How to Promote Cultural Sensitivity in the Workplace

by Elizabeth Smith ; Updated September 26, 2017
Cultural sensitivity can create a more productive workplace.

In many workplaces, cultural differences between colleagues can create tensions and misunderstandings that may escalate into serious problems. To prevent these problems and make your office a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds, take steps to promote cultural sensitivity. By acting in advance, you can foster an open atmosphere in which it is acceptable for employees to ask questions and express curiosity about the traditions of other employees.

Educate employees about the habits and practices of other cultures. Do not single out the cultures of the minority employees in your office, as it can create animosity and uncomfortable attention. Instead, frame the program as a series of lessons on doing business with people from other world communities. In doing so, you can expose employees to an educational session and better prepare them to understand diversity.

Encourage open discussion about assumptions and preconceived notions. When your company has an employee or client who comes from a markedly different culture, hold an open forum for the company. Set ground rules that mandate civility and respect, and let employees discuss their concerns and questions. By creating a nonjudgmental atmosphere, you can help expose misconceptions and let employees on both sides of the table voice their concerns.

Treat each employee as an individual. Just as people who identify with a religion do not necessarily follow all of its practices, a person who is a member of a culture with traditional behaviors may not adhere to all its beliefs. Take employees aside to ask about their personal preferences and how they will affect their work life, and act accordingly.

Introduce employees to the cultural traditions of their colleagues. Hold a staff dinner around the holidays and ask people to talk about the traditions or bring food from their families, religions and home countries. Maintain an informal, social vibe about the event that will help employees lower their defenses, and make a point to show interest in each story or try each food. Allowing employees to see cultural traditions firsthand can be a powerful way to create connections and demystify an unfamiliar world.

Address obvious issues openly. If you are entering a situation where a new employee or client will demonstrate obvious cultural markers that will be disturbing or cause questions, bring it up in advance. Talk about dress habits, proper greetings, how to show respect, and what business traditions the person will have. Even though your staff will not need to follow all of the new individual's rules, being aware of them can create a more sensitive atmosphere.

About the Author

Elizabeth Smith has been a scientific and engineering writer since 2004. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, newspapers and corporate publications. A frequent traveler, she also has penned articles as a travel writer. Smith has a Bachelor of Arts in communications and writing from Michigan State University.

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