Managing a business comprised of employees from multiple different cultural backgrounds can be challenging, with considerations on both an individual and organisational level. With remote working across borders now a common feature in the post-pandemic economy, it’s important that employers take a proactive approach to managing cultural differences positively, to enhance workforce cohesion, collaboration and performance, while reducing conflict and misunderstanding.
In this guide, we explore key strategies for cross-cultural management in remote teams.
What do we mean by cross-cultural management?
Cross-cultural management refers to how management and organisation practices are influenced and improved in relation to cultural variations.
The concept of ‘culture,’ in broad terms, refers to the ideas, customs and social practices of a particular people, society or social group. The phrase ‘cross cultural’ therefore relates to two or more different cultures, or comparisons between cultures. Typically, this will encompass mainly ethnic, racial or religious differences between people in the workplace. That said, the cultural background and unique personal experiences of each employee can also be influenced by factors such as age, disability, gender reassignment, sex and sexual orientation.
Effective cross-cultural management in the workplace can bring a whole host of benefits to an organisation, from ensuring equal employment opportunities for everyone, to being able to attract and retain a rich and diverse pool of talent.
Why cross cultural management matters
At first glance, cross-cultural management may appear to be a concern of multinational employers alone. Overseas networks and branches and workforce global mobility together present a multitude of cultural issues for the multinational employer, especially when it comes to the safety and wellbeing of global assignees whilst overseas.
But organisations based in one country must still ensure the varying needs of their employees of different nationalities, ethnicities, race, religions and beliefs. Added to this, the proliferation of digital nomads and remote working from overseas, the rise of virtual teams also brings cross-cultural matters to the fore.
Being able to communicate in such a way that everybody is ‘on the same page’ can be a real challenge in the context of cross-cultural management, especially for virtual teams either working from home or in different locations. This has been a common problem for organisations post-pandemic, where the absence of face-to-face interaction can potentially compound language problems and cultural misunderstandings.
Given that remote working is likely to continue, at least for the foreseeable future, line managers and team leaders must find ways to mitigate any cultural barriers for virtual teams. Things like planning ahead, providing meeting agenda’s in advance, and inviting written ideas and contributions rather than forcing people to speak during online meetings, can all help to create a fair and inclusive environment in which everyone feels valued.
Tailored online training can also be a good way to educate your team in virtual work styles and etiquette from different cultural perspectives. This could include the appropriate use of body language, certain hand gestures and ways of greeting people so as to create a positive online environment that allows people to work together, rather than disconnect.
Legal risks to avoid
As well as cultural and performance enhancements, cross-cultural management also serves to minimise employer legal risk.
Falling foul of cross-cultural management issues can result in legal risk, not least when it comes to ensuring equality and diversity in the workplace.
In the UK, for example, employers are prohibited from discriminating against either job applicants or employees by reason of various protected characteristics, including race, religion and belief.
This essentially means that hiring and line managers must not directly discriminate against someone at work because of any cultural differences, such as refusing to recruit someone because of their ethnicity or disciplining someone because of their religious beliefs.
The employer must also ensure that any provision, criterion or practice applied in the workplace does not indirectly discriminate against a person or group of people because they possess a particular protected characteristic.
For example, it would be potentially unlawful to impose a shift pattern that excludes people who need to practice religious observance on their Sabbath day, or to require a dress code that excludes people who wear, for example, hijabs or turbans, as part of their faith — unless the rule, policy or procedure can be objectively justified.
If a person is treated unfairly at work because of cultural differences, this could amount to unlawful discrimination for which the employer could face a costly and time-consuming claim before the employment tribunal. If an employee is dismissed or selected for redundancy because of any cultural differences, this could be classed as automatically unfair dismissal for which, unlike ordinary unfair dismissal claims, there is no qualifying service requirement. The right to claim unlawful discrimination or automatically unfair dismissal because of a protected characteristic arises from day one of an individual’s employment.
Additionally, employers are under a duty to ensure a safe working environment for their staff, free from bullying and harassment. This means that all reasonable steps must be taken by employers to ensure that any person or group of people are not treated disrespectfully, or in an undignified way, because of cultural differences. As the employer is legally responsible for the actions of its’ employees during the course of their employment, any failure to prevent unlawful conduct at work could again expose the employer to a risk of a tribunal claim.
Maintaining a multicultural workforce not only gives rise to legal risks, but can present a whole host of practical problems for management personnel on a day-to-day basis.
