When I made a brief visit to New York recently, I got a great surprise. I had thought that travelling in the States would be a real breeze given it was an English-speaking country and the culture not too dissimilar to our own. How surprised I was to find myself talking to native-English speaking Americans and understanding little of what was being said, because of their fast connected speech and use of idioms. I was taken aback when I realised that most I spoke to couldn’t understand my speech either, for the very same reasons.

I have been thinking since then about the challenges of being understood and understanding others, when our use of the same language is so very different. Simple functions like asking for directions, ordering food and booking transport, take on a whole new dimension. And if a native-English speaker can have difficulties talking to and understanding other native-English speakers, how do our immigrants get on, in an unfamiliar country and culture, with English as their second, third or fourth language? With enormous difficulty, I’d say.

I know from talking to brand-new and more established immigrants that it’s not an easy process to settle into a new country and a new job. It is made even more difficult by some peoples’ negative attitudes to ‘foreigners’ who talk and maybe look different, to them.

So what could managers and business owners do, to support immigrant employees into their organisation?

In order to create an organisational culture that will support and welcome a diverse workforce, begin with self. This requires facing one’s own attitudes towards other cultural groups and knowing how those attitudes impact on your workplace behaviours. Understanding your own cultural heritage and how that manifests itself in what you think and do is also essential. It’s helpful to know what the dominant culture takes for granted and assumes what might be so for other cultures. And it’s invaluable knowing that what’s the norm for one group isn’t necessarily so for others.

Diversity education should be considered. It’s an excellent tool to help educate the workplace to the value of differences and the true composition of our workplaces. A popular view is that we’re all New Zealanders and therefore we’re all the same. Yet the statistics reveal a different story. The 2001 census figures show we are populated by NZ European, Maori, Pacific Island peoples (numerous ethnicities), Europeans (numerous ethnicities), Americans, Canadians, Asians (numerous ethnicities), Britains, South Africans, and numerous other ethnic groups. Whether we are New Zealanders by birth or choice, we’re certainly not all the same. Our different backgrounds, experiences, languages and cultural norms are with us, wherever we go.

Get to meet your staff. Make the effort to know them as individuals. Be interested in their home country, their work experience and interests. Find out what they don’t know or understand about New Zealand’s cultural norms and common expressions and explain them.

onfront ignorance and xenophobia head on. Sometimes discriminatory attitudes can be couched in seemingly neutral language – ‘I don’t understand what they’re saying, their accent is so strong’. This can reflect some peoples’ response in not wanting to acknowledge someone’s views or level of authority over them and using their accent, as the excuse. Listen for racist statements, like ‘I’m not racist, but………’ and challenge them. Chances are that anything said after the ‘but’, reveals the real attitude.

If you don’t already have such things as documented, comprehensive induction programmes, get them. Ensure that the induction programmes are looked at from the perspective of new immigrants, to see if they also cover organisational cultural norms which need explaining. They need to know, for example, what ‘a shout’ or ‘bring a plate’ really means, if there’s an expectation that everyone pitches in when the pressure is on, or it’s the expected thing to attend Friday night drinks. If you don’t have policies for the use of non-sexist and non-racist language, get them. If you don’t have sound recruitment and selection practices that eliminate the potential for direct and indirect discrimination, then develop them. And do ensure the people responsible for recruitment and selection know how to interview using the appropriate policies and practices.

I heard just recently that it takes about seven years for an immigrant to really settle into a new country. Imagine, seven years getting to understand the country’s cultural norms and the way banks, schools or health system work. Seven years to understand the language and its nuances. Seven years to feel accepted and establish sustaining friendships and support networks. That’s a long time, by anyone’s standards. So, if you want the personal and workplace benefits that cultural diversity brings, take some steps today, to make it happen.


Dwan & Associates, December 2004�

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