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Strategies for managing a multicultural workforce

Workplaces that embrace multiculturalism have advantages over their less diverse counterparts. If you have such a workplace—or are trying to build one—here are some management tips to help you get the best results.

6-minute read

Businesses with multicultural workforces are better positioned to cope with change, manage conflict and come up with innovative solutions to challenges. They are also more likely to benefit from a reputation that includes social responsibility.

In fact, several studies show that culturally diverse businesses are more productive and earn higher revenues than those with less diversity.

When employees feel that their workplace values their diverse backgrounds, they’re more likely to be engaged in their work.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a multicultural team?

Patrizia D’Ignazio, HR Consultant and President, Soluflex Laval, says that multicultural teams can benefit a business in a variety of ways, such as contributing:

  • language skills
  • diverse perspectives
  • higher morale and productivity
  • better employee satisfaction and engagement
  • greater success with recruitment and retention

The latter three advantages stem from diverse employees feeling more valued, she says. “When employees feel that their workplace values their diverse backgrounds, they're more likely to be engaged in their work.”

Access to a greater variety of languages and communication styles can also help a business communicate effectively across a wider range of clients, suppliers and colleagues.

Despite these advantages, multicultural teams can present unique management challenges. Different languages and communication styles, for example, can lead to misunderstandings that result in mistakes, wasted time, low morale and tension between employees.

Where do cultural tensions come from in a workplace?

“There are many possible sources of cultural tension in a workplace,” says D’Ignazio. They usually stem from differences in the way people approach or view things.

Communication style

Some cultures favour a direct approach to resolving differences, and value frank discussions and straight talk. But other cultures have a more indirect communication style that favours subtlety and nuance.

A direct person may come across as aggressive, intimidating or rude to someone accustomed to less direct problem-solving. An indirect person may come across as vague, ambivalent or unclear to someone accustomed to a more direct approach—or the more direct person may miss the indirect person’s cues altogether.

Respect for authority

The way different people respond to hierarchy or authority can be another source of tension, says D’Ignazio. Some cultures place a high value on respect for authority, whereas others value a more egalitarian approach.

For example, employees who value collaborative decision-making may feel disrespected when supervisors make unilateral decisions, or employees who are inclined to defer to authority may hesitate to voice their opinions or make direct suggestions, even when they could be good for the business.

Punctuality

Some cultures prize this highly, but others do not. Highly punctual people may view latecomers as disrespectful or lazy, and those who don’t place as much importance on punctuality may feel that their always-on-time colleagues are getting overly worked up.

Different cultural attitudes toward time can also impact how employees manage deadlines. To ensure due dates are met, be sure to set clear expectations.

Holiday observances

Tensions can also arise from the way a business observes religious holidays (or not). But it’s not necessarily about whether employees get paid time off, says D’Ignazio. Just noting and celebrating cultural events can go a long way toward making people feel valued and included.

For example, even if you don’t give everyone time off for Chinese New Year, you can wish employees a happy holiday (verbally, on posters, or in a corporate email) or bring in traditional celebratory foods.

Language barriers

If you have teams where members speak a variety of first languages, with some struggling a little to speak in the majority language, you’ll also need to work a bit harder to overcome basic language barriers. D’Ignazio says doing so is not a matter of a single strategy, but of combining multiple ones:

  • Communicate in clear, simple words, whether verbally or in writing—not in a way that is so simple as to seem belittling, but without unnecessary complexity or formality.
  • Encourage people to ask questions so you can avoid misinterpretations.
  • Provide complicated information in writing so everybody has a chance to go over it thoroughly and understand it in their own way.
  • Offer documentation in other languages by making use of translation services or tools.
  • Use visual aids, like diagrams and charts.
  • Do regular check-ins with your staff—one-on-one or in small groups—to ensure that everybody understands what you’re sharing.
  • Offer language training if your budget allows.

In addition, D’Ignazio is a big believer in what she calls the buddy system. “It usually works incredibly well,” she says. “Pair team members who are fluent speakers of the main language with others who are less fluent.”

Provide DEIA training for all employees, but offer additional coaching for your leaders, because they will be the ones setting the example.

What HR practices can help employees work together despite cultural differences?

It all starts with fostering a more inclusive environment where everyone in your workplace is valued and has the opportunity to share their unique perspective.

Offer training

D’Ignazio says a great place to start is with diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) training and cross-cultural training.

“Provide these types of training for all employees, but offer additional coaching for your leaders, because they will be the ones setting the example,” she says. Leaders also need to be open to feedback and willing to adjust their approach. For example, they should take cultural nuances into consideration when giving feedback or recognition. “Understanding a little more about everyone’s cultures and practices opens things up for everybody,” she adds.

The DEIA training should cover unconscious biases and teach employees to recognize them (unconscious biases are social stereotypes that are outside of an individual’s consciousness).

Numerous organizations in Canada offer DEIA and/or cross-cultural training, with sessions on topics like managing cultural differences, communicating more effectively, solving cross-cultural business issues and more. The training can often be targeted to specific groups—such as senior executives, people managers, HR professionals or frontline staff—and can be delivered in person or online.

Cultivate cultural ambassadors

You may be able to draw on your own staff to help provide some informal training, says D’Ignazio. They may be interested in helping coworkers recognize biases by talking about their cultures or suggesting ways to celebrate them in an educational way.

“See if you can find ambassadors within your organization,” she says. “They may be able to help you organize team-building activities and create initiatives to celebrate cultural events—even something as simple as a potluck. That would be a good way of celebrating differences as well.”

For example, BDC has employee resource groups for women, visible minorities, Indigenous people, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ2+ employees. Members of these groups discuss issues and come up with initiatives to share their cultures, histories and backgrounds at work.

Reassess your fine print

Review your HR practices and policies to make sure they’re inclusive. These policies and procedures can be very telling, says D’Ignazio, and may be more discriminatory than you thought, depending on how long ago they were written. For example, does your bereavement leave consider the needs of different employees depending on their family situation, travel requirements and culture?

“Those are very sensitive pieces of the of the HR handbook that you may want to take a moment to review. You want to make sure they reflect the people in your organization today and encourage respect and appreciation for diversity.”

Although managing a multicultural team is not without its challenges, the potential rewards for your business are worth the effort. From more engaged employees to better communication across the organization to a superior ability to understand and work with clients and suppliers, a well-managed multicultural team is an asset.

Next step

Explore principles related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and tools to help you apply them in your business: DEI Toolkit

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