Accommodating Cultural Differences

Jul 5, 2001

As companies diversify and the workplace expands to include people from various backgrounds, cultural differences among employees will become more prevalent. Cultural differences can encompass everything from religious observances to personal habits to clothing. An employer’s ability to meet the individual requirements of a staff member may be dictated by any number of factors, including the type of position and the workplace itself. Managing a workforce of assorted customs and beliefs can be challenging. Nevertheless, it is in the best interest of a company to develop an understanding of its employees’ backgrounds and to try, when possible, to accommodate all workers, not just the majority. Doing so will create a more harmonious organization, which will result in greater productivity. Learning About Different Cultures How does an employer learn about different cultures? Fortunately, in the wired world, much information is available online. offers reports aimed at providing assistance when doing business abroad. However, the resources available at the site can also be used for other purposes. Knowing how to deal with people from various cultural backgrounds is helpful at home, in the office and abroad. Reports are available for over 80 countries, and include topics applicable to culture and customs. For example, the report for Egypt, entitled “Doing Business in Egypt,” addresses dress code, first meetings, verbal and nonverbal communication and decision-making behavior. A report called “Negotiating in Egypt,” on the other hand, covers such areas as bargaining traditions, good topics of conversation and emotional discussions. Likewise, reports about other countries also cover cultural issues. A report about Chile, entitled “Doing Business in Chile,” addresses class and ethnic descent, topics to avoid, punctuality, proper protocol and women in business, among other subject areas. Another report, “Building Successful Relationships in Chile,” includes such topics as friendliness and sincerity, gestures and posture, use of humor and the importance of family. Reports can be ordered online at and are delivered via email within 10 minutes of order placement. Reports vary in price, depending on size. Three of the four noted above are priced at $18.00 each; “Negotiating in Egypt” is $12.00. Religious Customs While country of origin may influence culture and customs, so too can religious beliefs. One religion with practices and observances that may need additional accommodations in the workplace is Islam, particularly given the fact that its followers are growing in numbers. A recent article by Maureen Minehan at HRWire points out that, from 1994 to 2000, the number of Muslims affiliated with mosques in the United States increased from 500,000 to 2 million. She indicates that the total number of Muslims in the U.S., including those not affiliated with mosques, is now estimated at between 6 and 7 million. According to Minehan, followers of Islam are from extremely diverse backgrounds. She indicates that a majority of practicing Muslims are South Asian, African-American or Arabic, but may also be from sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean or Turkey. Given the increasing number of Muslims in the workplace, Minehan points to the need to understand the rituals and observances associated with Islam. She cites a number of practices, including the fact that Friday prayers, as an important part of Islamic life. In order to accommodate this particular need, it is suggested that employers allow Muslim employees to take extended lunch hours on Fridays. Minehan indicates that employers should become educated about Islam, and she recommends obtaining a copy of CAIR’s publication “An Employer’s Guide to Islamic Religious Practices.” The publication itself is not currently available through the CAIR (the Council on American Islamic-Relations) website, but, according to a spokesperson for CAIR, online ordering will be available in the near future. Meanwhile, email contact information is available online, and employers can currently purchase the booklet, which costs $3.00 plus $2.00 shipping and handling, by telephoning (202) 488-8787. Bulk discounts are available. The Need For Observance Although most companies have standard holidays, there are days of observance specific to individual religions. McGill’s Summary of Religious Observances 2001 was created so that the university’s faculty and administration could accommodate students, but the list can also be a resource for employers. It includes dates and names of religious holy days for Aboriginal Spirituality, Baha’i Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hindu, Islam, Jainism, Jehovah’s Witness, Judaism, Shinto, Sikhism, Wicca and Zoroastrianism. Employers may be unfamiliar with the rituals and beliefs of various religions; cultural differences may also seem foreign. Yet, a little research can provide the information necessary to understanding… and accommodating all staff members. <*SPONSORMESSAGE*>

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