Seeing foreigners as foreign encourages co-workers to assist them: Study

But organizations must treat all employees fairly for co-workers to be willing to help each other

Whether it's a company with local and ex-pat employees, countries in need of aid, or the elderly interacting with the young, recognizing diversity can actually encourage people to help each other instead of sparking conflict, according to a new research from the University of Toronto.

Two field studies, both looking at relations between local and foreign co-workers, found local employees were most apt to share work-related and cultural information with expatriate co-workers when they perceived their co-workers as foreigners.

This effect occurred because recognizing expatriate and local differences helped locals become aware  their foreign coworkers had need for knowledge on the local culture, and that they as local employees were experts uniquely positioned to give it to them, according to Geoffrey Leonardelli and Soo Min Toh, professors of management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and authors of the study.

"The standard assumption has been that group-based differences serve as the basis for distrust, disagreement or dispute," said Leonardelli.

"However, we find that group-based differences can actually encourage cooperation across these group lines because they help to identify groups in need from groups that can give aid."

These outcomes suggest that instead of attempting to blend in to their surroundings, expatriates may find it more beneficial to let their foreign origins be known, said Leonardelli.

An important condition for such co-operation to occur is that locals need also to perceive a sense of social justice within the organization.

"Recognizing group-based differences will not be perceived as useful unless individuals feel secure within their workplace or community," said Toh. "We think that seeing authorities treat their employees fairly created that sense of security."

A sense of social justice also shifted employees' perceptions of diversity.

"Group-based differences often create an 'us versus them' mentality," said Toh. "However, we found that when employees felt that they were treated fairly by their employers, group-based differences were more likely to manifest as an 'us and them' mentality."

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