Cultural Competence & Diversity Management

In this article Adeeco talks to TRIEC’s Rose DeVerya  about steps Canadian employers can take to transform their organization’s culture and talent management practices in ways that work across cultural differences.

As touched on in our April 7, 2013 article, “The Power of Workplace Diversity“, despite being one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Canada still presents significant obstacles to those who are not of the longstanding western European, particularly British, heritage that characterized the country for much of its history.

Such cultural prejudices prevent organizations from having diversity in the workplace, which means they can’t take advantage of the benefits that come with it, such as appealing to more demographics in what is obviously an increasingly cosmopolitan marketplace. But what about when a new immigrant is hired, particularly one who’s from a very different culture? Are they over the largest hurdle? Or do they face even higher ones once they’ve entered the Canadian workforce?

According to Rose De Veyra, Manager of Learning Initiatives at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), a multi-stakeholder council that brings leaders together to create and champion solutions to better integrate skilled immigrants in the Toronto Region labour market, there are concrete steps Canadian employers can take to transform their organization’s culture and talent management practices in ways that work across cultural differences. Ultimately, this would enable them to make the most of what true diversity in the workplace has to offer.

Diversity management and management styles

Many people see jobs as stepping stones within a career. Each new position is an opportunity to gain experience, grow one’s skillset, and move on to a new role of higher authority. Unfortunately, for many new immigrants, the gap between that first and second stepping stone can be too wide to surmount, particularly because of differing, culturally driven ideas about what makes a good leader.

“What we in Canada perceive to be the behaviours of a leader might not be what a new immigrant’s behaviour demonstrates”, says De Veyra. Studies have shown that while some personality traits and management styles are perceived positively in one culture, they may be perceived negatively in another. “For instance, while we might appreciate humility in our leaders in Canada, in some cultures, humility might not be perceived as a desirable trait for a leader because the expectation is for the leader to be a stronger, more out there personality.”

Cultural competence starts with communication – about communication

There are many culture-based discrepancies in the Canadian workplace about what constitutes an effective leader: while those born and raised in Canada may view a supervisor who provides a lot of detail and direction in their instructions as intrusive and distrustful (a “micromanager”), people from other cultures may simply see that supervisor as being thorough; while some Canadians may view an overtly passionate leader as lacking a cool head, new immigrants may see that same leader as resolute and rousing.

Most troubling about these differing ideas of what makes an effective leader is how they can impede many immigrants’ potential to climb the corporate ladder. According to De Veyra, leadership styles are demonstrated through different communication styles, which are themselves heavily influenced by cultural norms. “Communication style is one very visible way that culture becomes evident in the workplace”, she says. “How you correct your peers; how you answer a peer’s question; who asks questions and who doesn’t ask questions: these are all elements of performance within a workplace that every employee is expected to understand. But they’re often not defined.” De Veyra points out that employees who intuitively understand those undefined expectations, by virtue of being more familiar with Canadian corporate culture, have an easier time being promoted. For example, those who question various practices and speak up are often seen as contributing to continuous improvement, thereby exhibiting leadership potential.

But there may be new immigrants on the same team who, as De Veyra notes, “are very knowledgeable, but would never speak up, would never challenge an instruction, would never ask a question because in their culture, that would be disrespectful. Because they’re not the boss, it’s not their place to question what they’re told to do.” This respect, however, is often mistakenly perceived by Canadian employers as a lack of understanding or concern. “If you look at a lot of the postings for more senior positions,” continues De Veyra, “communication skills are valued because your ability to build teams hinges on your ability to communicate; your ability to cultivate relationships also relies on being a powerful communicator. But communication styles and preferences are culturally driven – they’re shaped by culture. If the employee shares similar expectations and norms with their supervisor, then there’s no issue. But if the person evaluating the employee’s performance doesn’t see what fits with their cultural norms and expectations, the employee misses out on the opportunity to be identified as high-potential.”

Diversity management strategies to promote cultural competence

Unless diversity in the workplace also includes diversity in the upper echelons, the benefits that cultural diversity can bring to an organization are much harder to realize. So the question is: How can Canadian employers overcome their own cultural biases and provide new immigrants better opportunities for promotion – especially when they’re often not even aware that they’re being biased? De Veyra suggests two types of strategies: process or policy strategies and interpersonal strategies.

  • Process/policy strategies
    According to De Veyra, the most powerful factor in affecting the development of cultural competence in the workplace is education, particularly when it comes to surfacing some of the unspoken expectations around performance and making them transparent. For instance, when communications skills are cited on a performance appraisal, they should include examples so that employees can better understand what kind of behaviour is expected of them. De Veyra says that such learning needs to be part of the employee’s development plan and should be part of a robust orientation/onboarding program. “The more an individual understands not just what needs to be done, but also how it’s expected to be done”, says De Veyra, “the more equitable opportunities there will be for people to move up into leadership roles.”
  • Interpersonal strategies
    Diversity management should not be purely institutional; supervisors also need to take an active, firsthand approach to teaching new immigrant employees about Canadian corporate cultural norms. De Veyra recalls how a supervisor she once worked for on a very multicultural team took notice of how some new immigrant employees didn’t make morning small talk because they came from cultures where it was normal to work straight through the day without any sort of socializing. Such reticence, of course, would impede those employees’ ability to get promoted. So, to help acclimatize them to the Canadian workforce, De Veyra’s former supervisor set aside time during regular team meetings for everyone to share what terms like “hardworking” and “respect” meant to them. They would also talk about one interesting thing with the rest of the group. “You could talk about your family, your work, something you wanted to learn about, or something you experienced,” says De Veyra. “By promoting that openness and providing opportunities for that kind of communication to happen, he provided an example in action of how the employees in question can interact with their peers and supervisors.”

As effective as these strategies are, De Veyra stresses that they take time to affect change. “It’s unrealistic to expect that just because you said something, a change will happen,” she says. “I think that through different strategies, like assigning an onboarding buddy, providing feedback and coaching as part of performance evaluations, the change will happen eventually. Change in any way, but particularly with cultural norms, takes a long time. Cultures are often compared to icebergs: they move extremely slowly, but when two of them collide, they start to shape each other.” That mutual change is one of the reasons De Veyra suggests organizations educate not only new immigrant employees about the corporate culture they’re coming into, but also longstanding employees about the social norms of the country their new teammates are coming from.

However, De Veyra warns against placing too much emphasis on country culture when trying to teach people about newly-hired new immigrants. “To say all people of a certain culture are like this or like that is risky because it leads to stereotypes,” she says, and that point only underlines people’s unfortunate tendency to judge. “Human nature is to jump to judgment when you’re faced with an unexpected situation, such as those that arise with culture shock. It’s human nature. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just a response. But the key is to condition your response. Identify what’s problematic for you about what you’re seeing. That will open up the kinds of conversations employers need to have, particularly with regard to things that might fall within the realm of human rights, such as an individual’s need for accommodations.”

To access free learning and development tools to help you build cultural competency in your organization, visit the TRIEC Campus.

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