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Cultural diversity in the workplace: benefits, challenges and tips

Published on Business stage: Scaling, Starting, Unlocking

When we talk of diversity in the workplace, it can be easy to think of it as something of a tick-box exercise – one showing that different races and genders are all getting fair access to opportunity. It is, of course, important to ensure that this is the case, but diversity extends into a far broader range of areas and, crucially, delivers a number of benefits to businesses that are often overlooked.

Among the “types” of diversity to be considered are things like neurology (variations in the brain), age, socioeconomic background, education, mental and physical ability, personality and culture. Indeed, such importance does the UN place on diversity that it promotes it with its own internal day.

The World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development is celebrated today (May 21st) and is aimed at promoting, through awareness and action, the importance of cultural diversity. It is underpinned by the UN’s belief that “cultural diversity is a driving force of development, not only with respect to economic growth, but also as a means of leading a more fulfilling intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life.”

These may sound like issues for the individual, but they are all factors that contribute to morale and productivity within businesses. Indeed, the benefits of cultural diversity are varied and significant.

Benefits

Perhaps most significantly of all, diverse teams have been shown to improve business performance. As explained by the Harvard Business Review, homogeneous teams feel easier to work within, but that is actually bad for performance. While diverse team may feel more difficult to work within through fewer commonalities, they actually produce better results, as a result of varied viewpoints.

It goes without saying that people with different cultural backgrounds can offer different perspectives, but the impact of this goes beyond more fruitful round-the-table discussions. Studies have shown that it improves creativity and innovation within organisations. It’s not only simply case that more perspectives breed more ideas, but that individual with more intercultural experience are more creative as a result.

Cultivating an environment in which individuals feel welcome and accepted is by no means necessarily an easy task. It is shown to be made easier, though, when there are a variety of different cultural backgrounds represented. Naturally, individuals of any given culture will feel that there’s a place for them to a greater extent if they can see that their culture is represented, but, more broadly, a culturally diverse workforce shows a more general sense of inclusion. As a result, we see improved recruitment, employee retention and workforce morale.

In a similar way, greater cultural diversity within a workforce increases the understanding of customers (or other stakeholders for that matter). This is not just down to individual employees sharing a cultural connection with a customer, but also a greater depth of cultural knowledge across the organisation.

Challenges

Of course, as well as providing benefits, culturally diverse workplaces can present some issues that must be carefully managed too. As we touched on earlier, teams with individuals from multiple different cultural backgrounds can feel more difficult to work within, despite typically being more productive. This needs to be recognised, accommodated and accounted for.

Different cultures also often have different expectations for things like workplace and professional etiquette, as well as different tendencies or preferences for the extent to which they may feel comfortable working with others and contributing.

Perhaps most seriously, there is the potential for conflicting cultural norms, beliefs or stereotypes to be brought into the workplace. Ensuring that there is no prejudice or discrimination between cultures within a workplace is, naturally, critical.

Tips

There are a number of things that can be done to help culturally diverse teams flourish:

  • Recognise diversity: Ensuring that people aware of both the benefits and potential challenges involved with culturally diverse teams and that an organisation is committed to making it work provides a solid foundation from which to build.
  • Provide guidelines: Make clear exactly what the organisation expects from all individuals, what is acceptable as what is not.
  • Train in communication: Give employees the tools and methods to communicate effectively with each other and with the organisation.

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