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Multiculturalism: Managing across the cultural divide


At one point in my career, I needed some assistance from a team member, who hailed from South Africa. I made my request and he responded politely, “I’ll get it just now.” Off I went expecting the materials in my inbox shortly. Later that day, and with no materials received, I sought him out. Once again, he smiled and said, “Yes, I’ll get to it just now.” Lucky for me someone explained that in “South African,” it meant he’d get to it when he could, more or less, but it certainly meant he wasn’t doing it now!


As we all know, the world is getting smaller. Whereas once you may have worked in a factory or office with mostly like -minded and like -looking individuals, now you may find yourself working in an office with multiple nationalities and with colleagues and employees stemming from diverse backgrounds. As a manager, it's critical to know how to manage this diversity.


How to handle diversity in the office:

1. Don’t take things for granted. Make sure you are managing expectations with all employees about as many scenarios as possible. In country “A”, when an employee tells you they were at the doctor it’s unacceptable to ask questions as it’s a private issue. In country “B”, not inquiring about someone’s health is considered discourteous. We once has a visitor from a Western country visiting our Israeli office, who met with an employee who was about 9 months pregnant. Only at the very end of meeting did he sheepishly ask if she was indeed pregnant. She practically burst out laughing because it was literally an absurd question, but he was trying to be sensitive in case it was taboo to ask. Which leads me to my next point.

2. Learn it: I worked with a Jewish guy who could rattle off every national holiday in India and which deity it was celebrating. His Indian counterparts took that as a major sign of respect. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn about other cultures. Research it a bit and bring up something as a talking point with your employee.

3. Embrace it. Diversity should be enjoyed and soaked up for all it’s worth. Different backgrounds often mean different points of view. Putting 5 like minded people in a room to solve a problem and you’ll likely hear 5 similar solutions.

4. Be respectful! Nobody likes to have their homeland/culture/religion trampled on. You may think you’re making a light-hearted joke, but they might not. Not all people follow the “rules” of their religion in the same manner, so don’t compare. “Bob’s Jewish and he’s coming to work on Yom Kippur, so why can’t you?” Not cool!

5. Encourage team building exercises with diverse groups. When employees break out into groups it may be more natural for some to break off with those they are most familiar with so make sure the groups are made of up a wide array of characters.

6. Listen, watch, and be more open minded. Move a drop slower when communicating with someone from another background. Watch for non-verbal clues they might drop. Be as open minded as possible when it comes to their suggestions and don’t negate them because they seem a bit foreign to you.


Some managers can be a little closed minded about hiring those that are different than they are. This is a mistake. Next week we’ll visit some of the many benefits having a diverse team can provide.

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