Seven reasons why we need multicultural employees in the workplace

Globalisation has brought increased levels of interconnection and cultural exchange among people from around the world. This in turn has led to a growing number of people who have grown up with a multicultural identity. Examples include people with a mixed-race background, an immigrant background or people that have spent their formative years living outside their passport or country that they were born in – otherwise known as ‘third culture kids’. This type of background can bring personal challenges in terms of identity and sense of belonging but also brings huge benefits – both for the individual but also for their future employer. Our question today is why hire someone with a multicultural identity?

There have been many case studies and reports that demonstrate how poor communication within business teams and between professionals can lead to poor organisational performance. Understanding the impact of linguistic and cultural differences on communication, knowing how to navigate between cultures and being able to harness cultural diversity is vital for global organisations. They first need to maximise their internal communication with and between their employees and then ensure that they can communicate effectively with their international and multicultural customers.

Communication that is based on cultural understanding is more apt to prevent misunderstandings caused by personal biases and prejudices

- Matthews and Thakkar

As we become more connected worldwide, cross-cultural communication skills have become crucial. Organisations that have the right people and the right skill set to communicate successfully with diverse suppliers, customers and colleagues have a competitive advantage because they can influence effectively, interpret underlying messages and build more sustainable relationships. Cross-cultural communication skills help to prevent or avoid misunderstandings caused by cultural bias and prejudice.

What is a multicultural identity?

Our cultural identity is part of our self-perception. It is that feeling of belonging to and identifying with a certain group. A multicultural identity combines identities from multiple groups or, simply put, a multicultural individual identifies with more than one group of people. The associated struggles such as identity crisis and not feeling at home in the countries and cultures where they are supposed to belong are well-documented, but having a multicultural identity can also come with a unique set of skills and intercultural competencies.

There is power in identity

- Bryan Stevenson

1. Communication

Multicultural people tend to be more familiar with handling misunderstandings and ambiguity. Through their personal experiences of communicating with people from different backgrounds, they have learnt how to adapt to and accommodate their conversation partner’s communication style. Multicultural individuals will be comfortable communicating with your global clients and suppliers.

2. High empathy

People with a multicultural background often feel misunderstood. However, these experiences coupled with their intercultural knowledge and skills make them high on empathy and help them to see past things that might come across as rude to others and get straight to the intended message. They are highly empathetic and less likely to misinterpret others’ actions quickly.

3. Wide knowledge base

Multicultural people have their own unique experiences and can be like sponges absorbing information from the cultures that they are connected to. They have a wide knowledge base on all sorts of topics drawn from their personal experiences.

4. Language skills

Most multicultural individuals can speak several languages. Their level of proficiency can of course vary greatly. Not all of them will be able to speak these languages perfectly fluently. However, even some knowledge of another language is useful and insightful for understanding its speakers’ cultural behaviours and world view.

5. Intercultural skills

Multicultural people are culturally fluent! They have learnt to navigate the different norms and values connected with their multiple cultural identities. They are good non-judgemental observers who know how to navigate different cultures and how to act in a variety of situations, because they have learnt how to accept and understand many of the core values that drive behaviour in a culture. Multicultural individuals can navigate the cultures of your customers. 

6. Adaptability 

Multicultural individuals are chameleons. They can adapt their behaviour and mindset according to the context. As good observers, they understand and adapt to local norms. Multicultural employees are likely to be comfortable stepping outside their comfort zone and willing to rise to new challenges.

7. Multiple perspectives

Multicultural individuals have a multifaceted world view and can see situations from multiple perspectives. This can bring your organisation great problem-solving and strategic thinking skills.

The results of Thomas and Ravlin’s (1995) research reveal that it is ineffective to teach members of different backgrounds to behave like each other. This does not improve intercultural interactions in business settings. Instead, consider fostering these intercultural skills in your monocultural employees and developing an open and safe working environment where employees from different cultures and backgrounds can learn from each other.

In her TED talk 'It's (past) time to appreciate cultural diversity' Hayley Yeates makes the case that investing in cultural diversity is just as important as fostering gender diversity. She ends her TED talk with a call for action to create environments where we can bring our whole selves to work, because there is real strength in our differences.

Michelle Lau Image

Michelle Lau

Michelle is an MA student in Intercultural Communication. She is a multicultural individual herself: Born in the Netherlands and raised by Chinese parents. Her multicultural background piqued her interest in multiculturalism and intercultural communication. She has lived in Australia and Portugal and is now working as an intern for LSIC in London.

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