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InfoWorld, Nov 8, 1999 v21 i45 p83
Communication is key to cross-cultural success. (Industry Trend or Event) David Raths.

Abstract: Managing a racially integrated staff with people from different cultures and religions can be challenging, but good communications skills are key to bridging cultural gaps. Challenging people is important because many are unaware of their own prejudices. Problems caused by one or two managers may affect an entire department; complaints of 'racism' or 'homophobia' tend to result more from misunderstandings than any actual hostility. One example is the fact that Asian cultures do not value making eye contact as do Americans. So-called 'diversity training' is often helpful but is tricky to manage. White male managers may feel put-upon; those not a member of a 'minority group' find themselves feeling defensive. It is important to communicate the fact that the purpose of training is not to assign blame but to improve how people work together. One area to consider is not judging others based on their accents, which reflect linguistic origin but not intelligence.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 InfoWorld Publishing Co.

WORKING WITH A TEAM from different cultures, races, and religious backgrounds can present myriad challenges for managers.

Training is one way to address these challenges, but experts say it's just the beginning. Some companies don't even start diversity training because they're afraid of offending someone, and "99 percent of companies fail to follow up once they've done [it]. They think the training is the result in itself," says Sondra Thiederman, a diversity consultant in San Diego.

At Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., managers are required to go through diversity training.

"You have to challenge people, because some have no awareness of their own prejudices," says David Rupert, director of workforce diversity at the facility.

For instance, Rupert says, some people become upset if an African- American man comes to work with a cornrow hairstyle. "Here in East Tennessee, to some people it connotes a prison or gangster lifestyle and they'd be surprised to see it in a professional environment," Rupert says. "They would read into it a hostile attitude that isn't necessarily there. It's not intentional, it's just ignorance."

Diversity consultants say that some problems can be caused by one or two managers.

"You'll find people who say they didn't know it was unacceptable to use [racial slurs] in the workplace, or to call women 'sweetie pie,' " says Mauricio Velasquez, president of The Diversity Training Group, in Reston, Va. "You have to focus on those behaviors and hold those people accountable. If they don't change, I recommend termination."

But training for managers usually boils down to how to more effectively relate to people one-on-one, Thiederman says.

"The first step is self-awareness of prejudices and stereotypes," Thiederman says. "The second is learning how other people communicate."

What some people see as sexism, racism, or homophobia may be based on misunderstandings, Thiederman says. For instance, in IT, there are a large number of employees from Asian cultures, where people tend not to look their superiors in the eye. But in American business, direct eye contact is usually seen as a sign of strength. Managers who are sensitive to these cultural cues will be less likely to base hiring or promotion decisions on them.

"It's important to learn about the background of a group and see what might be a cause of misconceptions," says Norma Carr-Ruffino, professor of management at San Francisco State University.

For instance, the culture of many Latino Americans stresses the importance of being amenable to whatever others want.

"[People from this culture] tend to be reluctant to point out errors or criticize a boss, even to save them from making a huge mistake," Carr- Ruffino says. "To some, that may look like passive or incompetent behavior, but when you understand the cultural component, it makes more sense."

Even the diversity-training process can be tricky to manage. Some diversity training efforts fail because white male managers feel they're being picked on.

"Some people do feel defensive," says Beatriz Mitchell, who works at the Office of Special Education Rehabilitation Services, an office within the U.S. Department of Education, in Washington. She is also a member of the department's diversity task force.

In Mitchell's department, minority group members often felt unrepresented in the middle and upper management ranks. There were also reports of insensitive behavior and even racial slurs. The diversity group arranged training for the department. Since that training, Mitchell says, there has been more dialogue, but it needs to be reinforced constantly.

"The white male managers sometimes feel they're being judged too quickly, but our goal is to establish a system of communication," Mitchell says. "If we present enough opportunities, we'll make progress."

Thiederman says the goal should be to improve communication, not to blame.

"Far too much of this gets dumped on white males," Thiederman says. "We're not blaming anybody. We're improving how we work together."

One source of misunderstandings in a diverse workforce can be the limited English skills of some workers.

Thiederman says companies can be reluctant to help some workers improve their accents for two reasons: First, it's expensive; and second, if you separate workers by nationality, it could become part of the basis of a lawsuit. Nevertheless, she argues that companies owe it to themselves and to their employees to work on these issues.

Thiederman says companies also need to train employees not to judge others based on their accents, which have nothing to do with intelligence or education.

Managers should openly discuss the problem with the employees and work with them.

"If you let it go, co-workers stop communicating with that person at all," Thiederman says.

In the end, it's not enough to simply hold training sessions. Companies also need to monitor hiring, pay, and promotion patterns for signs of unintentional discrimination.

"All policies and procedures have to be reviewed regularly," Velasquez says. "Who is not being hired? Who's not getting promotions?"

Even if your organization has no official diversity initiative, consultants say department managers can begin to make changes.

"You have to be aware of the politics of the situation," Carr-Ruffino says. Managers must be tactful, but it's definitely worth the effort.

"Use as much influence and power as you have -- you may attract positive attention. If you are punished for it, you may ask yourself if that's really the type of company you want to work for," Carr-Ruffino says. "Many companies have lost good managers that way."

David Raths ( is a free-lance writer based in Kailua, Hawaii.

Key issues in cultural diversity

* Cross-cultural communication * English language skills * Promotion and hiring patterns * Accommodating religious beliefs

Copyright (c) 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.


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