|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
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
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
Even if your organization has no official diversity
initiative, consultants say department managers can begin to
"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 (email@example.com) 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
Copyright (c) 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.