Cultural Competence in the Workplace: What Leaders Need to Know

Cultural competence in the workplace is vital to fostering an open, collaborative, and productive work environment. As companies become more diverse, they need to have policies and best practices in place to support varying backgrounds and points of view.

According to Pew Research Center, immigrants are expected to drive growth in the U.S. workforce through 2035, offsetting the decline as the baby boom generation enters retirement. The Washington Post also reported that 2019 marked the first year people of color comprised most new working-age hires in the U.S. Additionally, the growth of remote work will continue to help companies hire employees and work with clients across the globe, expanding their skills and markets.

Leaders in human resource management are responsible for helping organizations better accommodate this increasingly diverse workforce and improve their cultural competence.

A diverse group of smiling staff members stand in their office.

Defining Cultural Competence

Cultural competence refers to an organization’s overall respect for and understanding of different cultures, as defined by nationalities, religions, languages, and ethnicities. It is exhibited in the way people communicate and collaborate within an organization, as well as with external clients and partners. It can be cultivated by enhancing certain knowledge and skills among employees and company leaders.

According to Diversity Resources, organizational leaders must consider seven essential components of cultural competence:

  1. Beliefs and worldview — how people from different cultures and backgrounds see the world and their place in it
  2. Communication styles — how people convey information and feedback, such as directly or indirectly, based on their culture
  3. Formality — the manners and etiquette people use when communicating with people of different statuses and showing respect
  4. Hierarchy — the ways in which cultures structure their social and professional leadership, such as horizontally or vertically
  5. Perceptions of time — how people discern deadlines, such as on a fixed or flexible basis, as well as goals, such as short or long term
  6. Values and priorities — the different principles and concepts that people find most important, such as loyalty, teamwork, or work-life balance
  7. Uniqueness and individuality — an understanding that each person is unique and may not follow predetermined guidelines, so people should be perceived as individuals

 These elements are core to helping professionals fully understand their place within a global workforce and build empathy for how people of different cultures approach their professional experiences.

The Importance of Cultural Competence in the Workplace

Creating a culturally competent workplace offers many benefits to organizations. Some of the most prominent advantages of cultural competence include the following.

Broader Range of Skills and Perspectives

Incorporating a broader range of perspectives, knowledge, and skills into the workplace can improve problem-solving and drive innovation. In a meeting with diverse teams, people might propose new and unexpected ideas that push an organization forward. As Harvard Business Review found, nearly 95% of corporate board directors say diversity brings unique perspectives to the boardroom, and 84% say it enhances performance.

Greater Ability to Expand to New Markets

With the knowledge and skills to understand diverse cultures, organizations are better equipped to expand into global markets. Culturally competent companies know how to best communicate, schedule, and learn from people of different backgrounds and locations — whether they’re clients, colleagues, or partners.

Improved Communication and Collaboration

Cultural competence in the workplace can help managers and employees better communicate and coordinate with co-workers and clients. This can increase engagement and productivity. According to a study from Cloverpop, inclusive teams deliver 60% better results and make decisions two times faster, with half as many meetings.

Increased Employee Satisfaction

When people feel seen, heard, and understood, they’re more likely to feel satisfied with their position in the workplace. Prioritizing cultural competence can also help employees improve their own self-awareness as individuals in a diverse team. According to Harvard Business Review, increased self-awareness yields greater confidence, creativity, and communication. It can also help employees make better decisions and build stronger relationships.

How to Improve Cultural Competence in the Workplace

Workplace leaders such as human resource managers can take actionable steps to embrace cultural competence in their organizations by doing the following.

Assess Cultural Competence

Conduct surveys and gather feedback to understand how employees feel about their place within the workspace, and what their views are on the cultural competence of their co-workers and managers. Gather data about the cultural makeup of workplaces to create policies that increase diversity and cultural competence.

Run Workshops and Training Programs

Build programming to address gaps in cultural competence, awareness, and sensitivity. Train managers and team members on how to best learn about and communicate with colleagues of different backgrounds and viewpoints.

Create Opportunities for Collaboration

Break down silos in the company to foster opportunities for team building. Collaborative projects and experiences can help form bonds between employees of different cultures and improve inclusivity for those who may feel left out or misunderstood.

Account for Diversity in Scheduling

Consider different time zones and holidays when scheduling projects, meetings, and events that incorporate culturally and globally diverse people. This helps convey respect for and awareness of multicultural values and customs.

Encourage Feedback and Transparency

Make sure people feel safe and comfortable sharing their thoughts and experiences in the workplace. Set up regular meetings or feedback channels for learning about any issues with discrimination, intolerance, or prejudice that can be addressed through cultural competence training.

Become a Leader Who Makes a Difference

Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Human Resource Management program is designed to help students build rewarding and impactful careers as workforce leaders. Through experiential learning and hands-on projects, future HR professionals prepare to manage the best talent for their organizations and make a difference in the lives and careers of their team members. In turn, they build in-demand skills for success in a growing field.

Discover more about how Maryville University’s BS in Human Resource Management can help you achieve your career goals.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Human Resources Specialist

Organizational Change Management Guide for Developing Innovators & Leaders

Business Management vs. Human Resource Management: Comparing Two Career Paths


Cloverpop, “Learn How Inclusion + Diversity = Better Decision Making at Work”

Crescendo, “3 Ways to Train Cultural Competence”

DiversityResources, “Workplace Cultural Competence — 7 Essentials”

Eli, “How to Assess Cultural Competence Within Your Workforce”

Forbes, “The Benefits of Cultural Diversity in the Workplace”

Global Cognition, “Cultural Competence: What, Why, and How”

Harvard Business Review, “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)”

Harvard Business Review, “You’ve Committed to Increasing Gender Diversity on Your Board. Here’s How to Make It Happen.”

Houston Chronicle, “What Practices Could You Implement to Increase Cultural Sensitivity & Acceptance in the Workplace?”

HRDQ, “How to Improve Cultural Competence in the Workplace”

Inc., “10 Tips to Develop Your Firm’s Cultural Competence”

Pew Research Center, “Key Findings About U.S. Immigrants”

PsychCentral, “Cultural Competence: A Necessary Training for Human Service Professionals”

The Washington Post, “For the First Time, Most New Working-Age Hires in the U.S. Are People of Color”

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