Harvard Business School Working Knowledg e Archive

Seven Ways to Better Communicate in Today's Diverse Workplace - Seven Tips for Communicating In Today's Diverse Workplace

2/3/2003
Your employees may come from nations all around the world. The challenge: Ensure that their contributions aren't buried under language and cultural differences. Here are seven tips for improving communication.

David Cane is a manager at a U.S.-based scientific publishing house. Recently, when he needed to hire three new programmers, he ended up filling the slots with people who were born and educated in China.

The new programmers had the right skill sets, but Cane was concerned about how they would fit in at the company. So he set about devising ways to ensure that cultural differences—and the communications problems that can follow from them—didn't get in the way.

One of the first steps he took was to use reflective listening around business objectives and goals.

"I have implemented a policy where any projects that I assign should be reverse-specified by the assignee, meaning that they will write specifications for the assignment and we will review these together before the actual project is embarked upon," he explains. "In this way, everyone is clear what the requirements are and what the results should be."

This is but one example of steps managers are taking today to get the best out of a diverse group of employees. Immigrants have always been an important part of the U.S. workforce, and their contribution is growing. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise that is invaluable to businesses.

The challenge is to ensure that communication problems don't keep these sources of business benefit from being tapped effectively. Here are seven steps managers can take to meet that challenge.

1. Learn how the source culture best receives communications. Deborah Valentine, of the Management Communication Department at Emory University's Goizueta Business School in Atlanta, advises managers to analyze their audience to find the best way to communicate a message.

"Different cultures like to receive information—and trust information they receive from different sources—in different ways," she says.

Different cultures like to receive information —and trust information they receive from different sources—in different ways.
—Deborah Valentine, Emory University

People from some cultures don't trust information that comes directly from a manager, for example, preferring that the word comes instead from a leader of the employee group, a headman, or shop foreman.

Some workers don't feel comfortable being singled out for praise in front of the entire employee group—a typical way to dish out praise in the U.S. For these workers, quiet praise in a private office is much preferred.

2. Train international employees early and often. Many of the pitfalls of misunderstanding and cultural confusion can be prevented with early and ongoing training.

"It's very important that incoming employees be taught in orientation sessions and in ongoing training what the company's expectations are, that they be acculturated to the way that company does things," Valentine says.

Henry Miller, an executive search consultant with the Philadelphia office of Heidrick & Struggles International, points out that many misconceptions about conduct in the workplace can be avoided by ensuring that rules are defined and observed even during the interview process.

"It is also important to state with no ambiguity the policies and procedures adhered to in the U.S.," he says. "Addressing this area prior to coming on board will avoid pain on both sides later. Accepting some cultural nuances is important, but be careful not to adversely affect your existing culture by 'customizing' what is acceptable or appropriate behavior by individuals."

3. Train the non-foreign-born, too. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has training programs to ensure that its employees not only understand the mission of the company, but also the significance of diversity, both within the workplace and among clients.

"We train people to get into the shoes and the mindset of the person opposite them," says James Lowry, vice president and director of diversity at BCG. "The biggest mistake people make is to look at issues only through their eyes. There are major and minor cultural differences, and we cannot be effective in our area of business if we don't understand them and embrace them."

Managers also need to be taught that there is an acculturation process and should understand how that may affect employees. "Managers must be aware that immigrants go through stages of culture shock," Valentine says. "A manager who is not aware that a person is going through these stages is not as well prepared as he or she needs to be."

As someone who has gone through the acculturation process himself, having moved from Australia to the U.S. several years ago, Cane agrees.

"Employers need to understand that culture shock is real, and while there is little one can do, just evidence of understanding will help," he says. "It is not easy being placed in a foreign culture and being removed from the support network that you're used to. Anything that an employer can do, such as being very flexible with time off and being willing to provide 'local' information and contacts, will help build a good relationship with the employee as well as minimizing the stress that the employee is subjected to."

4. Assign mentors and take care of the spouses. Managers need to understand the important role they play in helping a new employee become an important contributor, no matter what her country of origin.

But the issue is especially important for foreign workers with different cultural expectations.

"As consultants in leadership issues," Miller says, "the best advice we could provide is to take two approaches. Firstly, assign a mentor in the business operation, preferably a well-respected person from the department who can assist in helping ease integration. Secondly, if a spouse or family is involved in the move, become involved in making them feel comfortable with the change."

We train people to get into the shoes and the mindset of the person opposite them.
—James Lowry, Boston Consulting Group

Recent figures suggest that a failed expatriation can cost a company as much as $1 million and that 44 percent of expatriations fail because the spouse has been unable to adjust.

