How to Improve Cultural Awareness in the Workplace

How to Improve Cultural Awareness in the Workplace

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all get along and respect each other because we are different and unique?  We spend so much time with colleagues at work and our interpersonal relationships play a vital role in our level of stress, productivity, and overall happiness.  Canada is a diverse and multicultural nation, attracting people from all around the world to settle, obtain citizenship and join the workforce.  Organizations have policies in place to embrace diversity and inclusion which benefits employees and organizations, and in general, just makes good sense. It’s unfortunate, but HR is often faced with having to deal with interpersonal conflicts and these are often triggered by a lack of understanding of social and cultural differences. Strategies to help educate everyone in your organization about cultural etiquette and customs, along with language training and cross-cultural communication skills development can be critical for employee success and workplace satisfaction.

Tips to improve Cultural Awareness

Provide Diversity & Inclusion training: One of my favourite workshops that I facilitated was Mutual Respect in the Workplace.  The attendees would usually be a cross-section of diverse cultures so that they could have the opportunity learn and appreciate cultural differences.  It was important to let employees know that the company values everyone’s diversity and realizes each person’s potential.  The participants needed to identify all the elements of diversity and we would typically come up with 15-20 categories.  The total list of topics defined under diversity would initially come as a surprise to staff, and it was encouraging to see the attendees trying to make sense of why and how everyone was so different.  We discussed our individual differences, and it was enlightening to learn about traditional food, celebrations, and customs.

When we include people from different backgrounds to learn about each other, it allows them to feel comfortable sharing and applying their various viewpoints at work.  One can take this training one step further by reminding everyone about the company’s discrimination and harassment policy and the importance of respecting cultural differences.

Build a Diverse Team:  Culturally diverse teams collectively bring a variety of skills, experience and different perspectives which can improve problem solving and lead to a more engaged and innovative team. Companies need creative and original ideas to stay ahead of the competition and hiring a culturally diverse workforce can help you do just that.  Different perspectives keep our professional lives vibrant and our conversations fun and interesting.

Offer support to learn English: It would be beneficial to provide guidance to staff on how to communicate effectively by offering to pay for English communication classes.  It’s unfortunate that many immigrants come to Canada without the opportunity to improve their English skills and although many are highly educated, the difficulties related to communication challenges undermine their transition into the local workforce.  We’ve all seen employees nod their head and say they understand when they’ve been given a work task or learning a new skill but depending on the industry, there may be some technical terms that are foreign to the worker.  It’s important to take this into consideration and use simple language to start as well as ask the employee to repeat the instruction and to reach out at any point if they need further clarification. Formal communication and language programs can help dramatically. The resultant impact on overall confidence enabled by easier and more effective communication will be a benefit to both the employee and the organization.

Promote a culture of active listening: Active listening includes responses that confirm the listener is understanding what is being communicated and demonstrates interest and comprehension. This is beneficial for all forms of communication but can be even more important in the workplace where communication styles and skills can be wide ranging and different.  A culture of active listening can encourage patience and respect in all forms of communication as the communicator will often feel safe and valued as a result. It can also help prevent misunderstandings or false assumptions and improve effectiveness.

Practice time zone awareness: In a globally diverse organization, it’s common to work with colleagues and clients based across many different time zones.  It’s important that your organization be aware of and respect business hours, lunch hours, and local holidays.  Encourage scheduling of meetings and calls when as convenient as possible for everyone and demonstrate understanding and appreciation when inconveniences are inevitable.  Unfortunate impositions should be avoided and not assumed. Encourage the appropriate use of ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ etc. and the use of online time zone tools can help everyone keep track when multiple time zones are interacting. Mindfulness and respect of time zone differences can help build stronger relationships between employees and with foreign customers while also developing cultural awareness in the workplace.

Celebrate traditional holidays:  Including traditional holidays in your regular office celebrations goes a long way in promoting cultural awareness in the workplace. It certainly helps to improve awareness and fosters cross-cultural communication which will lead to improved relationships. One successful and often popular approach is to have a potluck encouraging employees to bring in their favourite traditional dish.  The company can top up the meal by providing fruit, beverages and even 2-3 traditional foods.  Don’t forget the decorations!  There are many low-cost decorations that can jazz up any event! The invite can include interesting facts about the holiday which helps employees understand the historical significance and is a great way to foster inclusivity and trigger cultural learning.

Put your company core values into practice:  A strong corporate culture creates a foundation that puts people first.  The values of the company are not only written down but also put into practice each day.  Good habits start from the top and employees will become aware of consistently demonstrated values by the organization’s leadership and this will become a foundation for trust and respect. These values define how the organization, and its team members operate and behave.  A company’s unique mission and core set of values also has a significant impact on consumers’ choices.

It’s important to remind employees to pay attention to cultural differences and to practice good manners.  Encouraging cultural awareness will not only improve internal relationships but will help employees work more effectively with customers by communicating clearly and minimizing mistakes.  Promoting cultural training and awareness should be ongoing and a priority for any organization to foster a climate of mutual respect and understanding. It is important for an organization’s leader to make sure that all employees know how important they are to the organization and that their differences are appreciated and respected.

If you need help to build cultural awareness and literacy within your workplace, contact Bridge Legal and HR Solutions for practical guidance and support – (647) 794-5442 or at

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