With an increasingly integrated global economy and more people than ever moving abroad for work, gaining a greater understanding of what it is that makes a multicultural workplace function well is an important task. What are the best practices for creating an environment where cultural diversity becomes a catalyst for innovation and growth, and how can you address potential pitfalls before they become a liability?

Studies have shown that there are many benefits to having a multicultural workplace. A study by Forbes identifies diversity and inclusion in the workplace as a key driver of internal innovation and business growth. However, making a multicultural workplace function efficiently takes a concerted effort and requires well thought-out strategies for support.

One of the most important and challenging aspects of a multicultural workplace is perhaps also the most straightforward – creating a truly inclusive culture. You don’t want the exchange of ideas and collaboration to be hampered by known difficulties such as the inability to adapt to a new work culture where different hierarchies and communication styles rule. You want to avoid communication breakdowns that lead to stereotyping and discrimination.

As an example of how a simple matter can escalate and negatively impact the work environment, take this story relayed to me from an acquaintance (I’ll call him John). John’s company had recently hired a number of new employees from a different country. He quickly grew frustrated because, in his view, since the arrival of this new group, the bathrooms had gotten noticeably dirtier, to the point where he didn’t want to use them.

To the outside observer it seems like this kind of problem could be easily handled through open lines of communication. Instead, the situation escalated and before long, John was making other judgments about his new coworkers. His personal assessment was that the issue stemmed from a combination of cultural heritage and a lack of respect for coworkers. He began to think of the newcomers as “others” and he felt like he couldn’t collaborate with them. What had been a simple and practical issue became a problem of “us-and-them”, causing negative ripple effects throughout the office environment.

I asked John why he didn’t bring up his concerns with management. He insisted it was not an option because he felt the current work environment was not conducive to raising these types of matters. He didn’t know whom to talk to, or how to raise the subject without being labeled culturally insensitive or a troublemaker.

How can you avoid situations like this from developing? There are some proven strategies for creating a truly inclusive workplace. They include:

  • Establishing mentoring opportunities across cultural borders. This is a way to not only ensure direct lines of communication, but to also offer insight into the thought process of the other party.
  • Promoting diversity and sensitivity training. This may not sound exciting, but trainings like these fill an important function on all levels of a company. If done right, they can facilitate easier communication across cultural borders, and can help avoid pitfalls.
  • Offering cultural adaptation training to all levels of employees working on multicultural teams. Consider personalized coaching where appropriate.
  • Creating cross-functional teams in order to build strong relationships and to facilitate individuals from different backgrounds working together.

Lastly, building a well functioning multicultural workplace is not a one-time effort. Implementation needs to take place on the operational level and it has to be an ongoing process. A successful outcome hinges on commitment and desire, as well as a willingness to make the necessary adjustments.  

By: Felicia Shermis

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