Cultural Sensitivity in the Workplace

Cultural sensitivity is a set of skills that enables us to learn about and understand people who are different from ourselves, thereby becoming better able to serve them within their own communities.
Cultural Sensitivity in the Workplace - Articles


Photo by T. Baugher

"No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become who we are."
-- Paulo Freire


Given that most agricultural businesses work with people from two or more different cultural backgrounds at the same time, it is important to promote effective communication among employees and employers. But communication in all of its facets has many implications and potential barriers, as it includes both verbal (language) and non-verbal (gestures, personal space, etc.) methods of expressing meaning or emotion. Within the workplace, internal communication (mission statement, vision, training, meetings, etc.) and most importantly, intercultural communication, are the biggest challenges since the most persistent problems often occur when we believe ourselves to be culturally sensitive when the reality is that we live in a state of constant ethnocentrism.

Challenges to Effective Communication

The main barrier in verbal communication is the language, in which language differences themselves are not the only problem, but also the understanding that it is the responsibility of both parties to learn enough of the other language to communicate with others. It is equally important to be clear, concise and avoid idioms that could cause misinterpretation of the message or could even be offensive to another person.

These misconceptions or offenses usually occur in nonverbal communication because even though there are emblematic gestures (gesture of peace, thumb up, etc.) these can mean different things in different cultures and we don't inherently know the connotation. Another important issue is personal space. In Latin American it is common for conversation to happen with a fairly short distance between people, unlike North American culture, where personal space is of greater importance. A good way to politely establish a comfortable space is with a handshake.

Another important factor to consider when implementing effective communication within the organization (internal communication) is that employees must have a clear vision/respect for the way the organization works, a clear description of each job position and what is expected of each employee. To accomplish this, the most important thing is to first ensure that senior managers adequately understand the project goals and expectations. This creates unity and consistency among team members. Similarly it is crucial to 1) train all employees consistently regardless of rank or hierarchical level, 2) encourage teamwork and pride in the outcome of a project, and 3) organize regular staff meetings to enhance communication.

The best tools for effective internal communication in a bi-cultural environment are:

  • Posters: an inexpensive and effective resource. The information must be clear so it can be seen from a distance and include pictures/graphics. Posters should be bilingual and located in places that receive the most traffic in the company.
  • Employee Manual. The advantage of such a manual is that the mission statement and vision of the organization as well as company policies can be incorporated into a single document.
  • Newsletter. A company newsletter creates a constant flow of communication. Cost can be reduced if it is sent electronically to employees who request it.

All of the suggestions above are directly related to the concept of intercultural communication. These methods are an important part of the empathy and effort that must be realized day to day in order to improve and maintain professional relationships, the workplace and, importantly, production and profits.

How do I know if I am culturally sensitive?

Unfortunately, many people live in the misconception that they are empathetic with other cultures when the reality is very different. To better understand our own personal outlook we must ask ourselves if we've used any of these phrases lately or ever at all:

  • "People from ____________ country are…"
  • "It has nothing to do with a cultural issue"
  • "It's really hard to work with _____________ people because…."

By engaging in or stating our own generalizations of people from a country, race or religion, we actively perpetuate or create stereotypes. These are generally extremely negative, and restrict our ability to relate to any individuals outside our own culture.

Culture will always be involved when discussing and understanding the human being; to lack knowledge of others' customs, values, and habits leads to poor communication and a lack of sensitivity. This causes negative reactions, and even worse, negative consequences. Finally, the fact that people from other cultures work differently does not mean they are wrong--they still may accomplish the desired results.

Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity

In good intercultural communication, understanding depends on the ability to perceive, react and accept differences and similarities. The developmental model of intercultural sensitivity by Milton J. Bennett explains this in six stages--three of them ethnocentric, and three of them ethnorelative.

Developmental model of intercultural sensitivity by Milton J. Bennett.

The first stage defines ethnocentrism as the attitude or point of view by which the world is analyzed according to the parameters of our own culture. It often involves the belief that one's own ethnic group is the most important, or that some or all aspects of our culture are superior to those of other cultures. The stages of ethnocentrism are:

  • Denial: recognizing cultural differences perceived by the naked eye (schedules, holidays, food, dress, etc.) but denying deeper intrinsic differences.
  • Defense: criticizing other cultures with negative or derogatory terms as a result of feeling threatened, which leads to negative stereotypes, prejudices and discriminatory attitudes.
  • Minimization: thinking that values and behavior are universal principles and are equal to one's own.

The second stage is ethnorelativism, a learned skill, where a person consciously recognizes values and behaviors as a cultural matter rather than a universal one. The stages of ethno-relativism are:

  • Acceptance: recognizing that cultural differences must be respected in order to improve interactions We may not agree with a specific cultural practice or difference but we respect a co-worker's values.
  • Adaptation: to be able to change a cultural outlook or behavior, which improves understanding and communication in different cultural contexts.
  • Integration: an effort to integrate different cultural elements and feel comfortable with multi-cultural situations.

The concept of developing intercultural sensitivity reflects that our perception is flexible, and we all have the ability to reformulate our sensitivity according to new experiences.


  • "… el desarrollo de la sensibilidad intercultural hace a las personas más humanas, más tolerantes aceptando las diferencias y, sobre todo, más abiertas al dialogo con personas que poseen otras ideas. Quienes están en el viaje de la sensibilidad intercultural contribuyen a una mejor comprensión, a un mundo armonioso y a la paz."
  • Bhawuk, D. P. S., Sakuda K. H., y Munusamy V. P. (2008) Intercultural competence development and triple loop cultural learning. En Soon Ang inn Van Dyne Hadbook of cultural intelligence; theory measurement and application, Armonk, NY: M. E Shape. (342-345).