Effective mentoring can be critical. Valentine says, "Using peer groups, with one experienced employee mentoring a new employee from a different cultural background, will enable a person from a background unused to going to a manager to turn to the peer counselor to help mediate a situation."

Lowry has helped implement mentoring programs throughout BCG. "We try to mentor people of all backgrounds on the way we conduct studies and the way we look at and analyze issues," he says. "In addition, every professional has someone who guides them in the culture and in their professional skill development, and we have an evaluation process that parallels that. Our younger professionals are assigned a sponsor manager, who mentors and coaches that person in a way that will make them effective."

Coca-Cola is another company that has put a formal, one-on-one mentoring program in place.

"We wanted to create the best and most desirable working environment for our employees," says Dwight Williams, media relations manager at Coca-Cola. "This program can help promote employee satisfaction and development by forming one-on-one relationships that facilitate networking, coaching, counseling, and career and life lessons. It's a win-win for our employees and our organization."

5. Practice open-door communication—carefully. Keep in mind that employees unused to U.S. business practices may be reluctant to go to the head of their department for advice or guidance.

"The idea of the open door is so foreign to about three-fourths of the cultures of the world that it doesn't even translate," Valentine says. "And the downside is that sometimes the manager, by encouraging an employee from a different culture to talk directly to them, is seen as weak."

The option here may be to use an intermediary.

"Many times if you are dealing with a group and you're trying to get feedback, one idea is to use an elected representative who is empowered to report problems and suggestions to the department head," Valentine suggests.

Keep in mind that the best way to bridge the communication gap is to set a good example, says Miller. "Do not wait for them to come through the open door, go to them. Ask them about their concerns and questions. Nothing is more credible than setting the example. An open door goes both ways."

6. In company-wide communications, avoid jargon and slang. Employees from outside the U.S. may have difficulty understanding company communication that uses U.S. jargon and slang, as well as any number of culture-specific idioms.

"U.S. business is driven by sport and war metaphors because the rules of business tended, for years, to mirror the rules of engagement," comments Valentine, who, with Sherron B. Kenton, coauthored the book CrossTalk: Communicating in a Multicultural Workplace. "Using metaphors may be problematic with people from other cultures, even English-speaking employees, since they don't necessarily use the same metaphors."

Others with experience in the field agree.

"Slang and colloquialism are definite challenges in all areas of communication," Miller says. "I had a U.S. client who had been waiting for a signed acceptance letter from a candidate in the U.K. The U.S. client had expected to receive the fax the previous day and had left instructions and numbers via voice mail for the candidate. The candidate called me and said everything was fine, but he had a disturbing message from the U.S. client talking about needing a 'John Hancock' in order to formalize the relocation package. The confused candidate did not know any John Hancock and asked how John fit into the process.

"In the end, we obtained a signature and all was well."

Cane says, "When communicating with my Chinese staff, I am very careful to keep my spoken and written language very simple, avoiding jargon and colloquialisms at all costs. I learnt very early on that using such language was met by polite smiles and a look that said, 'I have no idea what you mean.'"

7. Play by the rules and stick to business. Finally, the best way to create an environment that people of all cultures and ethnicities can participate in is to ensure that the company's mission and goals are communicated clearly and that the workplace is driven by business requirements rather than personal preferences, says R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., a writer of many books on diversity, including Building a House for Diversity, and president and founder of The American Institute for Managing Diversity in Atlanta.

"It is important that managers and the people within the mixture make decisions that are not based on personal preferences, traditions, or conveniences, but rather on what is the mission and vision, and what are the requirements necessary for achieving that mission and vision," he says.

"Consistency of message from the top of the organization is important to avoid conflicting agendas," Miller points out. "At the local leadership level, a manager must determine the best way to communicate, which means knowing the team, seeing through the integration, and understanding their concerns personally and professionally."

Building a productive workplace with employees from many backgrounds can enrich a company on many different levels—but it's not a process one can take for granted. "Ethnic and cultural diversity can…enrich our lives if we are open to the possibilities of reaching out and learning new ways of communicating," the authors of CrossTalk write.

The bottom line? Diversity makes good business sense in today's globalized world.

Says BCG's Lowry, "We have to understand different markets and we have to have people of diverse backgrounds to understand those markets. So you're better off, from a strictly business perspective, to get a mix in your workforce.

Reprinted with permission from "Seven Ways to Better Communicate in Today's Diverse Workplace," Harvard Management Communication Letter, November 2002.

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