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The Value of Intercultural Skills in the Workplace


A report undertaken by Ipsos called "Culture at Work" throws some interesting light on intercultural skills in the international workplace.

The intercultural skills most commonly reported by these business included

1. The ability to understand different viewpoints
2. Respect for others regardless of background 
3. Knowledge of a foreign language

Where intercultural skills were cited as a positive, in converse, there was agreement that employing people without intercultural skills posed risks to the business. 

The risks most commonly reported included: 

1. Loss of clients through miscommunication, lack of empathy or poor relationship building 
2. Damage to reputation through a poor approach to people from different cultural backgrounds
3. Internal conflict within mulitcultural teams, due to the inability to navigate cultural differences 

What are the HR Challenges for Businesses?

Businesses in the survey were also asked what their most pressing HR challenges were in respect to recruiting for global and multicultural teams. Communication skills and speaking a foreign language both feature were the two most common concerns. 

When you see how much business interaction takes place internationally, it is easy to understand why.

More than 2/3 of respondents said their employees engage outside of their own country for business. Essentially, domestic-only trade is now very rare.

It's interesting to note that for most countries (other than the USA) they not only have to deal with international clients but also international colleagues.

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What Intercultural Skills are Needed by Business?

Although respondents pretty much all agreed that intercultural skills are important to their organisation, what exactly do we mean by intercultural skills? The authors of the report state that...

"...employers frequently define intercultural skills as 'the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints'"


Key phrases and terms the responding businesses used when defining intercultural skills in the survey included:

* respectful     * builds trust     * accepts cultural differences    * understands cultural differences    * multilingual     * flexible     * adjusts communication * aware of own culture     * tolerates ambiguity     * adapts to different cultures * works in diverse teams      * continous learner     * open to new ideas

Of these the most valued skills were respect for others and the ability to work in culturally diverse teams.

What is the ROI from Intercultural Skills?

How do intercultural skills really help a business and provide ROI? Research showed that HR managers were most likely to cite bringing in new clients, team work and communication as the most important ROI. 

Although some countries did not relate intercultural skills with business benefits, they did however mention areas such as team harmony and good communication as important which may suggest they have yet to make the link between these and cultural competence.

Employers on the whole agreed that staff with intercultural skills were an advantage to the business.

Surprising then that less than half of companies surveyed screened candidates for these skills during recruitment stage. The exception to this was found in Jordan, India and the UAE.

Similarly, although many state that language skills are important, less than a quarter actually screened people for language competencies. The research suggests that in some countries, employers look more to international experience, travel abroad, etc as indications of a more culturally-astute person.

Intercultural skills as part of education

More than 50% of respondents reported that they encouraged staff to develop their intercultural skills. Unfortunately the report does not state how this education takes place; i.e. whether it's via formal cultural awareness training, reading lists, webinars, seminars?

Following on from this, ony around a third of companies believed their national education system was developing intercultural know-how in school or afterwards. More than a quarter stated that graduates were leaving university with inadequate intercultural skills. As a result hiring the right people becomes harder.


What conclusions are drawn from the report? Well here are 7 we thought of:

1. Organisations across the world are increasingly global
2. Finding employees with intercultural skills is a challenge
3. Businesses increasingly realise the value of intercultural skills
3. Employers are not screening applicants effectively
4. Job seekers need to highlight intercultural experience
5. Learning a language has never been so important for your career
6. Employers want to help develop their employees' skills
7. Businesses need to work with educators to develop intercultural skills

A big thanks to Ipsos, British Council and Booz Allen Hamilton for carrying out this research and publishing the findings. Cultural awareness training sits at the heart of what we do as a company so this was of particular interest to us.

Free Intercultural Awareness Resources

Want to learn more about culture and the workplace? We have various resources to help you boost your intercultural awareness.

Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash

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