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Cultural Competency in the Workplace

by Frank X. McCarthy


"Times they are a-changin" - Would you believe forty years have fleeted by since we first heard these haunting lyrics of Bobby Dylan?

Come gather 'round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you Is worth savin' Then you better start swimmin' Or you'll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin'

There is a lethal crisis taking place in the world today and that crisis is the relationship between the many individuals that inhabit the globe. Culture plays an intrinsic, visible role not only in the relations between nations but also between people in the workplace. Edward Hall, the author of Beyond Culture, warns, “The future depends on man’s being able to transcend the limits of individual cultures.” American organizations can no longer afford the soaring costs of prejudice, intolerance, discrimination and cultural clashes in the workplace. Corporate leaders and especially human resources leaders must understand today’s multicultural workplace. They must know how cultural differences affect communications and how to identify and anticipate cultural differences. They must acquire new skills for interviewing, communicating and managing across cultures. They must be aware of behavioral changes that facilitate respect for cultural differences. Many people believe that the next level of diversity is cultural competency. Today’s leaders must pave the way by acquiring and exercising cultural competency skills.

1. Cultural competency is about changing business systems so employees are mindful of people’s differences and can provide services and products that meet customer needs.

2. Cultural competency creates level playing fields where talents are recognized, opportunities are available, and promotions depend on performance.

3. Cultural competency is a person’s ability to work with diverse people and to manage this working relationship.

4. Cultural competency is the personal obligation and responsibility of today’s recruiters. They must know the communication differences and nuances of interviewing multicultural candidates.

How does cultural competency help an organization?

Organizations that are culturally competent have a definite competitive edge in recruiting and retaining top diversity talent. They recognize and respond to the needs of culturally diverse customers. They value differences.
Culturally competent organizations have the ability to move quickly into new and emerging markets. They have the ability to interact with a wide range of racial and ethnic groups, and work effectively within different cultures.

A welcoming and inclusive workplace appeals to the best and brightest. Cultural competent organizations welcome everyone. How skilled are you at working with people from other cultures?

A multicultural workforce is becoming the norm. It's important to be able to interact with people from other cultures and countries. In order to improve your cross-cultural skills, you need to demonstrate openness, genuineness, and integrity. Multicultural skills are acquired over time, not overnight.

Since most of us tend to avoid anything that is unfamiliar, it takes a true commitment to educate ourselves and broaden our comfort zone. Here are a few suggestions from Fernan R. Cepero, Vice President Human Resource, YMCA in Rochester, NY:

1. Make an effort to interpret and understand body language as well as words, and become conscious of your own body language and what it might be communicating. Learn to recognize when people are becoming confused or are withdrawing from a conversation.

2. Learn to dialogue, not debate. The dictionary defines "dialogue" as an open and frank discussion of ideas. It is an attempt to seek mutual understanding and harmony. A "debate" is defined as a discussion of opposing viewpoints, or an argument in which one side wins.

3. Be open to change. When working with people from other countries, remember that the "American way" isn't the only way. You may need to remind yourself that "different" is not the same as "wrong."

4. Share your ideas and yourself. Your increased awareness and openness will translate into improved interpersonal relations and a better work environment for everyone.

5. Focus on skills and qualifications, not on the way people dress or the way they talk. Look below the surface. Take the time to ask questions about cultural customs, and get to know others as individuals.

6. Get involved in social and business organizations that include culturally diverse persons.

7. Most stereotypes and prejudices are based on ignorance. Many people fear what they don't understand. When you understand more about other cultures, you can work comfortably with a wider range of people.

Frank X. McCarthy, President of Diverse Workplace Inc. ( has been doing diversity recruiting since 1973. He is Partner in Charge of Diversity Practice with The Corporate Source Group. He was a Catholic priest from 1956-70, working in parish and school assignments, serving as a paratrooper chaplain with the 101st Airborne, and as pastor and director of an African American community project in Paterson, NJ. He founded Xavier Associates and conducted diversity searches for over 25 years. Frank is a well-known and widely respected author and speaker on workplace diversity, recruiting, and candidate research. He can be reached at: