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The Key to Multicultural Professional Development? Get Everybody on Board!

Apr 3, 2019 1:04:00 PM / by Nadia Nassif

Most HR leaders I’ve met are well aware that the increasing diversity of the workforce is driving demand for cross-cultural training and development. But company management isn’t always equally aware. And today, to compete in the talent marketplace, professional development efforts must not only address the needs of multicultural employees, but also help managers to understand the language, cross-cultural, and communications challenges that an English-speaking and often American business environment presents to those from other cultures. 

Even companies starting to experience first-hand the shifting demographics of the workforce may be years away from developing, budgeting for, and implementing an effective approach to training their multicultural staff. As one manager recently told me, “We haven’t had many multicultural employees traditionally but that is changing, and we are seeing more multicultural employees begin to fill specialized roles, being put on task forces for new global business…we will eventually need to look at ways to support the learning and development needs for these, but right now it’s very ad hoc.”

Getting Management Informed and Involved

Research has shown that professional development efforts attuned to the diverse learning needs of a multicultural audience help organizations enhance performance, increase morale, and prevent turnover. But, too often, real investment in these efforts stops with HR – and, as a SHRM.org article points out, “the commitment to improving internal and external cross-cultural communications must become part of the company’s culture and apply to everyone equally, from the CEO down.” (“How to Create an Effective Cross-Cultural Training Program”)

Many managers, however, simply are not equipped to accurately identify and address multicultural employees’ issues. And, as I noted in a recent CLO feature, managers may not always feel comfortable or confident in addressing these employees with regard to cultural disconnects. (“How Coaching Can Help the Majority Culture Understand Difference”) Consider, for example, these actual conversations I’ve had with organizations about coaching programs for multinational employees:

 “I knew there were communications issues for this employee, but until now, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might be culture or language related.” (A manager at a global company)

“My employee is an incredibly strong technical contributor, but accent gets in the way – wait, are we allowed to say that?” (A financial services manager worried about giving potentially offensive or legally sensitive feedback)

Both of these managers were strong mentors and supporters of coaching – but neither were able to deal with their multicultural employees’ needs effectively, hampered by lack of awareness/sensitization and fear of seeming prejudiced or politically incorrect. They didn’t have the necessary training and tools with which to help! And, as a result, their promising employees could miss out on critical growth opportunities…. and their organizations could end up losing valuable talent.

Even more concerning, some management teams claim to champion diversity, but can in practice foster an environment unsupportive of multicultural employees’ needs. One manager I spoke with told me that she was trying to get coaching for a Pakistani woman on her team who was ready for promotion but “the department director said ‘sometimes we cannot understand her enunciation.’ Just between you and me, they say they want diversity, but they are not that friendly.” She continued, “I have another employee from Vietnam… they weren’t too nice to her.” These managers are not only being culturally insensitive, they seem to have their heads in the sand, unable or unwilling to face the reality of a changing workforce in a super-competitive market for talent.

Real Costs and Lost Opportunities

Short-sighted attitudes and lack of cultural awareness impact an organization’s ability to attract talent as well as retain it, as this scenario outlined by Marilyn Paul and Sara Schley in “Developing a Multicultural Learning Organization” demonstrates: Sam, a qualified candidate looks great on paper but does poorly in a job interview –when the hiring manager asks Sam a challenging question, he looks down or away. The manager can’t establish eye contact with Sam and so doesn’t connect with him on a personal level… he’s unable to develop a level of trust. The result? “The information that [the manager] did not have is that because Sam is Cambodian, he was taught that it is disrespectful to look an authority figure directly in the eye. Therefore, his avoidance of eye contact was a way of showing respect. Unfortunately, [the manager’s] multicultural illiteracy lost [him] a talented new hire.”

So – what can you start doing today to muster the right resources for your current multicultural employees and prepare your organization for the needs of tomorrow? What kind of training programs and providers are best suited to your needs, and how do you get started? (See “Seven Questions to Ask a Potential Training Vendor.”) How can HR and L&D teams lead the way?

Three Pragmatic Steps for Learning Leaders

1.  Expand your knowledge set. Read about and gain exposure to research that explores the specific learning and adaptation challenges multiculturals face. Subscribe to publications and online sources that offer effective approaches to professional development. (Armed with such knowledge, an HR manager might have been able to prevent the negative outcome of Sam’s interview!). Check out authorities such as INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, whose culture mapping explains how “a good training program addresses invisible and subtle differences between people of different cultures. How is trust built differently in this culture? What is the most constructive way to provide criticism?” Or Andrew Molinksy, a professor of organizational behavior and Harvard Business Review author who notes that while most organization’s training addresses how to remedy the issues that arise from culture clashes, “the core challenge is how to adapt and adjust their behavior in light of their differences—and that entails learning to act outside your cultural comfort zone.” (HR Magazine)

2. Talk with employees. Management professor and sensitivity training specialist Claretha Hughes offers this advice: “Before choosing or designing a cross-cultural training program, HR managers must thoroughly assess the workforce and its needs. The best way to do that is to embrace a process that guarantees confidentiality and anonymity to employees who provide input.” (“How to Create an Effective Cross-Cultural Training Program”) Develop and segment employee surveys and less formal feedback mechanisms to stay up to date on specific needs around culture and business behavior, and to identify individuals who may be feeling challenged, or hindered in their professional growth.

3. Talk with management. As I suggested in CLOa good multicultural coaching program should include ongoing conversations with the employee’s advisors and other senior colleagues. Start by establishing a “multicultural awareness baseline” – do managers share the same concerns as their employees? Pay careful attention to the language they use to raise issues (any indications of unconscious bias?) Does the input from your company’s management resonate with the concerns illustrated in the examples I shared above? Do managers have access to tools and training initiatives to help them navigate cross-cultural issues throughout the year, and not just at review time? And, perhaps most important to long-term success – is senior management fully on board? Take the case of global software company SAP: based in Germany, with locations in 130 countries, SAP has a diversity program that includes cultural sensitivity training. All SAP employees can take classroom-based training and receive interactive instruction. The company uses a mix of internal and external trainers and customizes its training depending on employees’ needs. These efforts have the leadership’s full backing. Or consider Johnson & Johnson, a global company frequently appearing in the top of corporate diversity rankings, in which more than 90% of managers, directors and VPs have taken unconscious bias training, with a plan to extend it to all employees shortly.

In my experience providing coaching to multinationals I’ve found that an ad hoc approach is not always best. A structured program that includes all levels of the organization, with sustained investment over time, can not only lead to measurable results in performance improvement for multicultural employees, it sends a clear signal of support to these valuable members of your organization.

Tags: Development, Cross-Cultural, Diversity

Nadia Nassif

Written by Nadia Nassif

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