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Navigating cultural differences in the workplace

cultural differences in the workplace

Cultural differences in the workplace can be hard to navigate, but as globalization continues to be a key driver of economic growth, no one can turn away from diversifying workplaces. So, let’s talk about why culture and workplace diversity are important. 

Many scholars believe there are thousands of cultures in the world. Many may be closely related to each other with minimal differences, and others may be worlds apart. These differences are what created the beautifully complex society we live in today. But what role does cultural diversity play in the workplace?

Well, for starters, diverse teams tend to be more innovative, creative, and overall better at decision-making. According to Forbes, multicultural teams are more creative precisely because they bring together different experiences and viewpoints. It’s like we all have a pile of random puzzle pieces with us, and the only way to complete the picture is to seek out the pieces that fit best. No one person could possibly have all the pieces. Studies even show that diverse teams work ‘smarter’

Take our own team at Capital Placement, for example. We have so many different people from different backgrounds, from England to South Africa, India and Sri Lanka. When we sit down and put our minds together to solve a problem, there’s usually more than one right answer and the reason for that is: diverse experiences and voices contribute to problem-solving. 

Additionally, research shows that promoting diversity in teams can boost productivity by 35%, while also contributing to increased revenue. The Boston Consulting Group’s study noted that there was a 19% increase in revenue amongst companies with diverse workforces. It’s clearer now more than ever that actively promoting diversity brings about more benefits than any perceived disadvantages. 

But here’s the interesting twist: different cultures alone aren’t what make this true. There are many forms of diversity to consider, from disability to religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Take, for instance, a Christian Indian versus a Hindu Indian — vastly different lived experiences -– oftentimes even LANGUAGES — despite being from the same country. 

The same applies to the differences between an American man and an American woman, or even WITHIN the same communities, such as the experiences of a wheelchair user as opposed to that of a person with a hearing impairment. 

This brings us to the next point of focus. 

Celebrating differences among colleagues 

Rather than viewing cultural differences as hurdles, one should always approach them as an opportunity to learn. Even having a differing viewpoint from somebody is an opportunity to learn, and it’s very important to remember that.

Let’s start with how employees can navigate such differences in a respectful manner. It starts with a change of your personal mindset. Why TOLERATE diversity when you can CELEBRATE it? 

To oversimplify: would you rather have a dozen choices of ice cream flavours or be stuck with just one forever? Wouldn’t you be missing out on life if you could only wear ONE set of clothes forever, rather than being able to mix and match and don whichever accessories you wish to? 

Look again at the benefits such diversity can bring. You want to create new ideas that speak to a very niche target group that you have no relation to or experience with. Would you rather struggle with coming up with the perfect campaign that sells by yourself or would you prefer to speak to somebody from said target group and get their first-hand input and guidance on the matter? 

Additionally, networking proves to be a fundamental part of boosting personal, professional and overall business growth and therefore, success. By connecting with people from all walks of life, listening and improving your own understanding of the world around you, you will find yourself fast-tracking said growth and success in no time. 

The next important step is to turn your thoughts into action. How can you navigate workplace diversity in a meaningful way? There’s one very simple step to this: clear communication. And a big part of clear communication is LISTENING and ENGAGING. Here are the steps:

  1. Ask questions in good faith. Keep them clear of the clutter of preconceived notions, and listen to what your colleagues have to say.

  2. When you ask a question, give them the space to answer at their own pace. This is a conversation, not an interrogation.

  3. Don’t be aggressive in response to their answers when challenged with cognitive dissonance.

  4. Show that you’re tuned in. Nod, smile when necessary, and make eye contact at appropriate intervals. Try not to present yourself in a standoffish manner.

  5. Sometimes, culture goes beyond logic. It can be subjective, deeply personal — even intimate. You have to respect that and not utilize this opportunity to argue. There is nowhere in the world, from the Americas to Europe, or Asia, where people are free of illogical beliefs, including both you and me.

  6. Avoid using humour to insult — even if you only meant it as a joke. When you’re talking to somebody from a different culture, especially if they’re a minority in your country and workplace, it could be hard for them to differentiate between true ill intent and jokes due to the sheer volume of bad experiences they face every day.

    To feel defensive would then be a fair and acceptable reaction. So, out of consideration, you must try to avoid joking about aspects of their culture that they presumably hold dear. 

Something that often falls off the radar is the responsibility that lies on employers to ensure that the workplace is open to diversity beyond tolerance. So, let’s look into that for a bit.

Navigating workplace diversity as an employer

It’s a common occurrence to hear companies speaking about their policies on workplace diversity and how important it is to them, but when looking deeper, oftentimes, these policies miss their mark. 

There’s more to navigating workplace diversity than simply saying this company accepts people from all sorts of backgrounds. The action matters much more than words, so much so that it can have unavoidable legal ramifications when ignored. 

For this, employers must look to the overall employee experience. A few questions and points to take into consideration include:

  • How is the company approaching recruitment? Are the usual talents you attract of a more homogenous group? What can you do to change up your image and ensure you portray one that lets people of more diverse backgrounds know that they would feel welcome at your company?

  • When hiring candidates, how much attention is being paid to ensuring diverse talent gets a chance? Are there any existing biases in the current process? For example, are the people in charge of hiring at a tech company of the idea that a woman would be less beneficial than a man in the same role?

  • What steps has the company taken to make sure the first (usually probationary) months are amicable to the diverse talent hired for a role? This is usually the period which sees the highest number of individuals leaving a company. If you want to retain diverse talent, these months will prove crucial. 

  • Ensuring you pay attention to their needs the same way you would anybody else is important. Take, for example, an employee who is strictly vegetarian due to their religious beliefs. You invite the team to a lunch out but there are extremely limited or no vegetarian options. How would that make them feel? If the roles were reversed, how would you feel? Probably undervalued. No one would feel the need to dedicate their time and effort to a company that doesn’t value them.

  • Take note of issues that could crop up over the course of their employment and takes steps to eliminate them before they become unsolvable. This could include language barriers, lack of accessibility, and prejudices.

  • Actively promote acceptance and celebration of diversity. Employers set the tone for the workplace. If you’re not showing your employees that you value the differences within the team, you’re leaving them little motivation to do the same. It’s one of the unspoken rules that the one doing the ‘leading’ must set the examples for their ‘followers’. You can hold sessions that seek to educate your employees on sensitive topics or have a company-wide celebration of special festivities observed in other cultures. Experiencing the beauty of a different culture firsthand does wonders for improving both the morale of people from different backgrounds and bonding among coworkers.

These are just a few of the plethora of ways you can ensure your team is diverse and stays that way.

Final thoughts

The intricacies of cultural diversity are sown into the tapestry of society. It makes no sense to ignore differences when you can celebrate them. Take this chance to promote diversity, to learn and experience it, so that you can grow on a personal and professional level. But remember, that there’s more to cultural differences in the workplace than the personal benefits it brings. 

We’re talking about real people with histories that span centuries, with real lived experiences, who may experience prejudice and marginalization. Exercise empathy and consideration, and extend your support in good faith. 

Everybody benefits from a healthier workplace after all!



Kahless is a writer with a special interest in sociology. He spends much of his free time travelling, reading, writing, and stopping his cats from ripping apart everything he owns. It’s advised to bring along a strong cup of coffee (3 espresso shots minimum) when approaching him.

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