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Multicultural awareness in small businesses. (Learning From the Big Guys).

The importance of multicultural sensitivity is growing rapidly in the American workplace as more ethnic minorities and women become a more integral part of most workplaces. The need for training and orientation programs is imperative in major corporations and small businesses alike. This article explores training programs for employees of large businesses that could be aclapted to small businesses to make their employees more culturally sensitive.

By the year 2056, Hispanic-Americans will represent 25 percent, African-Americans 11 percent, and Asian-Americans 9 percent of the U.S. population (1). In some parts of the country, 2056 has already arrived. For example, in California public schools, nonwhite students already outnumber white students. The Latino population in Los Angeles reached 46.5 percent in 2001 (44.6 percent in the county), and represents 53 percent of the student population at California State University, Los Angeles. The Asian population at Cal State L.A. is 22 percent.

The "melting pot" that has been America continues; however, in many instances distinct cultures desire to remain distinct. Cultures do, and will continue to, collide in the United States as various ethnic groups celebrate their distinctiveness. As the world becomes a global village and ethnic and religious problems surface worldwide (Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Israel/Palestine), these problems, too, are surfacing in the United States. Educators, government and business can help develop an atmosphere where all ethnic groups feel a personal identity, develop self-esteem, feel enfranchised, and are allowed to celebrate their differences in a non-threatening manner. It may be expensive to develop a multicultural workplace, but there is strong evidence that doing so may lead to more creativity, less absenteeism and turnover, hiring more talented individuals, thus leading to the company's improved market position and its ability to improve its competitiveness in the international arena. (2)

Not developing multiculturalism can have hidden costs for an organization because cultural diversity in the work force can result in higher turnover, interpersonal conflicts and communications breakdowns. (3) In a survey of 225 employees in five U.S. corporations, employees across-the board claimed their adjustment to a multi-cultural workplace was relatively good, but they reported that their managers were experiencing a high degree of problems. (4) Perhaps this difficulty may be in part because the findings of recent studies suggest that many training programs focus too much on individual attitudes, and are not designed to address systemic change in the organization.(5) The reality, based on immigration and population trends, is that most businesses will not have a choice of whether to have a multicultural work force.

Although multicultural organizations have received increased scholarly attention in the past few years, much of this work focuses on larger organizations rather than the needs of smaller organizations.

The objectives of this article are twofold. The first purpose is to apply what is known about multiculturalism and training to the small business. The second is to suggest ways that small businesses can adjust to cultural diversity in the work force.


Much of the literature about multiculturalism deals with the preparation of U.S. managers for overseas assignments.(6) There is much that can be adapted from this information to help U.S. firms deal with the multiculturalism that they face at home. Multiculturalism is defined in many ways, but for purposes of this article it is "the degree to which an organization values cultural diversity and is willing to utilize and encourage it."(7) A conceptual framework has been created for understanding the process of cultural assimilation.(8) The framework contains six levels of possible cultural assimilation:

(1) acculturation where cultural differences between various groups are resolved

(2) full structural integration in which all minority groups, including women, are represented at all levels of the company so different levels of the company do not become associated with a particular race or ethnic background

(3) full integration of the informal networks (such as social activities)

(4) an absence of prejudice and discrimination

(5) employees of all cultural groups identifying with the organization

(6) low levels of intergroup conflict.

There is much anecdotal information about major corporations that waste millions of dollars because they fail to understand the culture of the country in which they choose to conduct business. This information includes the story of an American manager who went to India and tried to use focus groups and team management when this type of management was a sign to the Indians that the manager did not know or was not certain about what to do. Otherwise, he would have just given them directions. In addition, a Japanese manager tried to implement focus groups in the United States, but forgot to address the previous very competitive attitude between management and labor. Finally, a German manager, who was transferred to a Latin American country, suddenly tried to force a time clock and other stringent time controls on his employees.

There are other behavioral norms in various parts of the world that must be considered such as: friendship comes before business in many cultures; one must never use the left hand to eat or greet in the Middle East; and saying does not mean in Japan. In many cases, these distinctive behavioral norms are retained when people come to this country from these various places. Often, too, there are great differences in social norms and conduct among cultural groups already in the U.S. Examples can be seen in situations in which ethnic groups tend to do business only with members of their own ethnic group, perhaps not with the intention of discriminating, but with the notion that they were dealing with relatives and friends. Behavior also differs in other areas, such as appropriate attire for the office, acceptable conduct at social events, and even meal etiquette.

One major hindrance to celebrating cultural differences is the degree to which one is culturally ethnocentric. The idea that "the way I was raised, do business, and live is correct" and therefore, "others who live differently are incorrect" often inhibits one's ability to maximize effectiveness in managerial roles. The multiculturalization process must address this issue and encourage employees to consider why the way others conduct their lives is correct for them based on their own background.

