how to build a strong corporate culture through diversity

By gary peterson
corporate culture

Info: Photo: Some of O.C. Tanner’s great employees I’m privileged to work with

Twenty years ago, I didn’t realize the incredible boost to organizational culture that comes from an ethnically diverse workforce. There are many factors that contribute to a strong, well-rounded corporate culture and I’ve come to strongly appreciate the impact of diversity of ethnicity and language. I feel it’s one of our strongest assets.

Our manufacturing group consists of team members from 54 different countries and almost as many languages. Before we began our journey to an empowered, team-based workforce, we didn’t understand how to tap into the vast resource that we had. We were simply hiring employees. There was no process in place to seek input from our people, and nothing to facilitate their efforts at working together to solve problems. I learned over time how a team made up of different ethnic backgrounds and cultures will have more diverse ways of perceiving and addressing daily struggles. And an organization that can effectively bring people from every culture into the discussion will have a rich foundation for problem solving and innovation.

When we began forming teams, our first big struggle was communication. Up to that point, English had not been a requirement. But when you need team members to communicate, solve problems, respond to client needs, and improve things every day—you have to do whatever it takes to help your team members become proficient and literate in a common language.

Here are some insights into what we did to help our team members become more involved and productive:

  • Brought an English teacher on-site for two years during work hours to teach our employees
  • Identified some of the important production terms we wanted everyone to know, putting these words on cards suspended from the ceiling on decorative mobiles. Team members would then lead discussions on the meanings during team meetings.
  • Trained people to slow down the pace of group discussions, allowing others time to translate in their heads, think about how they feel, and formulate a response. Without such training, moments of silence become uncomfortable rather than savored for what can come from them.
  • Trained team members to respect differences in background and to expect differences in cultural reactions.
  • Replaced our production paperwork with a monitor at each station to visually depict what work needed to be done. We integrated color, images, photos, and other visuals to provide faster visual communication.
  • Edited all internal communication to make sure it was written in simple English.
  • When language is absolutely critical, as in employee surveys, we enable them in our major languages: English, Spanish, Bosnian and Vietnamese.
  • Helped team members understand the interpersonal conflict caused when they speak in a language that others around them can’t understand.
  • Encouraged team building to include sharing of culture, food and language.

And the results have been great! My heart was warmed recently as I listened to a humble, older, Chinese woman named Chung speak in glowing terms about a co-worker who was celebrating 25 years of service. And I thought how 20 years ago, Chung not only would have avoided speaking in a public presentation, she probably wouldn’t have been able to understand what was being said.

As our international employees have grown stronger, they have naturally started to become our team leaders. We now have team leaders from such places as: Africa, Vietnam, Bosnia, India, South & Central America, the Philippines, Thailand, and America. Achieving strong performance in a diverse workforce takes a lot of effort, but the final effect can be a melting-pot of a rich, shared culture where the strength of the whole honors the uniqueness of each individual.

What have you done to help celebrate ethnic and cultural diversity? Do your people see the awesomeness in each member of the human race? Share your ideas:

Categories: Talent Management, Teams

John T

Since I am the person who Chung talked about on my 25th anniversary I thought I should also make a comment. The blog posting was awesome, I showed Chung and she was pleased. Gary is right, when she first started my team she was very shy and too embarrassed to read in front of anyone. I started out by giving my ESL folks simple memo’s, etc. and the whole team supported whoever was reading and the team made anyone reading feel comfortable in doing so in front of others, it was a team effort for sure. Now she jokes, reads, talks and adds value to our meetings and huddles. We as team members also learned about other cultures and we have grown to be more understanding of our differences and also that we had many things in common. Thanks for pointing out Gary’s blog. That was way cool.
John T

Monday, November 21st, 2011 03:14 pm GMT -6   |   Reply   |  
Win Peterson

What a beautiful and informative blog. I didn’t realize you had an english program there and it was lovely to read about its successs. Also, the other methods you have employed to meet the communication needs of your ethnically diverse employees were impressive. Thank you so much for sharing this marvelous accomplishment. Your success in increased communication and the validation of each indivdual’s feelings and talents really touched my heart.

Win Peterson

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 10:55 am GMT -6   |   Reply   |  
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