Managing a Culturally Diverse Workplace–a Balancing Act 

Mobility magazine, January 2010 

In our increasingly culturally diverse workplaces, managing human capital is a challenging organizational responsibility. With staff of varied native languages, ethnicities, and beliefs inquiring “what’s in it for me?” maintaining organizational effectiveness requires a balance between respecting cultural differences and managing expectations.

By Tacita Lewars, CHRP, GMS, GPHR 

Research demonstrates success comes to those who seek both to understand and to leverage differences while retaining a solution orientation and results focus. Sound easy? As with most undertakings, it may be easy in theory but far more challenging in practice.

The Challenge

Many culturally diverse workers are highly educated, have a great willingness to learn, and display high levels of loyalty to their employer. Many employers encourage an inclusive work environment and try to promote respect among employees. If only that were enough. It takes a deeper understanding on the part of the worker and the organization to ensure the working relationship will be successful long term.

The challenge is culture. There are 192 countries in the world, each with a culture that may be very distinct from that of even its closest neighbor. If we think in terms of the Iceberg Model developed by Dr. Gary Weaver of the American University’s Division of International Communication, 10 percent of culture is above the surface—easily identifiable and enjoyed by external participants. Surface culture includes the obvious, tangible demonstrations of culture such as food, dress, music, arts, celebration, and language. The remaining 90 percent of the iceberg is beneath the surface—deep-seated beliefs, philosophies, and behaviors engrained from early childhood. These cultural factors beneath the surface include values, time consciousness, rules of conduct, practices, notions of leadership, courtesy, sense of self, and personal space. In general, these cultural factors explain both what motivates employees who originate from various global locations, and what rewards they perceive as valuable.

For example, if an individual is from a culture that values hierarchy, he or she may have a more difficult time adjusting to North American culture that tends to have fairly flat organizational structures and open-door policies. If an individual is from a culture where society is founded on strict stability, he or she may not appreciate a pay structure wherein a component of income is based on commission or merit. Likewise, working from home might be a welcome change to a North American employee, but not to an immigrant or foreign worker who, according to their cultural orientation, would prefer consistent face-to-face interaction with their supervisor and peers.


Leading Global Teams

The challenges of managing culturally diverse teams are compounded when those teams are geographically dispersed. Employees whose native cultures are “high context” cultures in which personal relationships are important may find a geographically dispersed team especially awkward. Fortunately, valuable research has been conducted on this topic and strategies have been identified to help leaders of such teams build trust, communicate effectively, and drive performance among team members. These concepts are presented in the Worldwide ERC® online course titled “Leading Global Teams.”

Depending on the make-up of your team, two other online courses will prove helpful as well. “Working Successfully within the Multicultural Environment of Modern Europe” explores the cultural differences, both subtle and profound, that influence daily life and work within the major European cultures; provides answers to why such differences exist; and helps you to develop important tactics and strategies for managing these cultural differences both at work and in daily life.

“Working Successfully in the Multicultural Environment of Latin America” explores the cultural differences, both subtle and profound, that influence daily life and work within the major Latin American cultures, provides answers to why such differences exist, and helps you to develop important tactics and strategies for managing these cultural differences both at work and in daily life—whether you are an HR professional or service provider responsible for Latin American assignees, or a professional working on or with a multicultural Latin American team.

Although these courses were developed as part of the curriculum for recertification for the Global Mobility Specialist (GMS™) designation, anyone may enroll, and there are no prerequisites to take them.

For more information about these and other practical online courses, visit  To “click” your way to the catalogue from the Worldwide ERC® home page,, click on Training & Education, then click Global Mobility Specialist™ Designation, and finally, click Recertification Courses Catalogue.


First and foremost, organizations should develop a compass. A compass results from identifying the mission, vision, and values of the organization. From a solid foundation, it is easier to establish HR initiatives that truly support the business perspective and facilitate achievement of goals. With that focus, managing employee expectations is a cooperative discussion of alignment with the mission, vision, and values.

After developing a compass, expect to share the responsibility for making diversity work. In their book “Recruit­ing, Retaining, and Promoting Culturally Different Employees,” Don Rutherford and Dr. Lionel Laroche suggest newcomers should be responsible for making 80 percent of the adjustment while the existing employees make 20 percent of the adjustment. In other words, employees of diverse cultural backgrounds should be willing to develop an understanding of attributes for success in the North American work environment and, subsequently, make the appropriate adjustments. Like­wise, organizations should seek to leverage the experience and expertise of their diverse members. Integration training for newcomers, cross-cultural competency training for existing staff members, conflict management assistance, and English language training for those who would benefit, are ways in which this may be facilitated.

In addition, well-planned HR programs assist new employees in getting off to a great start. Thorough orientation and mentorship programs help individuals of various cultures integrate and feel at home within an organization. Flexible benefit plans allow each individual employee to find a package that suits his or her needs. Also, securing Employee Assistance Program providers who are multilingual and cross-culturally competent provide a high level of support for employees who encounter personal issues that may affect their work.

Again, this is a delicate balance. Managing human capital is increasingly complicated, especially when varying cultures are added to the equation. However, in that success comes to those organizations that seek to understand and to leverage differences, the result is well worth the effort.

Tacita Lewars, CHRP, GMS, GPHR, is global workforce specialist for Globaforce Incorporated, director for the Global Workforce Institute, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and a member of the Mobility Global Editorial Advisory Committee. She can be reached at +1 403 444 6813 or