How Understanding Cultural Differences Improve the Work Environment and the Bottom Line

The global nature of the economy poses both cultural and communication challenges for companies conducting business today. Just how you present or accept a business card can seriously impact a first impression of you and your company, potentially making or breaking a deal. But the real challenge these days often begins at the office, where most workforces are multi-cultural. These multicultural differences can create issues that affect the work environment, and ultimately the company’s bottom line.

While a student in the Masters of Science in Organization Development Program at American University (AU/NTL), I ran into a former business colleague and asked him about some of the multicultural issues he faced in his U.S.-based business where many of his staff are Hispanic. He said he had noticed that his Hispanic staff members were generally more soft-spoken and respectful than their louder, quick-to-speak American co-workers. Furthermore, he sometimes wondered if his Hispanic staff members really understood him, even while they smiled back, nodding agreeably. This presented the perfect opportunity for me to propose conducting my academic practicum with his company with the goal of further examining these issues and helping his organization become more effective and efficient through a formal organization development change process.

One year later, after many surprises in the process, my colleague’s company, Bittersweet Catering ~ Café ~Bakery won the “Retail Business of the Year Award” from the Alexandria, Va., Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber President, said, “Bittersweet provides Old Town with a great sense of community. Any city would be lucky to have them–it is a role model for other retail businesses.” My colleague was delighted to be recognized by his peers, but his real reward was the improved work environment that helped him streamline his business and increase his revenues.

What Is The OD Process In Theory?

I explained to my colleague what is involved in the organizational development (OD) process. The object of a practicum is to conduct a needs assessment with a client and to implement changes which improve the effectiveness and efficiency of how workers interact and complete their work tasks. My role would be to assist in identifying ineffective organizational behavior and help by implementing solutions for these issues as determined collaboratively by the entire staff–owner, managers, and workers. This includes:

  • A series of extensive interviews both inside and outside the organization with employees, customers, vendors, and other pertinent sources;
  • Feedback session of the survey results to the leader followed by a feedback session with the staff;
  • Implementation of the recommended and agreed changes, which always includes the involvement of the entire organization;
  • Evaluation with modifications as needed after completing the system change; ideally this becomes an ongoing process throughout the life of the organization (Cummings & Worley, 2001; Burke, 1992);

OD is unique and differentiated from other forms of business consulting, i.e., management consulting, in that OD consultants do not bring solutions to a client–they facilitate the process to find the solutions (Block, 2000; Burke, 1992; Freedman & Zackrison, 2001). It is never the OD consultant’s decision to choose the specific direction or make recommendations of the changes to be implemented. This process can only succeed if it is a collaborative process between the owner (and the leadership of an organization), the consultant, and all members of the organization.

Ultimately, the OD process helps create awareness in organizations that change is not only healthy, but inevitable if continued improvement is to occur.

What Was The OD Process In Reality?

Although many valuable external sources were consulted in the assessment (customers, vendors, neighboring businesses), the main source of information came from interviewing the 25 staff members. Like many hospitality and service industry companies in the U.S., the majority of workers were Hispanic. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (2004) reports that Hispanics are the largest minority in America, providing the largest segment of workers. These figures are expected to increase by 2012 to represent almost 15 percent of the American workforce. My first step was to conduct one-on-one interviews with the owner and each staff member, as well as the selected external organizations. The interviews with the US staff went well, and I did not anticipate any difficulty interviewing the Hispanic staff as they seemed to speak and understand English. However, after completing three sessions with senior Hispanic members, it became obvious that the questions were not making sense at their respective language levels.

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