Brush up your cultural intelligence skills

By Dave Rees

The workforce is changing and recruitment policies must change to reflect the diversity on show.
The workforce is changing and recruitment policies must change to reflect the diversity on show.

Walk along Auckland's Queen St any weekday lunchtime and you could be fooled into thinking you were in one of the many bustling cities of Asia. Headscarves, turbans, snatches of foreign languages and other signs of cultural difference abound.

The same is true of the workplace. And there are two dynamics occurring here. Migrants arrive off their own bat and look for work, and in time, their children are educated and trained and also begin entering the workforce. Separately, employers facing shortages in critical job areas are forced to recruit overseas.

We're all familiar with the notion of a workplace "culture" - often defined as "the way we do things around here" and based on the institutional values and behaviours present. But our definition of culture in the workplace must now be broadened to encompass the aspects that arise from the ethnicities and nationalities of the people present.

As a manager, this broadening of workplace culture poses definite challenges.

The processes around recruiting, training, supporting, rewarding, disciplining and generally managing employees no longer work off a single, simple blueprint. In the distant past, intelligence and experience would generally equip managers with the skills to establish and maintain good relationships with their employees.

Enter Cultural Intelligence - the ability to view employees through a cultural lens specific to their nationality and background, and, more particularly, to understand the differences between cultures and how that impacts on workplace behaviour. This covers dimensions such as dress, religion (and religious practices), food, important family events like births, marriages and deaths, education and recreation.

A case in point: Ahmed (not his real name) is a Middle East-born engineer who works for a large utility company with a two-floor head office. He's a Muslim and, in line with his religion, he prays five times a day, but has no dedicated space set aside where he can do so quietly and discretely. And when he wishes to eat, the cafeteria caters for Eurocentric food tastes. He's uncomfortable with bringing this to his employers' attentions so endures this in silence.

How can you learn to avoid this sort of oversight? A passive approach is folly; much better to develop the understandings from active programmes of enlightenment - doing your homework.

But what are some practical things employers could do to improve their Cultural Intelligence?

*Lead by example. Commitment and modelling from the top counts.

*Adopt and uphold policies and procedures that support diversity in your workplace.

*Provide training and education in the workplace to raise awareness of cultural differences and diversity.

*Find out about the holy days of different religions to avoid scheduling interviews at inappropriate times.

*Network with other employers who have diverse workforces to find out their best practices.

*Set up a Diversity Committee to assist with recruitment and community relations.

*If your workplace is unionised, check to see what diversity resources are available through the union.

Dave Rees is a partner with executive recruitment consultancy Convergence Partners.

- NZ Herald

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