How to Assess Cultural Competence, Awareness, and Sensitivity Within Your Workplace

Companies that value diversity and inclusion tend to make better hires, work more productively in teams, and reach financial goals more easily.

However, getting those business benefits isn’t as easy as switching up your recruitment sources to focus on increasing the numbers of certain marginalized groups.

A diverse workforce is only one step toward what should be the final goal: a culturally competent workforce. Cultural competence refers to a deeper understanding of how various cultural differences affect all of our identities, work styles and relationships.

You’ll know that your organization is at least partially culturally competent when your employees can work together effectively across all kinds of cultural groups.

Companies and organizations take a variety of approaches in their attempts at cultural competence in the workplace but are making the mistake of focusing only on sensitivity or awareness.

Defining Cultural Competence

Before we discuss what it means to be culturally competent, let’s talk about what “culture” is, exactly.

This helpful guide from The Community Toolbox defines culture as “the shared traditions, beliefs, customs, history, folklore, and institutions of a group of people.” And, as the guide points out, culture is shared by people of the same ethnicity, language, nationality, or religion. Culture defines the rules and expectations about what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not within any group.

Culture can be also shared by the people in any community, large or small, ethnic or otherwise. That includes businesses and organizations, which are responsible for establishing cultures of their own. In fact, as we’ll discuss, it’s your organization’s own culture that will pave the way for your workers’ cultural competence.

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Cultural competence, then, describes a deep and thorough understanding of the importance of cultural identity and how it affects our working relationships. To be considered culturally competent, your staff should be aware of their own cultural identities and be able to respect the cultural differences of everyone around them (in particular, the people they work with).

We like the way the National Education Association sums it up: “Cultural competence is the ability to understand the within-group differences that make each student unique, while celebrating the between-group variations that make our country a tapestry.”

Business Benefits of Cultural Competence in the Workplace

Cultural competence is particularly important in lines of work that require direct and constant interaction with the public, such as health care or education. In these fields, the ability to appreciate the value of culture is directly responsible for successful outcomes.

However, in business settings, where the focus is generally on technical skills and the ability of the entire group to meet financial goals, cultural competency is still very valuable. It helps teams work together more productively. It also helps them better understand and communicate with customers and partners. Culturally competent companies can do things like branch into new territories and markets more easily than companies without culturally competent workforces.

Beware of “Cultural Sensitivity Training” in the Workplace

Many businesses are now understanding that cultural knowledge is important.

However, too many people and organizations make the mistake of thinking that this education should focus on the details of specific cultures — particularly, the details of cultures the company has prioritized working with.

Of course, general cultural differences certainly exist. It doesn’t hurt to know some facts about other cultures – examples of cultural sensitivity in the workplace includes holidays, primary languages, etc. However, if your goal is a culturally competent workforce, you’ll need to do much more than sit your staff down and explain how “other people” do things. Here’s why:

Increased Legal Risk

When you approach cultural education as a lesson on how an entire group of people behaves, you’re almost certainly going to stereotype that group in some way.

Stereotypes make it uncomfortable for people in those groups to work for you, which hurts your organization as a whole. They may also have the potential to get your company in serious legal trouble.

If employees point to the stereotypes in this training as contributing to a hostile work environment or constituting harassment in some way, you’ll have a big problem on your hands.

Reinforced Power Dynamic

Susana Rinderle eloquently explained in this Workforce column why a lot of cultural sensitivity training creates a harmful “we” vs. “them” mentality:

“Typically it carries an unspoken, even unconscious racial tone — a belief that white people need to be more sensitive to people of color, or to a particular racial or ethnic group. It reinforces a perceived or real power imbalance — a notion that the solution to a problem is that I be more sensitive to you. This implies that you are fragile and need to be handled gently so you don’t break. It also implies that the success of our relationship is entirely my responsibility — perhaps because you are incapable of being a full adult or equal partner.”
[bctt tweet=”The onus for cultural competency should lie with every single member of your organization, not just certain groups.” username=””]

Lack of Actionable Takeaways

The wrong kind of cultural training focuses completely on the awareness component of diversity. It stops short of giving any useful information on how to use that new awareness to act in more inclusive ways.

Any diversity training program — or any employee training program, in general — absolutely needs to focus on actionable takeaways. It should also give employees a chance to practice using their new information.

At ELI, we call this live training our “flight simulator.” All employees get a chance to react in real time to tricky situations in a safe space. That way, when they have to react in real life, they’re more likely to be ready.

Establishing a Welcoming Culture

Wondering where your organization falls on the cultural competence scale?

Assessment tools do exist (just look at the National Center for Cultural Competence for some examples). They can be helpful if you are working in people-focused industries like healthcare and education.

However, we think there’s a better (and simpler) barometer of your company’s cultural competence. How comfortable do your employees feel speaking about their culture? How comfortable would they be pointing out something that offended them or made them feel uncomfortable at work?

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At ELI, we believe that the best approach to cultural competence is to establish a welcoming workplace culture. At every level of your company, workers need to know that they’re going to be respected and listened to. We call this a civil treatment workplace.

In a civil treatment workplace, leaders demonstrate values like respect and listening (even when presented with bad news), and they need to hold the rest of their staff accountable to do the same.

To learn more about cultural competence in the workplace or to talk to someone on the ELI team about our award-winning process for creating these civil treatment workplaces, please contact us or request a demo today.

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