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Understanding the diversity issues that can interrupt working relationships, such as differences in communication styles or business etiquette, helps employees and organizational leaders diminish the impact of these issues or avoid them altogether. Through learning, respect and building common ground, good relationships can be developed between colleagues of different upbringings and cultures.
Verbal and non-verbal communication can be an issue in cross-cultural workplace relationships. For example, even a foreign-born colleague fluent in the English language can misunderstand English words because of regional accents, dialects, slang or speech impediments. Non-verbal communication such as how a person sits or uses eye contact also can be misinterpreted between colleagues of different cultures unless colleagues can learn about each other’s specific communication styles.
Racial and cultural resentments can be toxic issues in the workplace. For example, insensitive comments or assumptions about someone based on a stereotype can hurt a working relationship or get you in trouble, even if done naively or through just kidding around. Part of the American culture is to be outspoken and assertive, which are useful traits until what we say and how we say it to a colleague comes off as offensive. How colleagues of different cultures or sub-cultures dress, wear their hair, greet people or carry themselves can also be confusing or spark unfair judgment in a workplace.
Religious differences can be a deeply personal diversity issue among co-workers. Talking about religion in a workplace or business setting can cross ethical or legal lines. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from many forms of religious discrimination or harassment by employers and co-workers. Still, religious differences need to be understood even in seemingly benign interactions such as a colleague refusing your drink offer after work because his religion forbids consuming alcohol. Respecting colleagues’ religious beliefs, especially when they’re different from yours, can help you avoid awkward or negative conflicts and improve working relations.
Cultures can differ widely on ways to interact with authority figures at work. For example, cultural influences can compel a foreign-born employee to respect his boss’s ideas and choices without question. To the manager who expects challenges and feedback from employees, the submissive behavior can be interpreted as if the worker is too passive or disengaged. Issues also can arise from cultural differences regarding decision-making, learning, disclosing information, resolving conflict or completing tasks, according to Marcelle E. DuPraw and Marya Axner of the National Institute for Dispute Resolution.
Even respect shown in seemingly small ways can build trust despite diversity issues. For example, learning how to say a colleague’s foreign name correctly or how to say “good morning” or “thank you” in a person’s native language shows respect. Such effort shows appreciation for foreign colleagues and the challenges they go through in learning new languages and adapting to new ways. Temporarily setting aside your own beliefs, assumptions and judgments in order to see through others’ cultural lenses can help you overcome diversity issues with colleagues.
A writer since 1995, Christian Fisher is an author specializing in personal empowerment and professional success. From 2000 to 2005, he wrote true stories of human triumph for "Woman's World" magazine. Since 2004, he has also helped launch businesses including a music licensing company and a music school.
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