The United States of America is a culturally diverse nation with a proportionally culturally diverse workforce. Every day, workers of different generations and racial, religious, and ethnic heritages cooperate, innovate, produce and serve together. Whether the work environment underscores the employees' cultural differences or similarities depends in great part on how much effort the employer invests into cultural competence education and training.
In a nation that prides itself on the diversity of its population, the importance of high cultural competence/sensitivity at the workplace cannot be understated. Ensuring cultural competence for every level of employee in every company is simply a necessity. There are many benefits of cultural competence which we will discuss later in the article. However, not taking this necessity seriously may result in internal as well as external workplace complaints of discrimination, harassment, hostile work environment, and other improprieties that could lead to government fines, legal action, and the loss of good employees.
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Why Cultural Competence Is Essential For Every Organization
Cultural competence plays a huge role in how smoothly a business, staffed by employees with all kinds of different cultural backgrounds, is run. The main value of maintaining high cultural competence at the place of work is that it allows one to effectively interact and cooperate with others -- however "different" they may be. This kind of teamwork is achieved by mindfully and sensitively considering the point of view of others and the broader cultural context of a given scenario. When done in good faith, this effort leads to accomplishing effective communication with others from different cultures without overreacting and without causing offense or misunderstandings.
Cultural competence is one of several themes covered in EasyLlama's comprehensive diversity and inclusion training program. Other topics include other protected classes of workplace diversity such as gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, disability, racial and ethnic identity, etc., as well as the challenges faced by all employers such as inclusivity in recruiting and hiring, discrimination in the workplace, creating a culture of inclusion, unconscious/implicit bias, microaggressions, workplace sensitivity, etc. The program is easy and straightforward for employers to set up and execute and it has been embraced by employees for being simple, engaging, and optimized for mobile participation.
Culture is all around us and we are all, to some degree or another, products of the cultural socialization we grew up with through caretakers and the surrounding community. Roughly speaking, culture is a way of life that is specific to a particular people, place, or time period. Culture is a system of values, beliefs, and behaviors that social members subscribe to / abide by. Culture happens on the level of entire nations and it happens on a smaller scale of common interests or problems shared by groups of individuals.
Culture is inherited from the past in the forms of traditions and stories passed down through generations, as well as absorbed from the present and perpetuatedinto the future through conversations with friends, family, and colleagues, by following news and social media, teachers, mentors and role models, and generally at all times absorbing one's social environment "by osmosis", so to speak. Each culture comes with its particular set of values, beliefs, priorities, and behaviors, with its own concept of what is "normal" vs. "deviant" as well as what is "good" vs. "evil". Culture manifests through a myriad of social practices and expressions: from the way people schedule their day to how they dress and decorate their homes to what "family" means to them.
It's easy to take for granted just how much culture shapes each one of us. And while there exists a so-called "mainstream culture" (it's what dominates our television content and serves as the "default" culture of the American workplace), the actual American workforce is made up of people with mild to very distinct cultural and sub-cultural differences.
Because we are all diverse with unique combinations of cultural backgrounds, it is also easy to misunderstand other's cultural origins: it is even possible to be confused about what is and isn't considered "cultural diversity" in the first place (which is why it is crucial to train all leadership and employees in the key concepts of cultural competence!) For example, the differences and similarities between the social metrics of "race" and "ethnicity" are puzzling to many.
Delineating "Race" and "Ethnicity"
People are often confused about the difference/connection between "race" and "ethnicity". Race is a socially constructed category that draws attention to cosmetic differences in skin color/hue among the human species. Ethnicity is one's cultural heritage: national origin, religious affiliation, family traditions spanning generations and geographies, etc. However, due to historical and social circumstances, race and ethnicity can significantly overlap and becomeconflated.
The most poignant example is the social category "African-American" being a race and a culture. Because their ancestors were, generations ago, forcefully transplanted to the United States and enslaved for centuries, this large group of modern Americans has an African cultural heritage as well as racial oppression as part of cultural identity. Because an entire population of people has been abused and discriminated against on the basis of race, a subculture of survival and resistance had spring up in response to the injustices surrounding the social status of being "black", thus linking race with the culture into a whole, albeit very complex, multi-layered social phenomenon.
