As Auckland approaches a statistical high of 200 different cultures in its workforce, it is becoming increasingly important for businesses to effectively manage employee diversity.
Bev Cassidy-MacKenzie, chief executive of the EEO Trust, says this will promote increased productivity and a better bottom line.
There are common difficulties experienced by businesses in managing a culturally diverse workforce, she says.
"Businesses sometimes find it difficult to communicate with people who have English as a second language. A concern can be whether employees understand safety notices."
Cultural differences and religions are other areas that can lead to misunderstandings.
"Many people know that some cultures do not touch each other or make eye contact when greeting," says Cassidy-MacKenzie, "but there are also many people in the workforce who are not aware of this. Different religious practices such as Ramadan and prayer time may also make other employees feel the person is not doing their job properly or has an excuse for stopping work.
"Some cultures do not eat certain food such as pork or beef so when a colleague offers someone a sandwich that has bacon in it and it is refused, that may cause offence all round."
Recently, 94 former interpreters for the New Zealand troops in Afghanistan arrived in Auckland as a result of the Government offering them and their families the opportunity to resettle here. There were fears for their safety as Western troops left.
Cassidy-MacKenzie says it will be valuable for the Afghans' future employers and colleagues to understand the differences between the two cultures when they start working here, so that misunderstandings don't erupt.
She says that although not everyone from Afghanistan may adhere to specific cultures, some may practise Islamic law that forbids the consumption of pork or alcohol.
Ceremonies for both weddings and funerals are usually held over three days, and wearing modest clothing is important. The EEO Trust has facilitators who can help businesses in solving their cultural difficulties by running workshops and educating about the merits of helping staff through language tutoring.
Cassidy-MacKenzie says businesses that teach employees numeracy and literacy skills do better. "Staff feel more valued and have fewer work accidents because they can read the signs and understand what the manager is saying to them."
Cassidy-MacKenzie says that as well as an increasingly diverse population, we have an ageing population with more people retiring than entering the workforce.
"So not to seek employees from other cultures is unwise," she says. "Also, having a mix of cultures leads to new ideas and, potentially, more innovation from a wider variety of people. Upskilling employees leads to fewer sick days, increased productivity and lower staff turnover."
Snap Fresh Foods is an example of a business that has improved both food safety and staff retention through language and cultural training schemes.
Human resources manager Amy De La Cruz says 40 per cent of the company's 150 staff, most of them from China, have little or no English.
She says employees who don't understand instructions pose a greater risk to the company. "For a company processing and packaging raw food, food safety is paramount," she says.
"Lapses in food safety with associated product recalls could not only cost a great deal but would destroy the confidence of our customers."
Snap Fresh Foods secured a Tertiary Education Commission grant to fund training and, in 2010, a voluntary staff numeracy and literacy training programme was set up.
Staff turnover has dropped because it takes less time to get new employees up to speed, and they have a better understanding of safety.
"Between 2007 and 2010, there were seven serious injuries in the factory. Since then, we have had none and that means our ACC levies for the next year have been reduced by 20 per cent."