One of the characteristics of successful organizations is the ability to bring talent from different backgrounds, encouraging the effective integration of different perspectives, values, and work styles. A key element that helps this effective integration is the ability to communicate effectively. It may seem like a simple task, but, in reality, communication can make or break a global team.

Let’s take the case of Ming (names have been changed to maintain confidentiality). This was her first job out of college. She got her master’s degree in the US as a foreign student, and, because of her excellent references given by professors, she was able to land a job at a medium-sized American company. She was the model of conscientiousness, hard work, and discipline. After all, these had been the qualities that had helped her graduate with honors.

She was originally from a country in Asia where power distance (respect for authority), indirect communication, and saving face were important nonspoken practices in the workplace. Her job as an analyst was a great start in the American work environment, and she was very eager to be successful. Her boss was very supportive, and soon Ming became her right hand. One day, Ming was getting ready for a client presentation, and she realized that she was missing some key information. She decided to send a group email to the members of another department within the company to obtain some information. She made sure to copy the VP so that she was informed of what Ming was requesting; she knew that keeping key decision-makers informed was important. 

Ten minutes after sending that email, one of the other managing directors (we will call her “Helen,” Ming’s boss’s boss) sent Ming a message, copying Ming’s boss as well. In that message, Helen asked Ming not to send any more mass emails without first asking for help with her grammar. Helen also copied the VP on that email. When Ming read this email, she felt that her career was over. She had never officially met the VP, but Ming thought she had lost face in the eyes of the VP. Ming felt ashamed, and this is something that in her culture was hard to reverse in the workplace. The next morning, Ming sent a letter of resignation to her boss. Her boss reached out to Ming trying to find out more about the incident. Her boss was very empathic and could understand the level of shame Ming was going through. The VP and Helen did not. 

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon situation. Organizations continue to invest in great employees claiming to have inclusive environments where everyone is welcome. Nevertheless, organizations need to understand that welcoming a diverse population goes beyond acknowledging a special cultural day. Organizations that demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity will have in place programs that address cultural competence in an intentional and effective way. More importantly, organizations that support diversity in the workplace need to implement strategies that help effective communication across cultures. Talent can be found everywhere. Let’s not only attract talent but keep them too, creating an inclusive organizational culture that goes beyond a nice slogan or a poster.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2018 issue of Perspectives.

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