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Harmonizing Global Workplaces : The Role of Culturally Competent HR Leaders in Mitigating Conflict - Part 1

Apr 15, 2024
A group of people holding hands.


Imagine the following situation:

Paula, a U.S. American working in the marketing department of a multinational corporation, was assigned to another team. She was excited about this new project and getting to know her new teammates—one of them being Carlos, who was transferred from Colombia.

During one of the meetings, Paula felt uncomfortable with her colleague, Carlos. Carlos is known for his warm and friendly demeanor, often engaging in close physical contact during conversations, which is common in his Latin American culture.

On this day, Carlos stood close to Paula while discussing the project, occasionally placing his hand on her shoulder as he explained his ideas. While Carlos saw this as a gesture of camaraderie, Paula felt increasingly uneasy with the proximity and physical touch.

The next day, Paula approached the Human Resources (HR) department because she was considering the idea of filing a complaint.

In the HR office, Paula explained her perspective to the HR leader, detailing how Carlos's proximity and physical contact made her feel uneasy, which made it difficult for her to focus on her tasks.

Meanwhile, Carlos, unaware of Paula's discomfort, was surprised when he was called into the HR office. He ended up explaining that, in his culture, close physical contact and gestures like placing a hand on someone's shoulder are common signs of friendship and support, not intended to cause any harm or discomfort.

What should HR’s next steps be?


The Importance of Understanding Nonverbal Behavior

Nonverbal behaviors, including gestures, facial expressions, and the use of personal space, play a significant role in shaping the interpersonal dynamics in the workplace.

In today's global organizations, HR leaders must understand the nuances of nonverbal behavior. That is because these nonverbal cues vary greatly across cultures, and they need to know how these differences impact workplace interactions.

Misunderstandings or misinterpretations of nonverbal behavior can lead to breakdowns in communication, conflict, and reduced collaboration among team members from different cultural backgrounds.

Culturally diverse organizations require culturally competent HR leaders. These individuals must possess cultural sensitivity, awareness, and competence to help employees navigate these differences effectively and foster a more harmonious workplace environment.


An Important Difference to Heep in Mind: High-Contact vs. Low-Contact Cultures

High-contact and low-contact cultures refer to the degree of physical touch and proximity that individuals within a culture are comfortable with during their interactions.

In high-contact cultures, such as those found in Southern Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, people tend to engage in close physical contact, including hugs, kisses, and light touches, as a common way of greeting, and expressing camaraderie.

In contrast, low-contact cultures, including North America, Northern Europe, and East Asia, place a greater emphasis on personal space and maintain a bigger distance during professional interactions. In these cultures, individuals maintain a certain distance from others to respect personal boundaries.


Typical Behaviors Exhibited by High-Contact Employees Based on Geographical Region

Employees from high-contact cultures tend to exhibit a greater degree of physical touch in their interactions compared to low-contact employees. Here are some examples of physical contact variations in high-contact cultures:

Latin Americans (e.g., Brazilians, Mexicans, Argentinians)

  • May greet colleagues with hugs, kisses, or friendly embraces.
  • Use expressive hand gestures and facial expressions.
  • Use physical proximity and touch (on the arm or shoulder) to convey camaraderie and connection.

Africans (e.g., Nigerians, Ghanaians, Kenyans)

  • Use warm handshakes with prolonged grip, often followed by clasping the other person's hand with both hands.
  • Are comfortable with physical contact during conversations, including gestures like touching the arm or, the shoulder or a pat on the back. Embraces and hugs as greetings are acceptable.
  • May demonstrate respect and deference through body language, such as nodding and bowing.
  • Express empathy and concern through supportive gestures like touching the shoulder or patting the back.

Middle Easterners (e.g., Lebanese, Egyptians, Saudi Arabians)

  • Engage in warm and enthusiastic greetings with hugs and kisses. Handshakes have an extended duration and are often accompanied by additional gestures such as placing the free hand on the other person's arm or shoulder. A pat on the back conveys encouragement or support
  • Maintain eye contact as a sign of sincerity and trustworthiness.
  • Appy gender-specific norms regarding physical contact, with more restrained contact between unrelated men and women in public settings.

Mediterranean (e.g., Italians, Spaniards, Greeks)

  • Express warmth and familiarity through physical greetings like hugs or cheek kisses.
  • Use animated hand gestures and facial expressions to emphasize points during discussions.
  • Invade personal space to convey interest or enthusiasm.
  • Demonstrating engagement and involvement by leaning in during conversations.

These examples highlight the variations in physical contact norms across different high-contact cultures, demonstrating the importance of understanding how these differences will impact the workplace.

A cautionary note: It's important to recognize that cultural differences in behavior may not universally apply to every individual within a culture, nor in every circumstance. Exceptions exist, so consider the above list as a general guideline rather than an absolute rule.


Three Steps HR Leaders Can Take When Faced with Complaints Stemming from Cultural Differences

When HR professionals encounter complaints that may stem from cultural differences in the workplace, it's essential to:

  1. Conduct a thorough investigation to gain a comprehensive understanding of the issues at hand, ensuring that all parties involved have the opportunity to share their viewpoints safely and respectfully.
  2.  Determine if, indeed, a cultural difference was the root cause of the misunderstanding. If that is the case, work towards finding constructive solutions that promote cultural awareness and understanding among those involved.
  3. Listen actively to the concerns raised by all parties and acknowledge the validity of their experiences and perspectives. You should never invalidate an employee’s cultural orientation. The key is to approach the situation with sensitivity, understanding, and a commitment to fostering the best resolution for all involved.


In Part 2 of the series, we will focus on the steps you can implement to ensure the development of a culturally competent workforce and we will revisit the workplace scenario showing how HR successfully managed the conflict.

You will also receive a bonus segment with a list of essential onboarding information related to nonverbal etiquette your international workers must know if they want to avoid misunderstandings in the workplace.



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