How to Develop Cultural Awareness in the Workplace

No matter where you work, cultural awareness is a crucial part of international communication.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

How to develop cultural awareness in the workplace

In today’s multicultural world, it’s more than likely that your office will employ individuals with unique backgrounds that may be foreign to the place the business is situated.

The company may have a senior vice president who is Greek, a college intern from South Korea and an accounting clerk whose family originates from El Salvador. Heck, there might be a quality control supervisor who is eighth-generation American or British.

Because diversity is becoming more prevalent around the world, it’s important to be culturally aware and sensitive, though the latter might be a bit harder to adopt.

Both public and private organizations understand that they need to improve and become more aware and adept of cultures. Are you ready to adapt and become more culturally aware yourself?

What is cultural awareness?

Cultural awareness is simply being aware of the many different cultures around you, whether it’s in the workplace or at school. Being culturally aware is the backbone of workplace communication and the foundation of respect, which is achieved by taking a step back and understanding that someone might have a different point of view because of their background.

Moreover, you can also do some introspection and become aware of your own culture and how it has shaped and molded you into the person you are today. Whether you bleed red, white and blue in the US or your lineage dates back to hundreds of years ago in Southeast Asia, you can fully understand your attitudes, beliefs, behavioral patterns and values that have been molded by your background.

This might be one of the many steps that are more difficult to take than being aware of others’ culture.

At the same time, being culturally sensitive can complement this awareness. Cultural sensitivity is essentially being cognitive of these differences and then knowing how to behave upon interaction.

The importance of being culturally aware

But you might be wondering why it’s important to be culturally aware — internally and externally.

In an office environment, you’ll inevitably come across all sorts of people possessing diverse backgrounds. It may or may not clash with the values your company maintains. That said, being culturally aware is crucial, because it might help you understand how someone’s background plays an immense and important role in the formation of their own personality, including behaviors, perceptions and interactions.

For leaders, this is a paramount task. By leading with understanding and empathy, you’re creating a more homogenous, inclusive and cooperative environment, which may foster innovation and boost productivity levels than being judgmental. This is in stark contrast to others who might be biased — an attitude that could quash teamwork, breed despair and ignite declining employee morale.

Remember: cross-cultural communication might be one of the different ways in avoiding misunderstandings. Both sides — the employee and the employer; the supervisor and the subordinate; the senior clerk and the intern — can do a better job of considering culture when working alongside others. In the end, you’ll find your communication is far more effective, and it also enhances your interpersonal skills.

Steps to developing cultural awareness

We’ve established what cultural awareness is and why it’s important, but now it’s time for the practical part: how exactly to develop and implement this in your workplace. Here’s how:

Step 1: Know why you want to be culturally aware

Everyone has their own motivations for being more culturally aware and sensitive — understanding why is crucial.

You might enroll in an intercultural communication class in college because you want a school credit. Or you could sign up for continuing education courses in this area to improve your business qualifications and get promoted to another part of the globe. Or you may just want to be more familiar with other languages, religions, family structures and beliefs.

Attempting to increase cultural awareness — either as part of organizational efforts or as part of your personal enrichment — only works when it’s a voluntary decision, not something pressured by the state or by special interest groups.

Step 2: Start learning

No, we’re not talking about mandatory corporate classes on cultural sensitivity. They’re inauthentic and disingenuous.

But what you can do instead is throw yourself into different cultures. This might consist of attending more cultural festivals and events, getting to know new people with unique backgrounds and, if you can afford it, traveling to exotic locations.

What better way to become aware of different cultures than by becoming personally acquainted?

Step 3: Ditch the assumptions

Let’s face it: we all have assumptions of certain cultures, and every culture has a stereotypical view of other cultures that might be racist. It’s a vicious cycle!

But you need to rid of any assumptions you might have. This way, you don’t have a preconceived notion of how someone from a particular background is supposed to behave, or think that someone of a specific religious denomination will condemn your lifestyle.

Indeed, it might be difficult, and it could make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells during impromptu and casual water cooler talk. But with a little bit of self-awareness and a strategy of “think before I speak”, you don’t need to worry about slipping up.

Step 4: Understand your own culture

It’s time to take what you observed from other cultures and turn inward to notice your own. After all, in order to better understand people of different cultural backgrounds, you must first understand what aspects of your culture shape who you are and how you act.

For example, if someone says they don’t like your favorite food joint, you may be a little biased to them moving forward, but if someone struggles with the democracy of your nation, it might strike a chord with you that you didn’t know was there. That’s part of your culture: it’s the reason you’re able to be here right now, and you take pride in it!

But you’ve got to take the time to figure out those cultural things that make you act and respond the way you do in order to be similarly sensitive to other cultures.

Step 5: Understand and review policies and guidelines

Your company may have established policies and guidelines that ethically focus on cultural diversity in the workplace in an effort to develop cultural awareness; take the time to understand and review them accordingly.

