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Cultural difference has become much more than a nice-to-have coincidence. Many industries are under pressure to innovate, and diversity is one of the major factors contributing to innovation at work. Companies big and small are looking to diversify their workforce, so that they can stay updated with the increasingly globalized consumers. Being able to leverage cultural differences to build an inclusive workplace, so that you can attract and retain more diverse talent, comes as a strength for ambitious companies.

Read on to learn the different types of cultural differences in the workplace, and how to manage them effectively.

Examples of Cultural Differences in the Workplace

Generational differences

Age gap is likely the most common cultural difference in a typical workplace, especially if your company is homogenous in any other way. The age gaps between your employees often divide them into different social groups. However, keep in mind that some are young at heart, and some are older than their age. Managing generational differences involves offering a range of benefits and compensations. 

In 2023, Baby Boomers are approaching their retirement, or they are retirees who return to work for various reasons. They possess rich professional and life experiences; they likely hold senior or leadership positions, having worked for your company for several decades. Moreover, they are looking to protect their nest eggs – their retirement funds – and they emphasize generous healthcare packages.

Gen X and Millenials are the rising stars of your company, having attained executive positions recently, or priming to be the next leadership. They tend to be at the peak of their performance, and generally expect attractive benefits and compensations that match their rising profiles. Moreover, they are raising young families, so childcare support and family-oriented benefits would be attractive to them. They also expect plenty of opportunities to flex their professional muscles, take on high-profile challenges, and expand their horizons.

Gen Zs are the young 20-something who have just started their career. They tend to hold a distinctive worldview that prioritizes equality, inclusion, diversity, and environmental protection. If they personally do not believe in such a worldview, they are still under peer pressure to at least pay some lip service to it. They are most likely to campaign for greater social changes, get involved in social activism, and to be very informed about certain social issues. They are the most likely to form groups to make demands. You can reasonably expect explosive creativity and innovation from them, but less likely conformity.

Dealing with Gen Z employees requires authenticity. Do as you say. If your company has a much older gene – meaning, it operates according to Boomers’ culture rather than Gen Z culture – then maybe create a well-defined space for Gen Z employees to hold their discussions. They are usually the most tech-savvy, so if you are much older, try to lean into their distinctive culture. After all, they are addressing overdue changes, and they are actively shaping what the world is going to be like when you retire. 

Ethnic differences

Companies in developed economies worldwide are seeing an increase in ethnic differences in their workforce. This is a natural result of the globalized world, as well as a testament to the attractive opportunities that companies like yours can offer to global talent.

It is likely that your company has an ethnic majority and several minorities. The ethnicity of the leadership has a lot of sway over the company’s culture, even if that  leadership is an ethnic minority. Especially in a community that is not very diverse, a leader with a minority background sends a strong message and attracts employees of the same background, because the candidates feel empowered by such a leader.

Ethnic differences, and the accompanying religious differences, permeate all sorts of interactions between coworkers. Examples are as follows.

Communication styles

Some ethnicities encourage straightforward questions and answers with direct eye contact, while some others tend to give suggestions and avoid eye contact unless the relationships are close. Be sensitive to how they manage disagreements, different opinions, and deadlines. If you notice an employee is not following the norms, before jumping to any judgment, have a respectful talk with the individual to see if any cultural reason is involved. 

Social hierarchy

Some cultures put great respect on seniority, either by age or by professional rank. Addressing someone by first name or surname and a title often diverges between cultures; the same goes for gestures of respect, personal space, and physical touching.

While it is necessary to establish norms for your company culture, you should also respect the minority employees’ individual expressions. They are just trying to fit in while staying true to their cultural upbringing.

Religious differences

Religious differences often manifest in holiday observances. Many Western countries celebrate Christmas, while billions of other people celebrate Lunar New Year, Holi, Ramadan, or other new year celebrations. Religious festivals also carry meanings of cultural heritage and family gatherings, with distinctive food, drinks, dresses, and customs. 

Speaking of clothing, some religions have dress codes, such as the turbans for Sikh men, and the hijab for Muslim women. This may clash with your company’s uniform, or the common fashion expected in your industry. Having a clear diversity and inclusion policy in place will help you show respect, tolerance, and inclusion for religious minority employees.

