Multicultural workplaces are today’s business reality. Most work with people from different generations, countries, races, ethnicities, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Sometimes issues can arise that stem from different outlooks and upbringings.
Mark Pastin, CEO of the Council of Ethical Organizations, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing ethics in business and government, cites an example of an employee from a culture in which women are not treated equally dealing with female clients.
The Harvard-educated ethicist and author of Make an Ethical Difference:Â Tools for Better Action says the key is to establish a strong company culture that’s in place during business hours that employees must buy into. Here’s what else he had to say:
BE: What inspired you to write Make an Ethical Difference and focus on how to reach ethical decisions in business when a multicultural workplace means differing ethical beliefs?
Pastin:Â It’s never been more important. Not only because there are more cultures represented in the workplace and more cultures being assertive about being represented in the workplace but also because the workplace is scattered. It used to be that you can count on everybody coming in and being together and developing a common culture from being in the same workplace. Now, a lot of people who work together never see each other so it’s hard to know how you can influence their ethics and their culture.
I know ethical issues often arise in the medical profession, but let’s say I own a paper mill or advertising agency. What situation could arise where I’d have to reach an ethical decision that’s agreeable to my multicultural workforce?
A paper mill is a good example because there’s a famous incident where somebody operating a paper mill released discharge into a river instead of into a container. When the company was asked about it they denied that they did it because they had instructed the employee not to do that. In manufacturing it could be a product, co-worker or environmental harm. Whatever business you’re in there’s a worst case scenario and the common denominator is that people acting at a distance use poor judgment. You’re expecting the culture and ethics of the organization to guide people when they’re working at a distance but when you have no influence over their ethics, you’re at a risk.
Your book mentions engaging sympathy and empathy. Other than when illness or tragedy strikes an employee, we might not think of the workplace as a place for empathy. Why is it important?
It’s important because if you don’t know what the people who work for you are thinking and how they’re feeling, then you’re not going to be able to manage them effectively. In the 1990s there was a huge management fad called management by walking around. The whole idea was that you need to see your employees and customers face-to-face. The idea is that if you see them face-to-face you have an elevated level of sympathy or empathy.
If you’re trying to resolve an issue, what’s the best way to take action considering you have all these different views from multiple backgrounds?
There are different strategies and there’s not one that works in every case. But a common strategy is to have a philosophy with your employees that when you’re at work it’s the work culture that matters. A lot of companies use that attitude when dealing with employees in Asia. And employees seem OK with that. It’s not one culture attacking another. It’s ‘this is the culture when we’re working together and how we do things.’ It’s creating a strong internal culture and relying on it rather than having one culture dominate another in the workplace.
There are also some commonalities between cultures, no?
There aren’t any cultures in which truthfulness isn’t valued. There aren’t cultures in which indifference to friends and family is not frowned upon. Instead of concentrating on the differences — which manifest itself in the way employees dress and look — try to concentrate on the commonalities and the themes that are really important in the workplace. When two parties from different cultures voice their opinions, differences emerge. But when the facts of the situation are laid out, the two parties often find pieces of the story on which they agree. Another way for two parties to find common ground is to look at their interests. Often, especially in business settings, two parties will discover that despite their differences, they share several common interests.