You may personally just be finding out the positives and negatives of your own cultural influence and aren’t sure how to bridge that gap yet; these policies and guidelines could will help. Or perhaps you may understand yourself but have no idea how to be respectful to those who don’t share the same opinions; again, utilize the guidelines and company policies to be successful as you navigate this in the workplace.

Step 6: Attend trainings

As an employee, you should take the time to educate yourself on the policies surrounding cultural diversity in the workplace, and sometimes the best way to do that is to attend the company-offered trainings. Let’s face it: reading over the policy and rereading the handbook a million times, no matter how great it is, it just won’t stick without these trainings. Workplace trainings can help give you a real-time look into the other culture, allowing you to appreciate those who are different than yourself.

These trainings can cover intercultural communication skills, marketing in different parts of the world, and even business etiquette in different cultures. You can learn from a cultural sensitivity expert that your organization may enlist to come in, therefore making the trainings powerful and fun. Don’t overlook the trainings; employers are working hard to make these engaging for their employees, so give them a chance!

Step 7: Recognize diversity in your schedule

When you’re reviewing your schedule given to you by your boss, it may be frustrating to see that every Saturday one specific employee has off for the entire month. Hey, wait a minute — that’s not fair!

Tapping into that cultural awareness will help you see the other side and recognize that the colleague in question may have religious holidays that month, and your manager has scheduled them accordingly. How great to work for an organization that prioritizes this for their employees!

Step 8: Communicate

Whether you’re just starting out developing cultural awareness, or if you’re helping with the company culture awareness revamp, communication and transparency are critical. It’s important to open the doors of communication, should colleagues want to share their thoughts and experiences in the workplace with regard to their culture; be there to listen.

Your employer may have scheduled meetings or anonymous channels for employees to go to share their feedback on discrimination, prejudice, bias, or intolerance regarding cultural sensitivity; utilize those resources. Ensure that as an employee, you’re accessing every avenue to feel heard, and encouraging effective communication with each colleague too. Communication is the key to any great change — keep it open and transparent among your team mates, and cultural awareness will follow!

Step 9: Celebrate cultures and diversity

Diversity is a wonderful thing to have as an employee within your organization, so take some time to celebrate it!

Maybe your employer put up a map in the common room and has encouraged all employees to put a pin for the country, state or city they most identify with. Or maybe there’s a work social at a restaurant that serves food from a different culture. Whatever the case, make sure to participate (including virtual events).

Celebrate the different cultures within your organization loudly, be proud of who you are and the culture that shapes you, and celebrate that at every turn!

Step 10: Treat others as individuals

In today’s environment, it can be easy to fit everyone into a neat little package. Someone of this faith must be the same as another person who shares the same religion. Or a person from a particular country must act the same as another individual from the same country. This is not how life is.

So, moving forward, do your best to treat others as individuals rather than a group. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity they are, what god they worship, what politics they possess, or what instant coffee brand they consume. We are not monolithic beings!

Common scenarios

There are many common scenarios that happen daily that could serve as good examples of how to develop cultural awareness. Let’s examine some of these instances, and what could happen to encourage this awareness in your workplace:

1. Religious holidays

Although Christmas has transformed into a secular event, it’s still technically a religious event that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. That said, if your office is welcoming the holiday with decorations, salutations and presents, you might need to be mindful of those who do not worship Christ or celebrate Christmas, and be sensitive to them as you're celebrating.

2. Workplace attire

Formal business attire and business casual are universal in the workplace. No matter where you go in the world, it’s expected that men and women dress professionally. But how you wear your suits and skirts may be subjective. For example, in Italy, the quality of your clothing is paramount, while businesspeople in the UAE may think dressing too casually is disrespectful.

Ultimately, everyone should adapt to the culture of the place they live, but your company may choose to offer some latitude as to the colors, textures, skin exposure and religious garments. Appreciate this and be understanding, as the workplace attire may differ slightly from culture to culture within your organization.

3. Office parties

Office parties have metastasized into litigious hazards for businesses, which is why so many companies are ditching them — something that could be welcomed by most workers. If your employer does have an office party, ensure it goes off without any hitch by being mindful of other cultures, particularly when it comes to the food and drink served.

A colleague with an East Indian heritage may be a vegetarian. Or an Orthodox Jew might only imbibe alcohol during religious ceremonies and not as personal enjoyment.

Final thoughts

It’s said that diversity is our strength. If this neoteric adage is correct, then you should celebrate all this diversity, from the South African founder to the Chinese investor to the Swedish marketer.

The way to champion your diversity is to develop cultural awareness and understand the differences in attitudes, beliefs, ethics and values. This is the corporate culture you want to embrace and be a part of as an employee.

Do you have anything you’d like to add? Join the conversation down below and let us know your thoughts.


Originally published on December 4, 2014. Updated by Shalie Reich.