Conflict in an intercultural workplace is not only common, but it’s also something that can be easily foreseen long before it actually occurs. Businesses in this day and age are truly international, without any real geographical barriers separating them. However, while the world may have free trade (to a large extent) and even as national boundaries have dissipated, what hasn’t gone away are the communication barriers that exist between the co-workers of an intercultural business who hail from several different nationalities, cultures, races and religions.
What explains this conflict that occurs on such a regular basis between the co-workers of a large intercultural business? Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s seminal and highly controversial tome, “Clash of Civilizations” argued that the world was returning to a civilization dominated world, one in which future conflicts would originate from clashes between ‘civilizations’.
So, are the conflicts in an intercultural workplace inevitable? Does having employees belonging to disparate groups, separated by culture, religion, nationality or race, automatically lead to conflicts in an organization?
No, not at all. We don’t believe that conflict in an intercultural business is inevitable, and we think the idea of an intercultural business is essentially a wonderful development, and it is important to encourage businesses to diversify and adapt themselves to several different cultures, and be welcoming to employees from even such cultures, with which the management or a majority of the staff, may have a fundamental difference of opinion.
Tolerance is essential and it is tolerance, and acceptance of it, that make us human. Indeed, acceptance of the “other” is essential to the future of the human civilization. That is why acceptance of an intercultural business environment is so important. After all, nations that do business together, don’t wage wars against each other. But at the same time, it’s we cannot address conflict in an intercultural business, if we don’t honestly evaluate the factors that lead to these conflicts, bitter clashes, arguments and even physical fights, in a multicultural organization.
Often, these conflicts happen because of the inability of the management to nip the festering issue in the bud at the earliest, which often results in mountains being made out of a molehill. Also, it is possible that a few employees may be quick to take offense when criticized and refuse to accept their failings, and they may suspect ulterior motives – such as racism – in those criticizing them.
Tempers can flare and it doesn’t take long for a disgruntled employee to explode, particularly in a high pressure work environment, when he or she is struggling to keep up with a deadline. It’s not easy for the management to deal with such situations, especially when taking a tough stand could lead them being accused of religious bigotry or racism. But there are certain red flags that the management should look out for and try to handle the situation long before it turns volatile and cause considerable damage to the organization.
The Management should look out for the following red flags:
- An employee’s complete lack of sensitivity to the workplace culture and disrespect for co-workers
- An employee’s inability to accept or adapt to the local or host culture or to the value system of the majority of the other co-workers in the organization.
- An employee’s refusal to learn, for whatever reason, the basics of the local culture of the foreign country to which he or she is sent on a business assignment or project.
- An employee’s rabid religious fundamentalism, seeking to impose his or her own cultural or religious beliefs and values on unwilling co-workers.
Such employees should not be persisted with, and it’s better to get rid of them at the earliest, before they cause more trouble. But a majority of the employees in an organization, including those belonging to a minority culture, is likely to be very much moderate and liberal in their belief systems. That’s why care should be taken that their cultural and religious sensibilities are respected at all costs.
While organizations should prepare themselves for any intercultural conflicts among its employees that may emerge all of a sudden, such conflicts can be deflated, and steps can be taken to ensure that they are kept at a minimum, such as:
- Encouraging group discussions, where all the employees in a department get together and talk about the issues bothering them.
- Organizing social events and picnics for the entire organization, where employees are encouraged to bring their families and mingle with each other in an informal setup.
- Requesting professionals and academics to hold seminars on issues related to cultural sensitivity in the workplace.
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