Cultural identity and diversity in the workplace demands leaders to view it as an advantage not an obstacle, per Dr. Vic, TEP.Global, expert in people & culture

Cultural Identity in the Workplace

Cultural Identity in the Workplace

By Dr. Vic | Apr 15th, 2024 | Employee engagement, HR consulting, Management consulting, Organizational development, People management, | 0 Comments

Embracing cultural identity for an inclusive and diverse workplace requires proactive leadership, education, and long term social integration activities.

As the corporate workforce is getting diverse, with people from all continents and ethnic backgrounds working together, to approach cultural identity related issues requires education, understanding, respect, and sensitivity.

Different cultures have different assumptions and mindsets

People growing up in different cultures have different assumptions, mental associations, habits, and mindsets. For example, some cultures assume bargaining as a natural and necessary way of daily buying and selling (“Your price is set high for me to bargain it down”), while other cultures do not involve bargaining in every sale (“This is my price, take it or leave it”.)

Some cultures have more strict hierarchical order, and people have deference to, even reverence for the elderly, while other cultures have less respect for older people.  

As technology is bringing our global village closer, and as the US is getting to be more multicultural, our workforce consists of people from different cultural backgrounds, with diverse and rich cultural heritages and different customs and values. How to prepare everyone in an organization in order to create workplace harmony, enhance productivity and employee satisfaction, and to minimize discord, bias, discrimination, isolation, even hostility?

How to approach cultural diversity and cultural identity issues in the workplace? 

The book “Managing Cultural Diversity in Small and Medium-Sized Organizations” by Torsten M. Kühlmann and Ramona Heinz, (2017), as quoted in “Cultural Differences in the Workplace” (emphases added), listed the following:

  • Cultural diversity management needs a long-term approach. It is an ongoing process of regular evaluation, monitoring, and adjustment. Top management must lead, promote, and support it.
  • The entire workforce needs to be involved to create a positive climate of diversity.
  • Cultural diversity management is a matter of equal opportunities and social integration for all, it must be presented as an advantage, not an impediment. 

Education leads to understanding and respect

To create a harmonious and inclusive environment at work, education about different cultures and customs is key.

Through cultural education, people will learn appropriate ways to interact with colleagues with different cultural, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. For example, people at work can learn why it is inappropriate to say “Happy Yum Kippur”, while it is completely fine to wish “Happy Hanukkah!” (Since Yom Kippur is a spiritual high holiday of atoning for one’s sins before God, it is better to say to Jewish colleagues at work “Blessed Yom Kippur ”, or “Have an easy fast”. While Hanukkah is the beginning of a Jewish New Year, wishing a Happy Hanukkah is OK, per this article from the Seattle Times.

Another example: For people observing Ramadan, “Ramadan Mubarak” meaning “Blessed Ramadan,” or “Ramadan Kareem”, which means “Generous Ramadan”, are used for wishing someone a generous and fulfilling month of Ramadan. (Different countries practicing Islam have varied ways of greeting during Ramadan, according to this article.)

More important than teaching social etiquette is educating the workforce to develop an open mind and curiosity about different cultures, which will decrease ignorance, fear, xenophobia, stereotyping, discrimination, and hostility. 

Education leads people to have more respect for minority co workers within an organization. 

It is up to individuals to talk about their cultures and ethnicities 

It is hard to know if the motivation is curiosity or judgment, when someone asks a personal question like “where are you from?”  Those being questioned can easily feel that they are being judged, categorized, and singled out.  Instead, try to get to know the person first, by striking up a conversation.  If you don’t know the person well enough, and you are curious about his/her country of origin, instead of a blunt “where do you come from?”, a less affronting way may be: “Do you speak another language?” 

According to this article, “Cultural expression should be voluntary. Minority employees should not be forced to explain their cultural backgrounds for other people’s benefit. Rather, people from minority backgrounds should open up in their own time and in ways that help them feel more authentic or connected.“  The same article, “How to Bring Your Cultural Identity to Work”, continued that “When cultural minority employees talk about their race, ethnicity, or nationality in meaningful ways with colleagues, it can lead to more inclusivity,” according to new research from Wharton’s Rachel Arnett.

Create a safe environment for people to be themselves by leading with vulnerability

If leaders are open about themselves and their own ethnicities and cultural backgrounds – “majority” or “minority” – and lead with vulnerability by sharing some personal details, that will encourage people in the workplace to feel safe to share about themselves, their cultures, which relieves the fear of being judged or discriminated against.

Organizations who value diversity can show their mindfulness about different ethnic holidays and cultural events, such as lunar new year festivities for East Asians, Ramadan fasting for Muslims, Diwali celebration for Indians, and Yom Kippur as the most solemn Jewish high holiday… to make everyone feel understood, respected, and cherished. 

In addition to education, perhaps companies can have a “Culture Diversity Celebration Day”, or summer company picnic, where people can voluntarily bring their own cultural dishes to share, and/or wear their cultural outfits. Make sure such an event is all inclusive, open to all cultural backgrounds.

“By sharing culturally relevant information, minority employees may be able to debunk or reframe stereotypes held by majority colleagues.” “[W]hen those workers engage in rich and meaningful conversations about their backgrounds, it can make their majority colleagues more — not less — likely to include them at work.” “[W]hen minority colleagues share, they increase the majority group’s learning.” Supra.

“The simplest and biggest takeaway is that differences don’t need to be a source of division and stigma,” said Rachel Arnett of her study titled “Uniting Through Difference: Rich Cultural-identity Expression as a Conduit to Inclusion.” Supra.


TEP.Global not only has a combined 100 years of experience and expertise in people management, talent acquisition, executive assessment, but also deep knowledge in cultural diversity in organizations of all sizes.  For more information and insights, please contact us

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