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Harmonizing Global Workplaces: The Role of Culturally Competent HR Leaders in Mitigating Conflict – Part 2

Apr 21, 2024
A group of individuals holding hands.

 In Part 1 of this series, we started with a workplace situation showcasing how easily incidents can escalate when employees don’t recognize cultural differences. We then discussed the importance of understanding nonverbal behavior, focusing primarily on differences between high-contact and low-contact cultures.

Readers received a list of possible behaviors exhibited by high-contact employees based on geographical region, and we finished the article with three steps HR leaders can take when faced with complaints stemming from cultural differences.

You can catch Part 1 here.


Five Steps to Ensure a Culturally Competent Workforce

In today's diverse business environment, employees must recognize cultural differences so they can work more effectively with culturally diverse colleagues and clients.

Here are actionable steps you can implement to optimize engagement, retention, and, ultimately, performance in a globalized setting:

  1.  Provide Cross-Cultural Training

Provide customized training programs that educate all employees about different cultural norms, values, and communication styles. This training should include case studies, interactive exercises, and real-life examples to help employees understand how cultural differences can impact interactions in the workplace. Make sure participants leave with practical strategies and tips for navigating cultural differences effectively.

  1.  Create Additional Learning Opportunities

In addition to cultural awareness workshops or seminars, initiate a series of lunch-and-learn sessions led by experts or employees from diverse cultural backgrounds. These can highlight important cultural differences as well as focus on cultural celebrations, holidays, and traditions from different regions to promote understanding and appreciation of diversity. You can also make available resources such as books, articles, videos, and online courses to encourage self-directed learning and exploration of cultural differences.

  1.  Arrange for Mediation Sessions

If necessary, find professionals trained in mediation and conflict resolution techniques, including active listening, reframing, and negotiation skills. These individuals need to establish clear procedures for addressing cultural misunderstandings or conflicts. Ideally, all parties involved in cultural disputes should seek mutually acceptable solutions through dialogue and compromise.

  1.  Make Coaching and Mentoring Available

In addition to providing comprehensive training materials and programs, making coaching and mentoring available presents a powerful strategy for cultivating an inclusive workforce. By pairing employees from diverse cultural backgrounds, organizations can create opportunities for mutual learning and understanding. These relationships serve as invaluable opportunities for sharing insights and perspectives across cultural boundaries while harnessing the rich diversity of their workforce.

  1.  Create Opportunities That Enhance Teamwork and Relationship-Building

Creating opportunities for cross-cultural collaboration on projects or initiatives is a strategic approach that not only enhances teamwork and relationship-building but also enriches the collective pool of ideas and perspectives within an organization. By intentionally assembling diverse teams composed of individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, organizations can leverage a wide range of experiences, insights, and approaches to problem-solving, fostering innovation and creativity. Furthermore, cross-cultural collaboration promotes cultural exchange and understanding among team members, leading to stronger interpersonal relationships and increased trust. As team members work together towards common goals, they have the opportunity to learn from one another, develop empathy, and build bridges across cultural divides, contributing to a more inclusive organizational culture where every individual feels valued and respected.


Revisiting the Scenario: How HR Successfully Handled the Complaint

Because the HR leader understood that cultural differences were at play, she arranged a meeting with both Paula and Carlos to address the issue. During the meeting, the HR leader facilitated an open dialogue, allowing Paula to express her concerns while also providing Carlos with an opportunity to explain his cultural perspective.

Through the discussion, Paula and Carlos gained a better understanding of each other's cultural norms and personal boundaries. Carlos expressed his sincere apologies for inadvertently making Paula uncomfortable, assuring her that he would be more mindful of personal spaces in the future. Paula, in turn, gained an understanding of Carlos’ cultural orientation. She actually enjoyed hearing Carlos's perspective and appreciated his willingness to adjust his behavior.

As a result of open communication and cultural awareness, Paula and Carlos were able to resolve the issue amicably.

Moving forward, they maintained a professional working relationship and a deeper understanding of each other's cultural differences and boundaries. The HR department also initiated cultural understanding training for all employees to prevent similar misunderstandings in the future.


Bonus Segment

Onboarding Internationals: Essential Information They Need to Know About the U.S. Work Culture

Compared to high-contact cultures, the United States generally tends to have a more reserved attitude toward physical contact in the workplace. Neglecting to include information about acceptable nonverbal behavior in the U.S. workplace during the onboarding process for international employees would be an oversight.

Here are some key topics to address in the onboarding process of your newly hired internationals:

Personal Space. In U.S. workplaces, it is important to maintain a certain distance between individuals during interactions, especially between colleagues who are not close friends. Offer examples of appropriate personal space boundaries in various scenarios such as one-on-one conversations, group meetings, and shared workspaces. Your international employees need to understand the importance of respecting personal space boundaries to avoid making colleagues feel uncomfortable or intruded upon. Intruding into someone's personal space without invitation will be seen as intrusive or disrespectful.

Handshakes. Explain the cultural significance of handshakes in U.S. American business culture as a common form of greeting and introduction. Offer practical advice on how to initiate and execute a handshake, including the appropriate grip strength, which varies across cultures, duration, and accompanying verbal greeting (e.g., "Nice to meet you"). Emphasize the importance of making eye contact and offering a confident handshake as a way to establish rapport and build relationships with colleagues. Explain that for U.S. Americans a firm handshake, accompanied by direct eye contact is expected in business interactions.

Eye Contact. Discuss the role of eye contact in U.S. communication, emphasizing its importance in conveying confidence, trustworthiness, and engagement. Provide guidance on maintaining appropriate levels of eye contact during various workplace interactions, such as meetings, presentations, and conversations. Address cultural differences in eye contact norms and encourage international workers to adjust their behavior to align with U.S. American expectations while still being mindful of their cultural background.

Hugs and Kisses. Compared to high-contact cultures, like those in Southern Europe or Latin America, hugs and kisses are less common in professional settings in the United States. While it may be acceptable among close colleagues who are also friends, it is generally not the norm and may be perceived as unprofessional or crossing boundaries.

Touching. Training for international employees joining U.S. American workplaces should include cultural nuances regarding physical contact. While handshakes are customary, other forms of touch are often more reserved. For instance, light, friendly touches such as a pat on the back or a touch on the arm may be acceptable in certain contexts, but it's crucial to gauge the other person's comfort level and respect boundaries. Providing scenarios and role-playing exercises can offer practical insights into appropriate conduct in various workplace situations.

Other Gestures. Discuss common gestures used in the U.S. and their meanings, such as nodding to indicate understanding or agreement, thumbs-up to signal approval, and others. Understanding the meaning of certain U.S. American gestures is essential. That is because some U.S. hand gestures are considered offensive in other cultures, for example, the OK gesture in Brazil would be equivalent to giving someone the middle finger. Encourage international workers to observe and learn from their U.S. American colleagues' use of gestures so they can convey meaning effectively.

By including this type of information in your onboarding process, your international workers can develop a deeper understanding of acceptable nonverbal behavior in the workplace and learn how to effectively navigate cultural differences to enhance communication, collaboration, and professional relationships.



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