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WORKFORCE DIVERSITY ISSUES: THE ROLE OF CULTURAL
DIFFERENCES IN WORKPLACE INVESTIGATIONS
Since the average workforce is much more diverse than twenty or thirty years ago, employers need to keep their employees' cultural differences in mind when planning interviews or investigations. The term "cultural differences" in its broadest sense includes differences based not only on the familiar protected categories mentioned in laws enforced by the EEOC, but also differences based upon income, regional origins, dress code and grooming standards, music preferences, and political affiliation. Even within some ethnic or racial groups, there are perceived differences between the members based upon how long an individual has been in this country, skin tone, language ability, and religion. Interviewing techniques that seem effective with longtime residents in the United States may not be effective at all with people who come from abroad and who are not used to American cultural norms. Although learned scholars still debate differences and similarities between groups of people, there are a few general principles to keep in mind that can help interviews go more smoothly with a diverse group of people:
Approach each interviewee with an open mind - do not form an opinion before meeting and talking with the individual, but rather let the interview shape your opinion.
Put yourself in the interviewee's place - imagine yourself as an employee being faced with your own questions.
Prepare yourself before interviewing each employee on your witness or party list. If you need more information about general cultural attributes of people from certain countries or religions, research the issue (using sources such as the public library or the Internet), reviewing at least two or three different sources for each different cultural type involved.
Try to find out as much as you can about a particular culture's stance toward things such as the amount of physical space between people who are talking with each other, the amount of eye contact that is appropriate, the significance of voice inflections when asking questions, and the significance, if any, of head movements and other body language during a conversation.
Be sensitive to the role that gender can play in cultural dynamics. For instance, in some cultures, it may be inappropriate for a male interviewer to be alone in a room with a woman who is being interviewed. A general practice of always having an opposite-gender witness present would come in handy for such times. Another example might be that male employees from certain cultures might react very adversely, or may "clam up" altogether, if forced to answer pointed questions from a female interviewer. Whether it's right or wrong to have such an attitude in our country is beside the point if the goal of getting full and accurate information is not being achieved.
Remember that one can be easily deceived by generalities and stereotypes. Just as there are significant differences between the longtime citizens of your own neighborhood, town, county, and state, and between the members of your church, there are equally significant differences between the people of other countries and religions. Refer back to point 1 above.
Regardless of cultural differences, there are some constants:
Every person appreciates being treated with respect.
Even those who come from cultures noted for self-sacrifice and community thinking have a sense of self-value and appreciate being treated as individuals.
Every person appreciates feeling as if their opinion matters to you.
Everyone appreciates an opportunity to explain themselves, so be sure to allow enough time to let people "get things off their chests."
Every person from every culture understands the basic concept of fairness: that people should be treated consistently according to known rules or standards, based upon things that were within their power to control.
Every employee comes to an interview with a certain amount of trepidation and uncertainty and will appreciate whatever you can do to reassure them that they will at least be treated fairly.
Remember, while it is important to know your employees and to have basic familiarity with their backgrounds and cultures, you will mislead only yourself if you believe that you have them all figured out based upon cultural generalities. Keeping an open mind and treating people fairly based upon what they do or do not do are the keys to bridging whatever cultural gaps exist.
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