How to Develop Cultural Awareness in the Workplace

Illustration People Interacting Different Cultures

In today’s multicultural world, it is 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 – that is also rare in the modern-day environment.

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

Public and private organisations understand that they need to improve and become more aware and adept of cultures, an important initiative to cultivate teamwork and establish an incredible reputation.

Is your firm ready to make this giant leap forward?

What is cultural awareness?

Depending on where you live and work, you might meet several different cultures in one day or perhaps even none at all. Either way, being aware of the diverse array of cultures is crucial in today’s highly globalised world. So, what exactly is cultural awareness?

Cultural awareness is simply being aware of the many different cultures around you, whether it is in the workplace or at school. Being culturally aware is the backbone of 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 moulded 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, behavioural patterns and values that have been moulded 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 is important to be culturally aware – internally and externally.

In the office environment, you will 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 behaviours, perceptions and interactions.

For leaders, this is a paramount task.

By leading with understanding and empathy, you are 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 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 will find your communication is far more effective, and it also enhances your interpersonal skills.

Tips for developing cultural awareness

Now that you understand what cultural awareness is and why it is important in the workplace, you can begin to integrate it into your life – professionally and personally. But there are several common practices you can employ to help you become aware of different cultures and how they might play a role in the office.

Here are four tips for developing cultural awareness.

1. Start learning

No, we’re not talking about mandatory corporate classes on cultural sensitivity. They are 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, travelling to exotic locations.

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

2. 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 is a vicious cycle! This way, you do not have a preconceived notion of how a person from particular backgrounds 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. With a little bit of self-awareness and a strategy of ‘think before I speak’, you do not need to worry of slipping up.

Put simply:

  • everyone with an Irish background is not drunk
  • not all white people are white supremacists
  • the new Muslim hire is not a terrorist
  • most Australians did not have a dingo eat their baby.

3. 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 country X 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 does not 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!

4. 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 enrol 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 organisational efforts or as part of your personal enrichment, only works when it is a voluntary decision, not something pressured by the state or by special interest groups.

Common scenarios

So, how can a business approach the subject? Indeed, 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 you could do.

1. Religious holidays

Although Christmas has transformed into a secular event, it is 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. This could lead to a serious dispute and tarnish your company’s reputation.

2. Workplace attire

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

Ultimately, everyone should adapt to the culture of the place they live, but a company can still afford some latitude when it comes to colours, textures, skin exposure and religious garments.

3. Office parties

Office parties have metastasised into litigious hazards for businesses, which is why so many companies are ditching them, something that could be welcomed by most workers. To ensure that your office party goes off without any hitch, be sure to mindful of other cultures when it comes to food and drink.

An employee 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.

It is said that diversity is our strength. If this neoteric adage is correct, then your business 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. Since a company – large or small – is one big happy family, you want to ensure that everyone is welcome, included and satisfied. This is the corporate culture you want to embrace and promote.

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


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 4 December 2014.