Ethical Culture through Inter-Cultural Communication

Diversity training often aims at enhancing the cultural sensitivity of employees. But a growing number of global companies have realized it’s not enough to help employees increase their general awareness of cultural differences. And so they’ve taken the next step and begun to focus on building intercultural communication skills.

Inter-cultural communication is about learning how to close the “culture gap” with those who don’t necessarily share our own values or those of the company. The presumed pay-offs of such efforts include a greater openness to new ideas, better teamwork, improved customer service, and other benefits that contribute to higher performance.

Effective intercultural communication also can help to build our company’s ethical culture, and it can deepen our understanding of and shared commitment to the company’s code of conduct and ethics policies. Let’s outline how this works in practice.

The Power of Culture 

Within a global company, the starting point for good intercultural communication is recognizing the power of culture, whether it’s an employee’s own cultural background and personal beliefs, the host culture of a particular country the company does business in, or the corporate culture. In each case, culture is the carrier of a set of core values that shape the outlooks, assumptions, and typical behavior patterns of managers, employees, and customers.

Recent research by the Chicago-based group Language and Culture Worldwide shows that many global companies hold more or less the same core values, which are expressed in their codes of conduct and ethics policies. These core values are:

Accountability for upholding the company’s ethical and performance standards

Consistency in applying corporate policies fairly and objectively

Respect for Property Rights held by the corporation

Individual Rights of employees and customers

Transparency in financial and other business operations

Social Responsibility to the local community and other stakeholders

A global company’s core values often are supported by the core values of the host cultures in which it conducts business, but not always. Where value assumptions don’t align, the resulting “culture gap” can lead to misunderstandings between co-workers, management and employees, or the company and its local vendors and customers.

For instance, the corporate values of consistency, transparency, and individual rights inform ethics policies on fair hiring and conflicts of interest. In line with these core values, corporate ethics policies generally ban nepotism in hiring, vendor selection, and other areas.

In China, where family is a core value that reaches deeply into the business culture, the whole idea of nepotism seems, well, foreign. Chinese businesspeople typically see it as an advantage to hire their own kin, who are duty-bound to honor the family name with strong, reliable performance. In this context, a global company’s “ethics agenda” prohibiting nepotism in hiring or in selecting vendors may be viewed as undermining deep family ties and thus be resisted or ignored at the local level.

Cultural symbols are powerful value carriers. Not knowing how they resonate with different audiences can be costly. For example, imagine a company wants to push out ethics messaging on protecting confidential information and avoiding corruption to operations in a dozen countries, including India. These ethics policies reflect the corporate values of accountability, respect for property rights, transparency, and individual rights.

Now imagine further that the branding for the ethics messaging — say, the slogan “Wise up”– is accompanied by the image of an owl. An appropriate symbol of wisdom to reinforce the messaging, right? Wrong. In India, an owl powerfully symbolizes foolishness and corruption. Needless to say, the message from the home office never arrives.

Becoming Culturally Competent

Intercultural communication is a skill developed over time. When some issue or problem arises in the workplace, a culturally competent communicator knows how to initiate and sustain the following process:

-Once you recognize that a “culture gap” may exist, you begin to step back and observe — without judgment — the different attitudes and behaviors on display.

-Through conversation you begin to uncover or “surface” the core values driving the attitudes and behaviors of all the parties concerned.

-You invite everyone involved to identify their own value assumptions and recognize how they might differ from others. The aim here is get each person at the table to acknowledge the limits of her own perspective and the need to broaden her vision.

-You encourage further dialogue based on mutual understanding and focused on devising workable, win-win solutions to the issue or problem at hand.

-Throughout the process, you model a flexible, inclusive, and non-judgmental approach to raising and resolving issues and problems. In this way, you exercise ethical leadership in an inter-cultural context and contribute to building your company’s ethical culture.

While one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology to become competent in intercultural communication, training is recommended. Speak with your supervisor or HR representative about opportunities and resources for training in this area.