Training in a diverse environment

Culture affects knowledge, understanding and behaviour

At one of my training sessions, I looked around and noticed nearly everyone was making eye contact, nodding, leaning forward — all indications they were engaged in what I was saying. But one gentleman was leaning back in his chair, arms folded and eyes closed. I feared I had lost him.

Later on, I learned that in his culture he was paying me a compliment. By blocking his other senses — eyes closed, hands folded — he was more open to my words.

Assumptions about an audience are easy to make based on past experience. But these assumptions can get a trainer in trouble and affect the success or failure of training. The Canadian workforce is made up of employees from many different cultures and ethnicities, all with different training expectations and experiences.

Adult educators know individuals have preferred learning styles. Individuals learn better and faster when the context is familiar or tied directly to what they do. Trainers should keep in mind the people in front of them may speak English as a second language or dialect, come from countries with different training styles and expectations, not respond in the same way as others in the group or be uncomfortable asking questions because trainers are seen as experts and, therefore, authority figures.

Diversity’s role in training misunderstood

What a person already knows and values about learning is largely influenced by his culture. But, unfortunately, too many trainers don’t understand the impact diversity has on training and learning.

For example, a small manufacturing plant needed to complete workplace hazardous materials information system (WHMIS) training. There were 200 employees, with 76 different first languages. A trainer was hired to facilitate the training but only 55 per cent of employees passed the multiple-choice test that measured understanding.

Workplaces in other parts of the world may not have valued health and safety as Canada does through its legislation and training. So not only does a trainer have to help employees understand the training but also help them understand its importance in the Canadian work environment.

As another example, a call-centre employee from a country that values very direct language may need extra training to learn how to soften her communication style.

Training language

Trainers have a communication style that is unique to them. When working with a diverse training group, language may also affect understanding. The obvious issue is how well they understand and interpret the English they are hearing. But the choice of words used by a trainer may well have a negative affect on learning.

“Take the ball and run with it” is a common expression, but it’s heavily biased to those familiar with North American idioms based on sports references. A trainer needs to avoid idioms, slang and cliches as much as possible when training in a diverse environment.

Sports idioms may not be understood by many individuals. Metaphors used to illustrate a theme may be culturally referenced to Canada and misunderstood by others. Here are a few useful strategies for communicating with a diverse audience:

Use clear language. If you find yourself using an idiom, repeat the sentence without the idiom.

Use handouts for people to take away. Individuals may be uncomfortable asking for clarification or their English reading skills may be stronger than their listening skills if English is not their first language, so handouts are a welcome alternative.

Avoid pop culture references. Age, gender, ethnicity, language as well as personal interests may affect understanding.

Resist the jokes. Humour as a training tool may not be a wise choice when training in a diverse environment. While every cultural group expresses themselves using humour, humour is often culturally biased and the point may be missed.

Use clear slides and language. If using slides, ensure each slide has a lot of white space and few points. Handouts should follow clear language guidelines.

Trainers expect to be able to read their audiences using cues such as body language, tone of voice and gestures. In a diverse environment, the cues may be unfamiliar or the trainer’s perception may not relate to an individual’s intent.

For example, in Canada, a nod means agreement, a shake of the head means disagreement, but in some cultures a nod can mean no.

In another example, a trainer was thrown off his delivery because most of the IT employees avoided making eye contact. He asked the company liaison what the problem was. Were people forced to be there? The answer surprised him. The IT people shared a culture where not making eye contact was a sign of respect. The trainees viewed the trainer as having power and therefore deserving of their respect.

Training etiquette

One trainer had an established routine. As each individual entered the training room, she extended her hand for a firm shake as she introduced herself. She was extremely angry when one man refused to shake her hand. She was offended, assuming he didn’t like female trainers and was dismissing her expertise.

What was really going on? The religious rules he lived by forbade him to touch or be touched by a woman who was not a relative. The personal etiquette of one group may not always meet the expectations of another.

Assessing the learning

Trainers have tried-and-true methods that assess what participants have learned. Not all methods are appropriate in a diverse environment. Not all individuals have experience answering multiple-choice questions.

Some individuals may not have experience completing matching questions. In both of these situations, an explanation and an example would be useful.

Judith Bond is a member of the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) and principal of Workplace Training & Services in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected].

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