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¿Cómo se dice ‘multicultural’?

February 1, 2008
by YAEL SARA ZOFI, SUSAN MELTZER, and JASMINE SASANIAN
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Understanding your multicultural workforce

When Michael walks through the halls of his facility, he has trouble understanding what his staff members are saying. It's as if they're speaking a foreign language—and they are. Michael's situation is not unique. As our working world mirrors the global neighborhood we inhabit, organizations reflect the reality of managing and communicating with an increasingly multicultural workforce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2006, the U.S. labor pool included 15.3% foreign-born workers who accounted for more than half of the total labor force increase from the previous year. This trend will not slow down in the near future, and those of us who work with and manage a multicultural team face little choice but to broaden our perspective to engage with individuals from a wide range of cultures.


The diversity of our long-term care world raises many issues for those in charge. We need to create a culturally sensitive workplace that accomplishes two objectives: (1) fosters good communication and working relationships and (2) prevents discrimination and harassment. Research studies conducted by AIM Strategies® on global leadership confirmed the need for today's leaders to develop the ability to communicate with and understand today's multicultural workforce. Which brings up the question: How can you increase your sensitivity to individual and/or cultural differences to deliver quality resident care? Here are some guidelines to assist you.

Evaluate Communication Skills

It is important to assess the communication skills of staff members. Asking a few key questions during the interview is a good place to start. Here are a few suggestions: “Are you familiar with terms like _________ (state terms and phrases they will hear on a regular basis)?” “Do you understand what you will need to do on the job?” “Is there any task that is a part of this job that may give you difficulty?” Remember—making sure that your staff speaks English fluently is not the goal. After evaluating someone's communication skills, be sure to match the individual with jobs or tasks that are appropriate for his or her level of English competency.

Say It Simply

When communicating, use simple language. Choose your words carefully, be clear, and avoid sarcasm to minimize the chances of being misunderstood. Learning a few basic words in the employee's language, such as hello, good-bye, please, and thank-you, can also be helpful. Plus, the fact that you are making an effort will be appreciated and will go a long way toward creating a motivating work environment.

Increase Cultural Awareness

Be empathetic and understanding of those who are from different backgrounds. They are trying to acclimate to a new culture and learn a new language while mastering a job. Being open-minded and flexible is key to creating win-win situations. In certain cultures, averting one's eyes when communicating with a manager is normal, as is standing in close proximity to someone with whom you are speaking. If these behaviors seem foreign to you, remember that what is natural and comfortable to you in the workplace might not be for others. It's helpful to learn about your staff members’ cultures and recognize that accommodations can be reached without compromising or disrespecting another person.

Ideally, cultural awareness should be fostered across your organization. Some organizations actively seek input from staff to find ways to increase cultural empathy. Anonymous employee satisfaction surveys and focus groups (in which volunteers participate) help identify concerns, issues, and potential solutions.

Perhaps you can work with your administration to develop an annual multicultural award to recognize team players who've furthered the goals of multicultural awareness in the organization. Or, sponsor an annual luncheon or holiday event where staff members bring in food from their native cultures—this activity is popular with many organizations. You can expand on this idea, for example, by encouraging staff to bring in music from their varied cultures to share during these events. In your own department, recognizing and celebrating holidays of staff members from other cultures and nationalities is a learning opportunity for all.

Translate Job-Related Information

Some industries are legally required to translate certain policies and notices into the native language spoken by a majority of their employees. Aside from legal requirements, however, translating written material ensures that the communication of policies, safety rules, and government-mandated protocols are understood by caregivers with limited English. Bilingual supervisors can be helpful for verbal communication, but for written translations, consider hiring a professional translator who knows the subject matter and terminology of our industry. This will avoid literal translations which can lead to confusion and compromising situations. For example, a computer translation we read once referred to an employee who was fired as being “burned.” Therefore, be sure to choose a translator who speaks the language colloquially, and inform employees that translations in their native language are available.

Aside from employing a translator, managers can simply translate common English phrases and/or jargon to help staff members. For example, developing a cultural resource guide, perhaps available online, can provide employees greater access to information.

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