Lessons From Major Corporations

Many major corporations have implemented programs to enhance the multiculturalization of their organization, however, many others have not. In one recent study of 80 multinational companies, only 32 percent had any type of formalized training that included cross-cultural/multicultural training for their employees.(9) The reasons for such training go well beyond the demographic information listed above and include the following:

* U.S. laws mandate equal treatment and non-discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex and, in many cases, age, physical handicap; and, in some cases, sexual orientation

* The bottom line of a company cannot help but be improved when conflicts among different cultures are minimized

* The public image of the company is enhanced and a major contribution to the community-at-large is made as employees go back into the community with different perspectives

* As more foreign entities purchase formerly American businesses, the need to understand how foreign individuals and entities operate becomes more critical

The Goals of Training

The goals of any training program should be listed in detail and shared with participants. At the same time, set goals should be reasonable and achievable. Some training may concentrate simply on increasing awareness on the part of employees; other companies or entities that sponsor this type of training may have a series of seminars and/or retreats during which a sequence of steps or goals could be set. Certainly, the finances of the entity and the skill level of personnel or consultants will determine the type of training to be pursued. Perhaps this training could be sponsored by a local chamber of commerce, a civic club, or a group of businesses (none of whom could afford this training alone). Some universities may provide this training as well.

A sample set of goals could be:

1. To create an awareness and sensitivity in the participant of the ethnocentrism that is brought to the workplace

2. To develop team building skills in the participant

3. To create an awareness in the participant of the value of other cultures in the workplace

4. To enable individuals to better assess their affect on groups and how groups affect them

5. To enable participants to assess their behavior with respect to its effect on the customer

6. To improve communication skills between participants

The two most important issues to be addressed in multicultural training are (1) relationship to authority and, (2) ability to deal with ambiguity or uncertainty avoidance. Even though these concepts have been applied to international operations, (10) they are, of course, just as applicable nationally. Relationship to authority refers to feelings that participants have toward authority figures and the willingness to tolerate a sense of inequality between employees and management. With regard to uncertainty avoidance, some individuals prefer a great deal of independence and the ability to use their own initiative and creativity, and others need rules and regulations to direct then in the workplace. Sponsors of training programs must be aware of these attitudes of the participants before the multiculturization process begins so that these two preferences can be addressed. (11) This training should be systemic (based upon an organizational development model), over a long period of time, and should move from indi vidual sell-assessment to a systemic change in the organization itself. (12)

There seems to be agreement in he literature on the different types of raining that can be sponsored. These include:

* area studies, or documentary programs, that expose people to a new culture through written materials about the history, geographical area, economics, and cultural institutions of the new culture

* culture assimilator, a programmed instruction method that exposes trainees to specific incidents critical to successful interaction with a target culture

* language preparation

* sensitivity training, in which people's self-awareness is increased

* field experiences that expose trainees to mini-cultures within the U.S. (13)

Perhaps the front-runners in this type of training are a group of companies that have joined forces to offer approximately 30 executives per year the opportunity to participate in a five-week executive training course. Included in the training are an awareness of self and others as well as a visit to specific countries with additional briefings and the opportunity to apply what has been learned. The companies involved are mega corporations and include such giants as Exxon, IBM, Sony, Honda, Fiat, Merck and others. (14) Small businesses could not afford the US $25,000 sponsor fee and the US $30,000 per person price tag that enables the participants to learn more "in-country" cultural information. However, participants in a local program could acquire much of the same type of information.

Anderson Worldwide is another company that sponsors an extensive training program for employees. (15) The program has as its goals several of those mentioned earlier in the sample set. In addition, the company has learned a number of lessons from its training program. These lessons include:

* experienced participants need to be actively engaged in the learning process and learning should take place by experience, not by lecture

* team-building activities can be a critical part of a program because to be able to "open up" on issues and to work with fellow participants, trainees must experience some sense of group togetherness (the social component should not be overlooked in this respect)

* the program must be paced properly to ensure varied activities

* a process for program evaluation must be ready to go from the beginning (16)

One final item is the general need to empower employees to accomplish the goals set for the program and to motivate them to accomplish those goals. Based on research carried out in Australia, Japan and Germany, a framework has been developed that outlines the necessary attributes of any successful empowerment program. These attributes include:

* setting inspirational goals (by managers and those managed)

* showing employees how to obtain their goals

* reducing red tape and other obstacles that slow down employees

* expressing confidence in subordinates accompanied by high performance expectations

* modifying managerial styles and policies to meet individual employee needs

* fostering opportunities for employee participation in decisions (17)

Training Formats for Small Business

There are a number of ways to set up training programs. Training can take place, for instance, in evening seminars, over weekends or during the workday. Whatever the method, the employer must indicate full support for the program by having the CEO attend the meetings, if possible, and by modifying the company reward system to encourage attendance and implementation.

