With today’s global economy and the growing ethnic and racial diversity found throughout the country, multicultural workplaces are becoming the norm for many employers. Though diversity in the workplace is a positive thing, it can also present unique challenges to employers in terms of language barriers, cultural differences, discomfort among minority groups and tension due to changing dynamics. Addressing these issues takes a proactive and sometimes creative approach, to support a positive working environment for all employees.

Understanding Your Culture

In order to ensure that your workplace is a welcoming environment for all employees, you need to keep an open mind, learn about your employees and avoid over-generalizing:

  • Understand that diversity exists. When gathering information about the ethnic and cultural makeup of their organization, many employers are surprised to learn the number of identifiable culture groups and subgroups within their company. Each of these groups may gather and process information differently, and may have different needs and expectations from their employer.
  • Learn about different employee groups. Research the various cultures and ethnicities represented in your company to gain a better understanding about each group. Also keep in mind that gender can be a minority depending on the makeup of your population. However, the best source of information is the employees themselves—ask them about their values, preferred communication methods and how your workplace could better fit their needs.
  • Don’t generalize. While it is true that certain characteristics or preferences can be common among a gender, ethnicity or racial group, you should never assume that all employees of one “group” feel the same. It is important to learn about broad cultural differences, but always think of employees as individuals with unique feelings and needs.

Improve the Way You Communicate

Employers often make mistakes when communicating with bilingual employees without even realizing it. You may assume that since your workers have an English vocabulary sufficient for them to function on a daily basis that communicating everything in English is adequate. However, for many workers English is a second language, and they still feel more comfortable communicating in their native tongue. This is especially true when it comes to safety rules, company policies, HR forms and other essential and/or confusing information.

One way to solve this problem is to use bilingual forms of communication—whether written or spoken—when providing health and safety information to your bilingual employees. Also, be sure to invest in federal and state compliance posters in the language in which your employees are fluent.

Encourage Acceptance

Just as important as the relationship between  and its employees is the relationship employees have with each other. When companies shift from a mostly homogeneous workforce to a more diverse one, some employees struggle with the change. This may be due to underlying prejudices, discomfort or unfamiliarity with other ethnic groups, or displeasure with changing policies and procedures. In order for everyone to have a comfortable and pleasant working environment, you need to address these issues.

Create company-wide nondiscriminatory policies, and distribute them to all employees. It should be emphasized that the company is committed to a diverse, inclusive workforce, and that any sort of prejudiced or discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated. You may also want to implement mentoring or shadowing programs to help new employees feel welcome and help all employees feel comfortable with others in the workplace.

Also consider implementing diversity training or learning seminars for all employees to open their minds to other cultures and raise their self-awareness. Open or semi-directed dialogues among employees can also be useful for breaking down barriers, fostering respect and understanding, and helping employees feel comfortable despite their differences. Planning company social events, including picnics, outings, parties and clubs can also be beneficial in bringing employees together and providing laid-back opportunities to get to know each other.

The Role of Managers and Supervisors

Managers and supervisors should be trained on communicating effectively with workers of other cultural and ethnic backgrounds.  Not only do they play an important role in verbally communicating information, but some of their non-verbal actions can also have a big impact.

Managers should be careful to always have the same attitude toward all employees, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. Any difference in mood or attitude, whether real or perceived, can make a minority group feel isolated or unimportant. This is even more of a risk if a minority employee needs extra help or is confused by something—the manager must be careful not to seem irritated or impatient. Such a situation causes a few problems. In the future, non-English speaking employees may be afraid to ask safety questions out of fear of further agitating an impatient or already aggravated supervisor. Plus, the company becomes vulnerable for a discrimination lawsuit if the employee feels he or she is being treated differently because of their minority status.

For managers and supervisors, it is best to follow these four tips:

  1. Treat all employees equally, despite any language barriers.
  2. Don’t make patronizing comments about a specific group of employees, even if you think they are complimentary. Not only will this insult the employees those comments are aimed at, but it can also open the door to discrimination lawsuits.
  3. Don't overcompensate any specific group of employees, with the belief that the extra money will alleviate any communication barriers. This type of activity will ultimately end up alienating other members of the workforce and is a very discriminatory practice.
  4. Be patient with workers who may have a hard time understanding the English language, or who struggle to adapt to certain communication methods or working styles.

Hiring Practices

If you are the leader of an organization with a diverse workforce, you might consider hiring managers with multicultural management expertise and recruiting employees that have also had exposure to multicultural work settings.

If you’ve already noticed cultural conflict within your organization, you might want to consider hiring a culture change consultant. These consultants focus on solving multicultural management problems. The most successful consultants have programs that extend over a period of weeks or months to guide management in understanding the diversity of culture in today's workforce. While some of these programs can be expensive, the long-term rewards will be well worth the cost. Remember to check references, and try to attend a few seminars to determine which consultant's approach will fit best with your company.

A Simple Approach

While there are many resources available that can help employers develop, promote and value a multi-ethnic, multicultural workforce, it really all comes down to four simple actions:

  1. Work to understand all your employees and their unique needs, so that the workplace is comfortable and accessible for everyone.
  2. Promote open and honest communication within the company between employers and employees.
  3. Encourage acceptance and respect among all employees.
  4. Establish a commitment from top management to promote and support diversity and equal opportunity as a core value of the organization.