Supporting a multicultural workplace in times of war

||Last Updated: 09/04/2003

Canadian workplaces have become increasingly diverse over the years. The different experiences and expressions of trauma and fear surrounding the war in Iraq and tension around the world will be apparent in a multicultural society and workplace.

This could be a cause for misunderstandings and misgivings. With this in mind, FGI, a Toronto-based EAP consulting firm, has prepared advice on how to support a multicultural workforce during times of conflict.

In times of great emotion, people resort to the comfort of their earliest and deepest cultural and ethnic values. For example, a person who has strayed from religious practices may gravitate towards the solace and support within their place of worship and start attending services again.

Impact on the individual

During a military conflict, many employees may experience heightened emotions. As a result, some might:

•Seek a sense of belonging and connection to share their concerns and to give and receive support.

•Revert to their mother tongue as it is the language of their emotions.

•Seek guidance around cultural and historical values on dealing with fear and anger.

•Return to past (personal or community) experiences that were similarly traumatic, such as triggering experiences of political or ethnic violence in their own country.

•Return to past (personal or community) experience is search of guidance on how to handle the current events.

This may express itself in the following ways:

•Different use of the spoken word. In many cultures, the spoken word is not used as the main tool of communication. When there is a mismatch in communication, the person who expresses verbally may feel they are not being heard and the person who does not use spoken language to process may feel overwhelmed and embarrassed by the verbal disclosures of the other.

•Different expressions in non-verbal communication. The cultural norms range from no display of emotions to a cultural acceptance of greatly overt and public expression of emotions. The person who does not show emotion may be seen as cold and indifferent while the person expressing emotion publicly may be seen as exaggerating and wanting attention.

•Different rituals are perceived to be appropriate and comforting. People may choose to remember loss or to celebrate life.

•Different expressions of the inability to cope. As an individual becomes depressed, this may not be recognized since he may express depression through anger or has a value system that does not allow personal feelings to be visible in the workplace.

When cultures clash, there may be polarization between groups which leads to strong “us and them” thinking. Some groups may feel invalidated (for example, Americans way from home may find their host culture is not sympathetic or understanding of their values), some may feel they are not allowed to talk about what current world events means to them, and some may feel threatened and unsafe as anger and intolerance rises.

How managers can help

Managers working with multicultural staff will be challenged to educate themselves and their staff and to model tolerance and inclusiveness. In seeking to support staff in these troubled times, consider:

•Proactively acknowledging the impact of war-related events.

•Proactively acknowledging that the events will have unique meaning to different individuals and communities.

•Consulting with staff on how to support cultural differences in relation to the impact of the war.

•Reinforcing the message of cultural respect, inclusiveness and zero tolerance regarding harassment, political aggression or inappropriateness in the workplace.

•Without singling out any individual or group, where possible, consider the impact of current global events on different cultures when scheduling meetings and designing team initiatives.

Source: FGI

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