Addressing cultural differences in the workplace

Employees in today’s organisations reflect the changing faces of the global workforce. Equality in the workplace is a priority, and addressing cultural differences is rapidly becoming a win-win for both the employee and the employer. In an ideal workplace environment, the belief is that every employee is of equal worth, and should be permitted the same privileges and opportunities, irrespective of their differences. This belief leads to the need for changes in practices that relate to recruitment and retention of employees.

Lyndy van den Barselaar, managing director at ManpowerGroup South Africa, explains that due to globalisation, many businesses have expanded across borders and have culturally diverse workforces. “Just in South Africa, a business could have people that speak 11 different languages at home, have varying belief systems, and values, for example,” she says. “While a culturally diverse workforce is certainly desirable, as it allows for easier adaption to consumer demands and shifting markets, it needs to be handled and managed effectively in order to result in success for the organisation.”

Evolving and growing cultural environments

“Workplace diversity is a multi-faceted concept that continues to evolve as society evolves and more organisations move toward being part of the global marketplace,” says van den Barselaar. Many multinational enterprises work across borders, which mean cultural differences will always be a reality. Not only within each office but also entering into new countries and provinces.

South Africa is estimated to receive a net immigration of 1,02 million people between 2016 and 2021 and about 47,5% international migrants settle in Gauteng while the least are found in the Northern Cape province at 0,7% net migration, according to Statistics South Africa, Mid-year populations estimates 2018 report. The report also states that the Gauteng province is considered the economic hub of the country, hence it is attracting international migrants as well as domestic migrants from rural provinces such as Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. While the Western Cape province is forecast to receive the second highest number of in-migrants for the period 2016 to 2021.

These movements within and across borders impact not only the population structure but the workplace structures as well. “Understanding each culture and how it differs from the others can be difficult, but it is a very necessary starting point for all businesses. On the African continent, for example, each country has it’s own cultural norms, languages and rituals. It is important that the organisation is invested in learning about each culture that’s present and how they differ from the others; either through their own initiatives or through their workforce solutions provider,” explains van den Barselaar.

Having the right attitude and knowledge

“Managing cultural differences refers to an employers’ ability to interact with employees from different cultures, social and economic backgrounds, whilst measuring their ability to effectively work with others,” explains van den Barselaar.

It's important that teams and individuals within the workforce are aware of the differences in culture, and how this can affect ways of working and communication. “Not only should employers or managers know about the differences between each culture, but they should share this information with each team – to ensure that differences are understood by all and can then be celebrated, rather than discriminated against,” says van den Barselaar. This will ultimately create the right attitude and a more positive culture in the workplace.

“Discrimination could easily break down communication in a team, and have disastrous implications for all involved and the organisation at large. It is important that strategies around managing and communicating cultural difference are in line with the company culture, and are effectively communicated to all members of the staff.”

Managing differences and refining skills for cultural competence

Communication is the most crucial skill in any workplace. It is beneficial for organisations to understand the various verbal and non-verbal communications, and how these may vary from culture to culture.

“Differences can be evident even by the way employees greet one another. Some may find it respectful to shake hands, while some may be accustomed to bowing, hugging, kissing on each cheek, or not touching at all,” explains van den Barselaar. “If even these seemingly small differences are not addressed up front, they can cause a lot of tension between employees,” she says.

Therefore, refining the team’s skills and ability to understand and communicate effectively is critical to the success of an organisation.

The changing demands of the modern workplace require an effective approach to serving the needs of a culturally diverse workforce. “When managed effectively, these differences could broaden both the employer and employees view on the world at large. All organisations need to ensure that they are prioritising the creation and maintenance of an inclusive environment in which differences are respected and leveraged to achieve business objectives,” concludes van Barselaar.