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Cross-Cultural Understanding in the Workplace

As the US becomes more diverse and as even small companies reach out globally to employees and customers, cross-cultural understanding becomes ever more important. Most authorities recommend starting with similarities to build understanding at work, including the universal need for respect, communication, and encouragement. All employees need information about the company’s business plan, a chance to hone their skills on the job, appropriate rewards for work, and access to training and resources.

Differences between cultures may appear in unexpected places. For example, different cultures have different views of time, teamwork (cooperation versus independent action), communication styles (particularly in relating bad news), and attitudes toward status. These differences may result in a team member who is more or less assertive, more or less likely to take credit for results, or more or less flexible in respecting deadlines simply for cultural reasons. Managers and coworkers have to be willing to look beyond obvious, familiar patterns of behavior to see which employees are truly valuable additions to the company.

Because employment laws and attitudes vary greatly from state to state, let alone from country to country, a company may find itself treating different cultures differently simply because employee expectations are different. If offshore employees have a different expectation about advancement (seniority is the only criteria) than onshore employees (advancement is a reward for exceptional work), then a perception may arise that offshore employees are not ready for advancement or that onshore employees are too demanding—when neither perception is correct.

A workplace that emphasizes respect, tolerance, and a willingness to learn is way ahead when it comes to cross-cultural understanding. Transparency is another factor. John Mackey, co-founder and CEO at Whole Foods, has said that with transparency, “any kind of favoritism or nepotism is seen.” The same goes for any type of discrimination. If your workplace does not currently reflect the values of respect, tolerance, and transparency, please contact HR Compliance 101.

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