Educational differences 

Educational differences are much more prevalent in developing economies which see many young people travelling overseas for tertiary education, and then returning home to work. These employees may clash with employees who have received a domestic education, in terms of family wealth, worldviews, life experiences, and cultural orientation.

While these employees may speak the same language, they have different ways of thinking and professional approaches that may clash. Overseas educated employees may scorn the ‘domestic’ way, or they may feel restricted by local conditions, as their education has been tailored to a different market. Domestically educated employees may resent the other for their opportunities and likely arrogance, but they may hold limited perspectives and outdated methods that do not blend well with the demands of the global market. Therefore, finding ways for the two types of employees to work together would actually complement their strengths and weaknesses.

How to Work With Different Cultures in the Workplace   

Having a diversity and inclusion policy lies at the core of managing cultural differences in the workplace. Consider the following tips to build a thorough policy that earns your company a good reputation for diversity.

Facilitate cross-cultural exchanges

It is normal for your majority employees to be unaware of the cultural differences, because employees from minority backgrounds often try their best to fit in and downplay their distinctiveness in order to build rapport with coworkers.

Therefore, try to avoid putting your minority employees on the spot by asking them to talk about their cultural differences in front of a group (unless, of course, they volunteer to do so). Instead, facilitate casual cross-cultural exchanges where everyone is encouraged to share something about their heritage, family, or upbringing.

In this way, your staff learn about each other without anyone feeling singled out for their differences. To make them feel belonged, prepare some gentle questions to prompt them to share more, or to explain seemingly strange aspects of their background. Often cultural differences among your staff come down to an issue of perspectives, rather than insurmountable barriers.

Make it clear that this is a safe space, and watch out for any disrespectful behaviors by a staff against someone of a different cultural background, particularly when the offense touches upon certain sensitive topics. Maybe the offenders are socially conditioned to feel that way about a cultural difference, so try not to make the offense into something more serious than just a misunderstanding. Give the clashing staff some space to have a personal one-to-one talk, with you as a referee.

Conduct diversity training

Mandate diversity training for customer-facing staff, those who work across departments, and those in supervising positions. This is especially important for people from the majority cultural background in your community, but even someone from a minority background is not exempt from it. Being a minority may make them more sensitive to cultural differences, but not necessarily adept at dealing with them.

Diversity training includes components such as:

  • Implicit bias training: becoming aware of, and managing common biases and stereotypes.
  • Sensitivity training: how to communicate in a way that does not offend people of different cultures
  • Understanding of how your company has attracted people from different cultures, and how to leverage this as a strength 
  • Raise awareness of current social issues and justice that your minority employees are facing in the wider community

You may consider hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert to do an audit and map out a strategy for your company. Spending effort to account for the cultural differences is worthwhile to build an inclusive workplace for all employees.

Improve emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage the emotions of yourself and others. This is not suppressing emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging and dealing with emotions with conscious effort and practice.

Emotional intelligence can be learned. It is a valuable skill that goes beyond raising the cultural sensitivity of your workplace – it can turn a tolerable workplace into a supportive, growth-oriented one.

With emotional intelligence, even if your staff do not undergo much diversity training, they can still work out ways to deal with cultural differences with grace. This is because, cultural differences are just one among many differences that make us humans, and emotional intelligence enables us to work well with people. Therefore, you may think of this as killing two birds with one stone. Implementing emotional intelligence training improves your staff’s overal competency in overcoming all people-related challenges, not just cultural differences.  

Leverage Cultural Differences to Build an Inclusive Workplace

Companies in both developed and emerging economies are hiring a more and more diverse workforce. This is a natural result of an increasingly connected world, especially the post-pandemic rise in immigration and work-related travels. Therefore, cultural differences are becoming a salient issue in most companies, and your staff need to move with the changing world. Cultural differences are just one among many differences among us. Having an inclusive diversity policy in place, aided with thorough training, and a healthy dose of emotional intelligence, you are well equipped to lead your people in dealing with a wonderfully diverse workforce.

Hieu's avatar
Hieu Nguyen
Technical/Content Writer
Hieu is a content writer who loves to learn and share interesting ideas about human resources.
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