June 23, 2021

Cultural differences can be hard to talk about

Three restaurant workers

Under the new realities of the 21st century workplace, people in leadership must recognize that racial reckoning, political leanings, personal safety, and income inequality are issues employees are facing.

In January 2020, business was strong, says Gerry Fernandez, president and founder of the Multicultural Foodservice & Hospitality Alliance, an affiliate of the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation. Then the pandemic hit in March, and everything stopped.

“We found out the shutdown was going to be for more than a few days, and then it turned into so much more,” he says. “We all watched the news. There was the election, and, at the same time, there was all this strife going on—uncertainty about health, and businesses closing like we'd never seen before. It was that perfect storm creating a tremendous amount of anxiety for everyone.”

During the pandemic, minorities faced myriad problems, he adds, saying Asians experienced pain by being blamed, harassed and assaulted for “causing” the virus. Latinos faced the most job losses, and then George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis rocked the entire nation. The strife led to a lot of conversations, and, in many cases, polarized viewpoints.

A recent webinar, Tools for Tough Multicultural Conversations, moderated by Fernandez, addressed how colleagues could talk to each other honestly and get past the acute divisiveness.

– “Why do Black people keep protesting? Why are they so upset?”

“If I criticize his performance, he will say I’m singling him out because he’s Black, or Latino, or Asian.”

“I can’t keep up with all these pronouns—he, her, them, they. Why do I have to have it on my email signature?”

“Why do I have to learn Spanish? They need to learn English!”

According to Fernandez, those are questions and comments one industry training organization said its members shared with them. Their trainers didn’t know how best to respond.

Under the new realities of the 21st century workplace, people in positions of leadership must recognize that racial reckoning, political leanings, personal safety, and income inequality are issues employees are facing. He offered six ways to address tough topics and create honest, constructive dialogue that could help employees feel they belong in the organization.

  1. Check your title at the door. When you have conversations about race, ethnicity or identity, or what's happening politically, you need to listen and respond person to person, not boss to employee.
  2. Honesty is the best policy. Not enough companies have conversations about the cultural experiences of their employees. They can be uncomfortable. Managers must be more transparent about the issues facing the company and its employees. They must be willing to say, ‘Hey, we don't know the answer, but we’ll figure it out and keep you informed of our progress.’
  3. Find the right time to talk. Don’t start difficult conversations right before a shift. You might inadvertently say something that triggers an emotional response and you may not have enough time to fully discuss the issue. Wait for the right time to engage employees. Maybe it’s after the shift ends. Be sensitive about when and where to have these conversations.
  4. Do your research, and provide honest feedback. Google the topics you want to discuss to have a fuller understanding of how people of color and others view the issues and challenges involved. That will allow you to engage more productively and resolve your differences faster. Also, be honest with your feedback. For example, if you’re having a difficult performance conversation with someone who is not doing his or her job well, make sure you explain why you're giving them this feedback.
  5. Continue communicating. Don’t just address issues once and leave it at that. Keep communication channels open by providing feedback regularly. If you make a mistake in how you address an issue, apologize, but keep those conversations going. Managers and leaders must get better at this. Keep your personal‑‑and especially political opinions‑‑to yourself. You don’t want to alienate an employee over issues that don’t directly relate to the workplace. Listen and respond sensitively to others’ points of view and experiences.
  6. Education is key to understanding. Why should you want to have open communication with employees? To promote awareness and respect for other people’s points of view. That will lead to employees feeling cared for and valued in the organization. To do that, provide education about the issues causing conflict.

Fernandez advises managers and leaders to get comfortable being uncomfortable when having difficult conversations, ask questions, and be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.

“This kind of dialogue will make you better people, problem solvers, better to work with,” he says. “Inclusion, fairness, and respect are the things we must promote.”