The process must include group activities that allow participants to get to know each other better and at a level not available on the day-to-day job. Many of these types of exercises are available from sources provided at a local library. The danger is that the person facilitating the activity may not be well trained in the appropriate skills. Other support efforts that help achieve the goal of the multicultural organization also exist. These include language training, new employee orientation sessions about company culture and norms, stressing the importance of diversity in the workplace and ensuring that the cultural diversity of the business is somewhat similar to that of the community at all levels of management, revamping reward systems in the company to better reflect this new emphasis, establishing intra-company mentoring programs and organizing social events to ensure interaction among employees, and establishing support groups and sounding boards that are a type of troubleshooting entity in the or ganization. Finally, training in conflict-resolution and training in areas of communication, such as active listening, should be continued.

Good Business

The need for awareness of the impact of multiculturalism in the United States is critical to the small business. The importance of creating a multicultural organization that celebrates differences is good business for a number of reasons including the bottom line. Legally, multiculturalism in the workplace is unavoidable for all businesses because laws protect cultural/religious minorities from discrimination. Given current population and immigration trends there is no choice but to hire cultural! religious minorities. Small businesses can learn from the number of large companies that have very extensive and costly training programs. To address the issue properly may be time-consuming and certainly not inexpensive. But, to not address the issue at all can be even worse. There are a number of available training options--the best are systemic and long term, rather than a "one-shot" program. However, for small businesses there are less expensive ways to achieve similar results. Efforts could be cosponsored or un derwritten by the local chamber of commerce, a civic club, or a grant from the federal government or private foundation that is coordinated through a local institution of higher education.

(1.) Johnston, William B., Global Work Force 2000, Harvard Business Review, March-April, 1991.

(2.) Robinson, G., Dechant, K., "Building A Business Case for Diversity," Academy a/Management Executive, 1997, 21.

(3.) Cox, Jr., T., "The Multicultural Organization," Academy of Management Executive, 5, 1991, 34-47.

Gudmundson, D., Hartenian, L., "Workforce Diversity in Small Business: An Empirical Investigation," Journal of Small Business Management, 2000, 27-36.

(4.) Motwani, J., E. Harper, R. Subramanian, and C. Douglas, "Managing a Diversified Workforce: Current Efforts and Future Directions," SAM Advanced Management Journal Summer 1993), 16-21.

(5.) Bendick, M, Egan, M.L. and Lofhjelm, S.M., "Workforce Diversity Training: From Antidiscrimination Compliance to Organizational Development," Human Resource Planning, 2001, 10.

(6.) Blocklyn, P. L., "Developing the International Executive," Personnel, March, 1989, 44-47.

Frankenstein, J., Hosseini, H., "Advice from the Field: Essential Training for Japanese Duty," Management Review, July, 1988, 40-43.

(7.) Cox, loc, cit.

(8.) Cox, loc. cit.

(9.) Howe, I. C., Tseng, A. T., Hong, A. T. K., "The Role of Culture in Training in a Multinational Context," Journal of Management Development (UK) 9(5), 1990, 51-57.

(10.) Rigby, J., "The challenge of Multinational Team Development," Journal of Management Development (UK), 6(3), 1988, 65-72.

(11.) Ibid.

(12.) Benedick, M., et al, loc. cit.

(13.) Adler, N. J., "Reentry: Managing Cross-culture Transitions," Group and Organization Studies, 6, 1981, 341-356.

Earley, P. C., "Intercultural Training for Managers: A Comparison of Documentary and Interpersonal Methods," Academy of Management Journal, 30, 1987. 685-698.

(14.) Wittenberg-Cox, A., "Delivering Global Leaders," International Management, February, 1991, 52-55.

(15.) Fulmer, W., "Arthur Andersen: Training for Global Impact," Journal 0/Management Development (UK), 10(3), 1991, 48.52.

(16.) Fulmer, W., loc. cit.

(17.) Alpander, G., "Developing Manager's Ability to Empower Employees," Journal of Management Development, 10(3), 1991, 13-24.

MARK L. USRY J.D., is associate professor of business law at James Madison University in Harrionburg, Virginia. Dr. Usry does extensive consulting work with cross-cultural teams and relocation, strategic planning, organizational dynamics and team-building. His current research is in cross-cultural issues and the many legal aspects of international business.

MARION M. WHITE, Ph.D., is associate professor of management at James Madison University. She teaches courses in international management and strategic management. Her current research focuses on aspects of cross-cultural management. Her doctorate is in the disciplines of organizational behavior and management.
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Author:Usry, Mark L.; White, Marion
Publication:Business Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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