How to Bridge Workplace Issues That Arise from Cultural Differences

By Catherine Skrzypinski May 2, 2016
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VANCOUVER, Canada—Because how we’re raised shapes our views of different cultures, it’s important for business leaders to try to see workplace situations from the vantage points of colleagues who are different from themselves, says one cross-cultural expert.

Even the way business is conducted in a country reflects that country’s history and culture, said Lionel Laroche, Ph.D., president and founder of MultiCultural Business Solutions based in the Toronto area. He pointed to the United States and Canada as examples. The United States abruptly declared its independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776, while Canada became a sovereign nation over the course of a century.

“In the United States, [line managers] want change quickly—they have a ‘go big or go home’ mentality,” Laroche explained. “However, Canadian bosses want gradual change.”

Cultural differences, however, are not an excuse for poor performance, he said.

“As human resource managers, we need to make sure that people understand what good performance looks like, or what the consequences of not meeting expectations will be,” he said.

Breaking Through the Cultural Iceberg

Experts often compare culture with an iceberg, with visible (above the water) and invisible (submerged in the water) differences, Laroche said during a presentation at the Human Resources Management Association (HRMA) Conference and Tradeshow 2016 on April 26.

Some examples of visible differences: 

  • Dress code: In North America, safety in the workplace trumps wearing religious garb. For example, a Sikh must remove his turban to put on a helmet if working on a construction site.
  • Office layout: Open-plan offices are becoming more commonplace in North America. In Japan, many offices are set up like North American university lecture halls, where a senior manager sits front and center, facing everyone.

Planning Around Cultural Differences

When it comes to invisible differences, be careful not to stereotype—especially when setting times for meetings with colleagues from international backgrounds, Laroche added.

  • Concept of time: In North America, being “on time” typically allows for a 5-minute grace period because of traffic and transportation hiccups. In contrast, “on time” in Germany is arriving 5minutes early, while in Mexico, time is more flexible—colleagues may show up within a 30-minute time frame.
    “Patience is essential when dealing with cultural differences,” Laroche said. “This is the real challenge for most managers because time is the most important resource.”
  • Teamwork vs. Individualism: Workers in the United States prefer to work on projects on their own—individual achievement is preferred. In Europe, colleagues value collaboration and teamwork.

Communication

Approximately 93 percent of communication is nonverbal; words account for only 7 percent. Tone of voice makes up 38 percent of communication, and body language and facial expressions constitute 55 percent, according to Albert Mehrabian, a prominent psychologist at UCLA.

The tempo of a conversation is another aspect of nonverbal communication. Discussions are at a slower pace in East Asia to allow people time to think, while those from Latin countries often interrupt and chime in their thoughts during a lively dialogue.

Laroche offered line managers these suggestions to bridge the nonverbal gap:

  • Be patient with people who need longer silence gaps.
  • During interviews, provide silent intervals that are long enough for applicants to answer questions.
  • In team meetings, use the roundtable approach to encourage everyone to speak up.
  • Withhold judgment if people appear to be taking over the conversation.
  • Mirror people’s communication style.
  • Explain your conversation style preference.

Hiring and Retaining Aboriginal Employees

Aboriginal people— including First Nations, Métis and Inuit people—are Canada’s indigenous inhabitants. About 1.4 million people identify as Aboriginal, representing 4.3 percent of the total Canadian population, according to Canada’s National Household Survey from 2011.  

Throughout Canada’s 150-year history, Aboriginal people have been subjected to many laws and policies that have required them to assimilate into a Eurocentric society. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1995 that Aboriginal people have a right to self-government, opening the door to mainstream employment opportunities.

“Racism does exist [in the workplace], and you have to deal with it,” noted Winston Mclean, an expert in First Nations development and a cross-cultural awareness consultant who also spoke at the conference session. “More often than not, it is profound miscommunication.”

As first-time Aboriginal employees continue to enter Canada’s mainstream workforce, recruiters and managers should be cognizant of their behavior on the job:

  • Aboriginal job candidates and employees tend to divert their gaze away from supervisors, since making direct eye contact can be construed as being overassertive in the Aboriginal culture.
  • Practice deep listening, as Aboriginal people are often silent for long periods.
  • Shake hands gently; a strong handshake is seen as a show of aggression in the Aboriginal culture.

“Now the game has changed,” Mclean concluded. “The conversation that should have taken place 150 years ago is now being forced upon this generation… [It’s time] for this conversation to start.”

Catherine Skrzypinski is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Canada.

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