Not understanding or empathizing with this and other cultural contexts for the members of racial and ethnic minorities among their employees is what keeps many employers missing the mark on achieving true cultural competence at the workplace. In a similar vein, it should be understood that subcultural contexts exist for other discriminated/overlooked social groups such as individuals with disabilities who are often excluded from popular activities and have to grow their own culture and community to feel accepted.
Defining Cultural Competency At The Workplace
Every U.S. employer owes it to themselves, their employees, and the U.S. government a culturally competent-run workplace.
Cultural competence is, essentially, the combination of cultural knowledge, awareness, and social skills to function effectively, communicate well and generally get along with individuals of various cultural backgrounds. This is achieved by modeling and providing educational instruction outlining positive behaviors, attitudes, and policies.
In the diverse U.S. workplace, cultural competence is a hugely important piece of maintaining a safe, peaceful, and legally compliant working environment. In some industries, like education and health care, the benefits of cultural competence cannot be understated as it is required for employee interaction as well as serving incredibly culturally diverse and highly vulnerable populations of students and medical patients.
Culturally competent organizations develop and implement a defined set of values, as well as practice a deliberate set of behaviors and attitudes that empower them to work effectively cross-culturally.
Examples Of Cross-Cultural Mismatches and Disconnects At The Workplace
Cultural disparities can manifest themselves in different ways and the employer's cultural competence skills and education must be deep, nuanced, and flexible enough to accurately spot, address and ameliorate the different scenarios that can arise.
Here are just a few examples of the types of cross-cultural "normative" differences that, without proper sensitivity training, can manifest as misunderstandings that lead to conflicts at the workplace:
- Time. Different cultures have different conceptions of time and definitions of punctuality. Being aware that several-minute tardiness to a meeting is not necessarily meant disrespectfully by the new employee because it's considered "normal" behavior in their native country means that the employer is less likely to take an excessively stern measure against a good employee who is not lazy or disrespectful but is still culturally adjusting. A culturally competent leadership may guess that this worker only needs to be told once that tardiness is unacceptable and the problem is solved without turning it into a conflict.
- Privacy / personal space. In different cultures, there exist separate ideas of how much or how little privacy each individual deserves. This manifests, for example in how close people stand when they speak with each other: in some cultures, people cluster tightly and in others, they spread out giving everyone a wide swath of air/space.
Mixing these groups may result in discomfort and possible annoyance on both sides of the cultural divide. However, if the employees (and their leadership) have been trained to be aware of such nuances, they will be less likely to blow things out of proportion and more likely to avert excessively crowding or isolating each other by compromising on an optimal personal distance that is acceptable and fair to everyone.
- Physical contact. It is well known that some cultures are quite forthcoming and comfortable with casual physical contact while others are made to feel awkward or offended by any uninvited physical touching, especially from the members of the opposite sex. The need for anti-harassment training with guidelines for appropriate workplace behavior and cultural sensitivity is evident in this particular case: there is simply no place for inappropriate touching at the workplace and everyone needs to be crystal clear on this.
- Social Roles. A very heavy premium is placed on differentiating certain social roles by certain religions, ethnicities, and even generations. In some cultures, certain roles come with heavy obligations and double standards. For example, in some cultures, gender roles -- prescriptions for what "normal" women and men in society are expected to do and not do -- are very strict and mutually exclusive.
Likewise, in certain nations, the role of being a "child" to one's parents comes with heavy loyalties and sacred duties -- similarly to the role of "worker" toward "boss". The conflict happens when individuals from different cultures try to relate to each other on the basis of their particular cultural entitlements -- and those expectations don't match. Without providing training for such instances, dignities may be offended and power struggles may be set in motion. With proper education on the importance of cultural awareness, however, many such clashes can be avoided altogether or at least kept from escalating into a legal problem.