For instance, different working styles can create a number of challenges for line managers and team leaders, where people from different backgrounds can often have a certain work ethic or approach to work dictated by their cultural upbringing. Some cultures may value individual contribution, whilst those from more hierarchical or paternalistic cultures may be less likely to volunteer their own thoughts and ideas, preferring instead to follow someone else’s lead.
Cultural attitudes towards authority can often lead to a lack of collaborative working or less vocal team members being left behind. Differences in work ethics or working styles, even though individual team members may each have their own equally valid ways of doing things, can also result in workplace conflict and even confrontation.
Equally, different ways of communicating between different people at work can give rise to workplace tensions, even if everybody is well-versed in English. This is because certain forms of colloquialism or slang can often be misinterpreted, or a person’s frame of reference may be totally different to that of co-workers, resulting in misunderstandings on both a personal and professional level. Very often, differences in communication styles or levels of understanding, where some people may not necessarily appreciate the nuances of things like sarcasm, innuendo or humour, or even swearing, can create significant friction between individuals at work.
A person’s use of body language can also create problems between co-workers, where certain hand gestures, casual physical contact or perceptions of personal space may all be viewed in a particular way. In some cases, certain behaviours may be frowned upon, have unintended meanings or be strictly contrary to someone’s social or religious practices.
Best practice guidance
The benefits of taking a proactive approach to cross cultural management can be far-reaching for an organisation.
By creating a fair and inclusive working environment, this will help to equal employment rights and opportunities for everyone, regardless of cultural differences. This should cover all aspects of the employment process, from recruitment through to performance management, together with opportunities for training, transfer, promotion and career progression.
The ability to foster a working environment in which employees from different backgrounds successfully interact and come together, treating each other with respect and dignity, will also result in improved working relationships, increased levels of employee engagement and reduced staff turnover rates. This, in turn, will help to promote a positive employer brand in which the organisation will be able to attract and retain a rich and diverse pool of talent.
A cross-cultural workforce can offer tremendous value to businesses of all origins and sizes, provided, of course, any cross-cultural differences are managed effectively.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to cross-cultural management. Much will depend on the nature of the organisation, the size of the workforce and the range of different backgrounds that make up a cross-cultural team. The key is often in understanding where any cultural differences lie, acknowledging and respecting those differences where needed, whilst finding ways to unify a team to work together towards a common goal.
There are various different ways in which a cross-cultural team can be successfully managed.
Implement a cross cultural policy
It’s important for employers to provide a clear commitment to promote equal employment opportunities for people from all cultural backgrounds, and to prevent discrimination and harassment because of cultural differences. A written policy can help to communicate this ethos to employees and job applicants, and reinforce the need for co-workers to treat each other with respect and dignity.
Create a cross cultural awareness programme
Many employers will already be accustomed to the need to provide training on equality and diversity in the workplace. However, specific training on cultural perspectives, including the customs and traditions practised by people from different cultural backgrounds, can help to provide greater insight and understanding into the social behaviours and beliefs of others. To create a genuinely inclusive workplace, everyone needs to fully understand and be sensitive to cultural differences.
Foster a safe and inclusive working environment
There are various ways in which the workplace or a particular team can be made to feel more inclusive. This could be through ensuring that everyone has a voice in meetings, the use of team-building activities, and even the introduction of a calendar in which cultural differences are not only accepted but actively embraced. This can help to create positive working relationships and reduce the incidence of conflict between those of different ethnicities, race, religions or beliefs.
Introduce cultural conflict resolution procedures
Where conflict arises as a result of cultural differences, there must be appropriate procedures in place to effectively deal with this. If potential issues of discrimination or harassment have arisen where, for example, someone has been treated unfairly because of their race or religion, the use of formal grievance and disciplinary procedures may be needed. However, in many cases, conflict arising as a result of simple cultural misunderstandings can be resolved informally. Often a chat with the person or people responsible, to provide them with a better contextual understanding of their behaviour, will lead to an agreement that the behaviour will cease.
Use one-to-ones to get to know everyone
Even though workplace policies and procedures are key to creating a fair and inclusive workplace, the importance of one-to-ones cannot be underestimated. By getting to know the unique story of each employee or team member, this will enable line managers and team leaders to gain greater insight into individual differences. It will also provide an opportunity to leverage those differences to bring out the best capabilities in a culturally diverse team. Very often, diversity will result in creativity and innovation, where cross-cultural teams should be seen as an asset, not a liability.
As specialist global mobility consultants, we can support your organisation in achieving strategic agility and robust compliance across your multinational talent mobility programme. For expert advice, contact us.
Last updated: 1 March 2022