision maker in the room.
- The first thing to be cautious of is personal space. Most pregnant women do not like being touched or asked too many questions, but the more restrained the culture is, the more that behavior would become unacceptable and offensive. Next comes the attitude towards working. In Mexico for example, a mom would be encouraged to take time off work and attend to her needs for rest, food cravings and to take care of her body – take long walks to keep herself healthy. In the States, generally pregnancy is a respected feat, as long as the mother-to-be is not too demanding of help or exceptions. Leaving work to take care of her children would be frowned upon – she would be considered to settle for less.
HOW TO CREATE AND PRESERVE CULTURAL AWARENESS IN THE WORKPLACE
Higher cultural awareness leads to better productivity, more highly appreciated company culture, attracting and retaining top talent regardless of background, and higher employee job satisfaction.
Having a comprehensive, no-nonsense diversity and cultural awareness policy is a must. It will save you money, efforts and, in some cases, even legal trouble.
Cultural awareness and cultural diversity policies
Your policy must have two main branches. Cultural awareness towards customers and partners and cultural awareness towards employees.
The first branch would aim to educate your employees for cultural differences so that they atone their communication efforts, expectations and forecasts when dealing with international providers, partners and customers.
Coming off as more educated, accepting and respectful will improve relationships, your company’s image and, most importantly, results.
The second branch would aim for employment diversity in your teams, a culture of support and acceptance. It will include the measures you will take towards the specific diversity of the people you work with and want to work with.
Clarity in communication
Adopt a way of speaking in your company that would eliminate the risk of any misunderstandings because of non-native language, non-verbal communications, nuances or assumptions.
Teach your employees to use simple language when talking business. However, do not stop at how-to-say-it. Continue with what-to-say.
Business communication must be stripped off of all assumptions and ambiguities. For example, every time a task or a project is described or delegated it must contain all possible criteria and only the criteria that will make it a success. The budget, the scope, the time, etc.
When dealing with foreign markets research is key. Make sure you introduce specific requirements and guidelines for how, when and how long this research should occur for. Provide resources. The minimum is time and money. Introduce follow-up mechanisms to ensure research has taken place.
Sensitivity inside the company should be encouraged via trainings, discussions, and organized themed events. Create a diverse team who will be in charge to organize regular trainings and casual events. Make sure you screen new employees for the traits for cultural sensitivity and train new hires.
Last but not least, introduce guidelines for best practices on the one hand – cooperation between colleagues, participation in events, etc; and on the other – red lines that must not be crossed.
Do not stop at educating your employees about the differences you find with other cultures. Tell them what other cultures find peculiar about yours.
It is sometimes difficult to discover that actions and traditions you perceive as normal are perceived as strange by others. But it helps the ultimate goal of better understanding and more productive communication.
Encourage flexibility. Each company has a code of conduct. Assure your employees breaking the code is acceptable if it would make your partners, providers or customers more comfortable in your partnership.
For example, you may have the practice to organize informal meetings. Your employees feel more comfortable discussing business matters over dinner instead of in the conference room. There are countries in which that would be unacceptable and offensive. It will be taken as a sign you are not taking them seriously.
Teach your employees sensitivity toward unwillingness and the sense of compromise. Ask them to watch out for non-verbal cues when someone is uncomfortable.
Give them the power to take out-of-the-box decisions and when it is a good time to break the rules. Work with examples – your business history would definitely be the best source to illustrate the possible benefit from such a brave management policy.
Make sure you introduce rules for diversity – strive towards equality of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Your team should look like a representative sample of your community.
Your diversity efforts must not and cannot only affect the representation only on lower levels in your organization. Representation must be diverse in management, too.
Diversity in representation must be accompanied with equality in compensation. The remuneration best be equal between men and women, between races and ethnicities of employees taking the same position.
Achieving a truly diverse workplace is the best way to ensure you work in a culturally rich and aware environment.
If your policies would stand any chance of being taken seriously, you must introduce a form of reinforcement.
Your employees must be aware that it is unacceptable to bully, judge or make in any way uncomfortable people who are different.
Lay out the consequences. Start simple. Make the measures easy to follow through with. Make the penalties proportionate to the crime.
Do not stop at negative reinforcement. Introduce mechanisms to encourage cooperation and sensitivity. Bonuses, titles or benefits would do. Make recognition of those efforts a regular occurrence.
Awareness of cultural differences does not come naturally. What comes naturally is the culture you know from your own family, your own country and the companies where you build your career. That is what you consider normal.
Sensitivity must be taught, accepted, and preserved. It requires time, effort and an open mind.
Working with people from all over the world, with different backgrounds, religious beliefs, codes of conduct, tradition, rituals and convictions is becoming the new normal.
And with that maybe one day cultural awareness will be just common sense.
But for now, it is a way to get ahead.
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