Political correctness. Not all nations are "on the same page" with what constitutes appropriate vs. inappropriate topics of conversation/jokes/commentary/critique directed at coworkers in the U.S. workplace. This is why it is very important that the employer offers company-wide cultural competence education: so that all employees get "on the same page" and adjust and self-regulate their behavior in accordance with the rules of propriety that apply equally to everyone.
Generation Gap. Sometimes, it is not the ethnic but generational differences that lead to a "culture clash" between coworkers. Within the same ethnic group, the older folks may subscribe to a very different belief system than the younger individuals among them. Members of different generations grew up with different sets of work ethics and may disagree on topics of the employer-employee responsibilities and obligations, definitions of workplace seniority, etc.
Likewise, the younger and older coworkers may clash over what constitutes appropriate expressions of "humor" or "friendliness" at the workplace: the "office culture" the older generation grew up with allowed for a lot of behaviors that are no longer lawful or taken lightly in today's workplace.
All of the above examples are culturally rooted issues that require cultural sensitivity to prevent/resolve with the least damage. To be clear: upping cultural competence at the workplace does not mean that employees have to tolerate behaviors that make them uncomfortable as a "compromise" to other cultures! Quite the opposite: it works to prevent culturally offensive acts from taking place and ensures that no one feels obligated to tolerate the ones that do slip through the cracks.
The Benefits Of Cultural Competence In The Workplace
Achieving cultural competence is not a mere liability prevention measure: it is actually beneficial to organizations. Sure, it may be hard to manage cultural diversity in the workplace. However, creating a safe, respectful, and validating environment for the employees will, in no uncertain terms, pay off in the form of heightened unity and productivity among the team members which, in turn, will reflect positively on the bottom line of the business.
Just to name a few, here are several benefits of cultural competence at the workplace:
- Increased open-mindedness. Culturally competent employees are usually more willing to see others' points of view, which improves teamwork at the workplace.
- Culturally synergized brainstorming. Bringing together thinkers from different cultural backgrounds can enhance problem-solving and boost creativity, due to a diversity of perspectives, ideas, and strategies coming together.
- Improved Attentiveness. Heightened cultural awareness at the workplace also improves overall communication among coworkers, since cultural competence education encourages empathy and active listening skills.
- An Adaptable and Harmonious Workforce. Culturally competent employees are more productive and cooperative with each other. Because of the above-mentioned open-mindedness, they are generally more adaptable to workplace changes and adjustments, which is a preferred quality in a worker. It could also help eliminate microagressions in the workplace.
The Key Four Features Of Achieving Cultural Competence
High-level cultural competence is a process that develops/evolves over time and in tandem with a specific workplace context, rather than being an instant, one-size-fits-all application. Thoroughly culturally competent leadership and workforce are those who have taken the time to reflect upon the benefits of cultural competence and the importance of cultural awareness -- and make a sincere commitment to improving one's own cultural sensibilities through learning, listening, and exercising cultural objectivity and empathy.
Here are the key components of a culturally competent individual:
- Awareness Of Self and Others. A culturally competent individual is aware of their own cultural worldview as well as the fact that other cultural worldviews exist and feel just as valid, real, and important to those who hold them.
- This sensibility comes with the capability for self-reflection and, if need be, intervention. An individual with true cultural competence is able to step outside one's cultural self, so to speak, and acknowledge their own existing biases and capacity for prejudice. This ability to "zoom-out" outside of one's own narrow view to get the "big picture" helps the culturally competent individual to be less defensive and more objective/impartial in assessing and possibly diffusing a culturally "tense" situation at the workplace before it sparks into something serious.
- Open Attitude Toward Growing and Embracing Cultural Variation. Cultural competence requires an openness to learning and growth, bolstered by a genuine curiosity about others.
Americans are a very mixed people and the American nation prides itself on being so diverse, tolerant, and open-minded toward cultural as well as individual differences. It does, however, make managing diversity in the workplace harder. The American workplace already reflects these population demographics and should reflect the ideals that come with it as well. A positive disposition toward others thinking and acting differently than oneself is a big part of it.
Cross-Cultural Knowledge. Once an individual makes the philosophical leap to understanding that all cultures are subjective, it is important for a culturally competent person to become at least somewhat familiar with other cultural practices and ways of thinking. Understanding others' norms, beliefs and values prevent people from misinterpreting others' behaviors and intentions on the basis of wrong cultural assumptions.
