Cultural Competency Training: How to Do it Well

By Dori Meinert Oct 8, 2015
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SAN ANTONIO—More companies than ever are providing cultural competency training to their employees, but many are still struggling to figure out how to do it well.

A panel of experts tackled the problem at the SHRM Foundation’s Thought Leaders Retreat on Oct.7, 2015.

“When we’re working around the world, we often tend to think myopically,” said Neal Goodman, president of Global Dynamics Inc., a consultancy tha designs training programs for multinational and international organizations.

“Most organizations tend to think that headquarters is the center of all intelligence,” Goodman said. “There’s got to be a different mindset.”

Organizations “have got to provide the skills necessary to lead in a culturally diverse and geographically diverse workforce, workplace and marketplace. Without the ability to see the same situations from multiple perspectives simultaneously, none of us will ever be successful,” he said.

In every research study to date, organizations have said their training for cultural competence didn’t meet their expectations, Goodman said. A recent study by the Institute for Corporate Productivity found that only one-third of the companies surveyed believed that their global leadership development programs were successful.

Another troubling trend: Many expatriates are frustrated that their ideas and cultural expertise aren’t being sought out.

“It’s no surprise that more than 50 percent of returning expatriates leave their organizations after they return home,” Goodman said.

Allison Abbe, who has worked with the U.S. Army to develop cross-cultural training for troops being deployed, said an organization’s culture can sometimes stand in the way.

“If you can’t demonstrate how it applies to their jobs, they’ll tune you out in a minute,” she said.

Goodman also advised HR professionals to measure the results of the training as a way of encouraging leaders to implement what they’ve learned.

“If you don’t, it’s just not worth the trouble,” he said.

Dottie Brienza, vice president and head of organizational performance at Bristol-Myers Squibb, said her organization provided cultural competency training first to the CEO and other senior leaders to gain buy-in. Those leaders taught the leaders below them.

To ensure that it has enough talent in the pipeline, the company also is boosting its hiring of Mandarin-speaking employees—first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans—who could one-day end up in the C-suite, she said.

But Goodman noted that even individuals with a Chinese heritage will need cultural competency training.

Ingersoll Rand has a list of 125 senior leaders who need to complete an international assignment before they can be promoted, said Nereida “Neddy” Perez, vice president and chief diversity officer at the company, and member of the SHRM Foundation board of directors. The international assignments last at least two years so that employees have adequate time to absorb the culture, she said.

When leaders can’t take an international assignment, there are still ways to measure whether they’re open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Give them a project and a team they know nothing about, Brienza suggested. Can they do well in new situations? Or evaluate them not only on their ability to generate revenue—but also on how they treat people, she said. Those factors are given equal weight in performance evaluations at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Engagement surveys also can gauge a leader’s ability to listen to employees and consider new ideas, she added.

Ingersoll Rand has had success with a new leadership training program for women in Latin America, Europe and the U.S., which has resulted in projects that have saved the company money, Perez said. In addition, the senior leaders who mentor the individuals are broadening their perspectives, she said.

Dori Meinert is senior writer for HR Magazine.

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