What Is Cultural Competency In The Workplace?

What Is Cultural Competency In The Workplace?

Cultural diversity is the cornerstone of the American society, with the American population boasting every kind of cultural background possible. As diverse as this nation may be, we are yet to work effectively cross culturally, in terms of capitalizing on our cultural differences instead of letting them divide us. This can be a major problem at the workplace, where individuals are expected to cooperate toward common goals, instead of clashing over cultural misunderstandings, insensitivities, or hostilities.

In this article, you will read about what "cultural competence" is and why it is imperative for the workplace. The article goes on to discuss how to improve cultural competency of a business, so that it can function effectively without internal cultural conflict (and the potential resulting legal action) sabotaging its productivity.

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What Is Cultural Competence?

"Cultural competence", loosely speaking, is the ability to comprehend, appreciate, and communicate with those who subscribe to different belief systems (and, consequently, different lifestyles) than our own.

Defining Culture

The word "culture" gets thrown around a lot but what does it mean, really?

Culture is whatever defines one's way of life -- that is shared by groups of people. Culture includes integrated patterns of human behavior, encompassing how we think/what we believe, how we communicate, the actions we take, the beliefs and customs we practice, and values we hold sacred.

Culture is something we all contribute to -- and something that also shapes us -- how we perceive the world as well as how we define the roles of ourselves and others in this world. And we are quite attached to these ideas!

Cultural Beliefs At Odds

When people of different cultures have to work together, it's not surprising that honest misunderstandings can happen. Mistreatment or discrimination do happen on the basis of cultural differences: this problem is compounded by the fact that those who commit these offenses are unconscious of their own bias and, more often than not, do not own up to being unfair or offensive.

As mentioned, in cross-cultural situations, what truly clashes is people's ideas of "social roles" they and others play. For example: in the American workplace, legally speaking, all employees of the same position, regardless of gender, have the same responsibilities.

Suppose one worker on the team comes from a culture that draws a strict difference between "men's roles" and "women's roles" in society: this person will likely take on the tasks they consider appropriate for their gender -- and expect the opposite gender to do "their part".

A situation like this could lead to a conflict at the workplace. The question is: how to handle it in a culturally sensitive way for everyone involved? This is why training is so important!

Mind The Generation Gap!

It should be noted that a "culture clash" can also happen between persons with large difference in age. The "generation gap" can be as dramatic as the differences between people of separate national origins -- and can, likewise, cause quite a bit of misunderstanding and possibly hostility.

This could especially become an issue at the workplace where "old" and "new" ways of achieving the same task can come to blows.

A supervisor from an older generation may be extremely frustrated by a younger entry-level employee on the basis of different learning styles and ideas of what a "job well-done" means (and the feeling is likely mutual).

Alternatively, an order person may find themselves working under a person from a younger generation and be struggling to effectively interact with their supervisor owing to generational differences in communication styles.

Cultural Competence Is A Set Of Skills

Since the concept and manifestation of "culture" takes many forms, achieving cultural competence comes from developing a multi-faceted set of skills that make it easier to get along with others -- and help others get along with each other.

The cultural competence "toolkit" is made up of congruent behaviors, attitudes, and principles (or policies, if we are talking about an institution as opposed to an individual) that, when exercised in synergy, create an inclusive environment for individuals regardless of race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability and all the other cultural and natural characteristics human beings bring to the table.

Several components fold into the cultural competency toolkit.

Cultural awareness:

  • Being aware of cultural influences on societies, on individuals, on oneself, and on one's company.
  • Being tuned into seeing how culture shapes how we act, what we believe, and what we practice -- including our preconceived biases and prejudices.

Cultural understanding:

  • Comprehending that cultural competence is a continuous project of the self (and requires regular updates for corporate policies as well).
  • Identifying concerns that come up when employees' or clients' cultural practices/beliefs deviate from those of the dominant culture.
  • Recognizing that cultural differences affect participation in organizational programs, services, and practices.

Cultural knowledge:

  • Learning about specific cultures represented in the workplace
  • Knowing the right/authentic resources to consult for cultural guidance

Cultural interaction:

  • Understanding the principles behind effective intercultural communication in order to interact productively with others.
  • Being able to manage/diffuse cultural conflicts.

Cultural sensitivity:

  • Learning to place specific cultural interactions within a historical-cultural context that makes it insensitive and inappropriate to say certain things to members of certain (historically undermined) cultural groups/social groups.
  • Acknowledging the existence and impact of privilege, inequality, and oppression when it comes to everyday workplace scenarios.

Individuals and organizations, are each at various points along the cultural competence continuum, so there is always room for improvement. Besides, cultural competence is a developmental process that evolves along with the times, so, the skill-set always needs maintenance and updating.

Why Is Cultural Competency Necessary In The Increasingly Diverse American Workplace?

It is recognized in psychological literature as well as the US government, that cultural competence -- practiced by businesses and institutions on the macro level -- and by individual employees on the micro level -- is a major piece of the puzzle in eliminating economic, ethnic, and racial disparities at the workplace. Example, the cultural competence in healthcare institutions signals the system's ability to give culturally competent services to patients with different beliefs and behaviors.

Cultural Competence Should Be Initiated By The Company

Cultural competence must be practiced on the structural level, meaning that the company must foster an organizational culture of mutual respect and tolerance. This includes making a transparent corporate policy about the importance and benefits of cultural competence and making sure the employees (at all levels) familiarize themselves with it.

Cultural Competence For The Workforce

Cultural competence needs to be practiced by all colleagues within the company, from top to bottom. Culturally competent colleagues treat each other with dignity and respect and try to find common ground even around topics they don't agree on.

Cultural Competence For Interacting With Clients

Additionally, in industries that interface with diverse populations in ways that make them responsible (and liable) for human wellbeing, cultural competence -- as well as linguistic competence -- become absolutely necessary when it comes to serving the clients.

This is probably most true for the health and human services. Patient care requires the highest levels of cultural and linguistic competence from the medical field professionals and personnel, as the patients' lives and health outcomes directly depend on it.

The education system also cannot afford to fail with cultural competence. Students of diverse cultural backgrounds are vulnerable to cultural insensitivities from teachers or guidance counselors who have no frame of reference for those students' experiences. Without proper training, educators may unwittingly discriminate against these students on the basis of unfair/negative/inappropriate stereotypes -- rather than show understanding toward the unique pressures they face at school and at home.

Achieving Cultural Competency In The Workplace

The organizational culture of an institution or company should be set to emphasize the following elements:

  • Valuing diversity
  • Having the capacity for realistic cultural self-assessment
  • Being conscious of the dynamics at social settings in which multiple cultures interact
  • Making sure to institutionalize cultural knowledge
  • Managing cultural diversity -- developing adaptations to service delivery to clients/patients/students reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity

The key to achieving all of the above requirements is to make a company-wide commitment to prioritizing cultural competence at work -- and then, to invest into providing excellent education on this topic for every single employee.

Ensure Cultural Competence At Your Company With Proper Training

Cultural competence is a learned sensibility & skill-set. It follows that, if one wishes to foster cultural competence across an entire company/institution, one begins with education. The most effective education in this case is one that allows individuals to practice/apply what they are learning. In a word: training.

EasyLlama's Got Just The Ticket!

As a leader in the corporate e-training space, EasyLlama is introducing its new Cultural Competence workforce training, tackling all the issues mentioned in this article: importance of cultural awareness, understanding, knowledge, interaction, and sensitivity -- to be fostered among every employee, regardless of their place within the corporate hierarchy.

Make your business a safer and happier place to work: get your free EasyLlama training preview today!

Written by: Maria Malyk

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