Cross-Cultural Skills. All of the above sensibilities come together to form practical communication/interaction skills that help one be culturally considerate and sensitive and, hence, more professional, in workplace interactions. These skills include:
- Being an active listener
- Knowing how to adapt one's interaction style to others' cultural styles
- Fostering mutual trust among coworkers
- Being able to identify areas of cultural tension and not underestimate their influence on the workplace morale
- Directly and clearly communicating requests and instructions to others
- Instating measures that promote cultural competence and inclusion at the workplace
Consequences For Failing To Be Culturally Competent With Employees, Customers, and Patients.
Failing to recognize the benefits of cultural diversity or cultural competence and not acting to improve it in the workplace sets an employer on a slippery slope of cultural negligence. However "innocent" it may look at the beginning, it will, sooner or later, result in actual violations of the law, in the form of a "hostile work environment" or another workplace discrimination infraction. When employees stop feeling safe in the workplace because they feel harassed or otherwise singled out for unfair or inappropriate treatment (and this can very much happen on the basis of cultural bias or misunderstanding), they have the right to lodge internal complaints with the company, file external claims with employee rights organizations and, in many cases, take the employer to court.
In extra-vulnerable industries like health care, adequate cultural competence at the workplace can be the matter of life and death and can help prevent truly disastrous outcomes for patients and tremendous liabilities for employers.
Benefits Of Cultural Competence Example: Healthcare Organizations
Medical care services providers across the United States of America are on the front lines of interfacing with the widest diversity of human beings: from the spectra of physical and mental disability to all sexes/gender identities to a myriad of national origins and racial and ethnic backgrounds to non-English speakers with major language barriers in communication. This is to say that health care practitioners must be superbly trained/skilled in cultural competency, as interacting with sick, injured, and scared people of diverse cultural backgrounds is a daily and active part of their job.
The Vital Importance of Cultural Competence For Public Health And Therefore The Health Care Industry
Cultural competence in health care signifies the ability of the system to provide culturally competent care to patients with different beliefs and behaviors. This means that the system (and those who act within it) is flexible enough to adjust health care delivery to meet the patients' socio-cultural / linguistic needs.
Cultural competence in health care can help tackle health disparities and challenges such as diverging cultural health beliefs and practices, language barriers, medical errors and biases, low literacy rates, and inconsistencies in health care access/quality.
The bottom line is: culturally competent care has a positive impact on health outcomes for medical patients. As such, every American hospital and health care provider must assist their multi-cultural patients with having the smoothest possible experience by (at the very least) offering:
Language assistance. Be it a foreign language or a sign language, no patient should be prevented from communicating clearly in a language they speak well.
Cultural brokers. It can be very helpful to bring in cultural mediators who act as a cultural liaison of sorts between the patent and the health care system. Cultural brokers can help improve understanding, smooth out tensions, and reach health care delivery compromises without violating the patients' cultural principles and prohibitions.
Cultural competence education. Being that it has been proven to combat health disparities, expand access and improve medical outcomes, every health care organization must invest resources and effort into incorporating cultural competence across the entire organizational structure.
Becoming Culturally Competent: Training Is Key
It is not enough to go through the motions and do the bare minimum to appease the law when it comes to ensuring a culturally inclusive and safe work environment. Every U.S. employer serious about their company's success and mission must genuinely contemplate the importance and benefits of cultural competence -- as an employee morale and safety issue -- and make the subsequent commitment to provide their employees with the best cultural competence/diversity and inclusion training possible.
The best training, in this case, means:
- content that "registers" with the trainees on an intellectual and emotional level
- the latest software, designed for the modern mobile workforce
- a methodology and delivery that makes training easy, convenient, non-exhausting, and fun to complete
Employers should never lose sight of the fact that preventative measures like training are the best way to go when it comes to avoiding (or, in unpreventable cases, mitigating) HR complaints and the subsequent government scrutiny and fines. That's why we recommend you try EasyLlama's training.