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How to choose a Company That Is Culturally Competent

Find out how to pick a company that values diversity

By Kim R. Wells

Hanging proudly on the walls of corporate foyers across the nation are trendy new posters outlining companies' "Commitment to Diversity in the 21st Century."
But all too often when you read the small print, the facts don't add up. And in today's world, slick advertising campaigns can sometimes be a superficial cover for a weak corporate commitment to quality initiatives. As a talented minority student (or any student for that matter), you have to look beyond the trendy posters and corporate brochures and examine for yourself what the real cultural experience is like in the companies that you're considering-your future success and career satisfaction depends on it.

Moving Beyond Diversity

In a job market plagued with unemployment rates as high as 6% (close to 10% for minority workers), corporate layoffs and other serious issues like corporate irresponsibility and insensitivity-it's clear that the job search process is to be taken seriously, unless you want to leave your destiny in someone else's hands.

You have probably already noticed the interesting dilemma for minority students in this post-September 11th economy-while some top minority students are still being aggressively recruited by major companies all proudly waiving their flags of cultural diversity, today there are just not as many high profile job offers and signing bonuses as in previous years. However, this doesn't mean that excellent job opportunities aren't there, so don't panic and accept the first offer that you receive if you aren't sure whether it's a solid match with your background and interests. It is important to ask yourself: Are you sure that the employment possibility you are considering will provide you with the best possible environment and resources to achieve your career goals? Are you certain that the companies you are interviewing with have a history of developing and promoting minority recruits?

For all students, it is critical that you make extra time in your busy schedule to closely examine all of the facts and clearly determine whether the companies that you are considering working for are truly a good match for you. However, this is even more important for ethnic and racial minorities because cultural barriers in the workplace do still exist. According to the Glass Ceiling Commission reports, some organizational cultures still pose blockades to the career success of minority professionals. These reported cultural barriers should send a clear message to you. Although things may be better for professional minorities in 2003 than they used to be, there is still a possibility that you may face obstructions to your professional success because of your minority status.

With cultural biases still possible in the workplace, it is important that you research company backgrounds beyond their financial stability, corporate goals and job descriptions. You must thoroughly research the cultural values and practices of potential employers-this information will serve as indicators to your ability to succeed in the organization.

Making the wrong decision to work in a culturally incompetent environment may cost you in time, lost opportunities, frustration and your professional confidence. Rebounding from a bad work experience often takes time and can impact you personally and professionally for years.

What Is Cultural Competence?

"Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strengths into compelling power."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Cultural competence is the ability and willingness of individuals and organizations to embrace, integrate and appropriately apply cultural knowledge in workplace processes, policies and interactions. The end result of cultural competence is improved understanding and development of the organizational environment, capabilities and services.

Companies that are committed to cultural competency are formally dedicated, from the top down, to move their organizations beyond "traditional" diversity awareness training and recruiting initiatives to elevate their cultural initiatives to a more highly structured, corporate-wide strategy that develops and embeds company knowledge of cultural issues into critical corporate policies, procedures and initiatives.

Progressive companies that seek healthy ways to grow see developing cultural capabilities as a strategic necessity to be better equipped to identify and pursue new business opportunities across the multitude of multicultural customer bases in the U.S. and abroad. According to a recent Society of Human Resource Management report, minorities are the majority in six out of the eight largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. The report also sited that the combined African-American, Hispanic American and Asian American buying power is more than $750 billion.

As corporate America continues to move forward in the early 21st Century, it is facing a world that is getting smaller as customer bases expand and new technologies bridge the gulf between nations, people and new ideas. And in this new business world, it will be increasingly difficult for any company to grow and develop if it is not capable of understanding and interacting effectively across multiple cultural and geographical venues.

For minority students, this is good news. As the world stage in business and industry continues to develop, more and more organizations will be in the market for talented minority students, even during difficult economic times. Recruiting, developing and retaining a diverse staff will be the only way for companies to remain competitive in a complex multi-cultural business arena.

What Are the Advantages of Working for a Culturally Competent Company?

As a student seeking employment at a culturally competent company, you will be pleased to know that employees at such companies consistently report higher levels of job satisfaction and advancement opportunities due to policies and practices in the organization that promote and protect equal opportunity and fair treatment. Also often reported by workers in culturally competent companies are high levels of job performance and increased creativity. Employees at companies like these find their workplace rich with opportunities to make an impact through involvement in key decisions, meetings and initiatives where their input, talents and unique cultural perspectives are valued. Such work environments also experience higher retention and recruitment rates of minority employees who feel more satisfied and secure in the organization. To this end, companies often have a series of progressive activities that review and promote cultural initiatives as a critical business strategy. Such companies regularly coordinate cultural audits within the company, conduct employee interviews, facilitate strategic focus groups, and initiate client evaluations.

In a time where companies come and go, it is also valuable to work for an organization that over time has proven its ability to embrace change, reinvent itself and adapt to the changes in the national and global economy. Companies that are culturally competent today have proved their ability to adapt. Such companies responded to early research such as the Workplace 2000 report that predicted the growing minority impact on the workforce and economy in the 21st Century. Throughout the last 20 years many progressive organizations have invested in developing their employees and gathering critical cultural information through diversity training initiatives, cultural audits and by launching aggressive diversity recruiting initiatives. The efforts of many of these companies have paid off tremendously in new business models and in opportunities to effectively meet the needs of their increasingly diverse clients and employees.

How Can I Know if a Company Is Culturally Competent?

As you move forward in your efforts to choose a company that best matches your personal and professional needs, it is important to conduct a detailed cultural assessment of the organizations. Offered in this article are a series of questions to consider when determining the cultural behavior and practices of companies. The questions can be answered through your own research and through informational interviews with various employees within the organization.

However, some information can be difficult to find because it is not made public. In this case, contact the company's human resource department and ask what information they are willing to disclose. If the HR department is unwilling to answer your questions, try to get information from alumni or other employer contacts you may have. Throughout this process you should take detailed notes of all of your interviews and conversations. If you're considering multiple organizations, make a comparison list of your results to assist in making your final decision.

While conducting your assessment, remember that members of the organization are also evaluating you even though this is not a part of a formal interview process. Remember to conduct yourself very professionally in interviews, ask only appropriate questions and do not probe too far if the interviewer does not seem to be comfortable answering your questions. Also, remember to follow up in writing to thank those who took the time to answer your questions. Networking is still the number one way to find excellent career opportunities, so see this process as not only as an information gathering exercise but also as an opportunity to make a positive connection with members of the organization.

After completing this assessment, share your findings with
a professional career counselor at your university, a faculty member or trusted professional mentor for additional feedback and professional insight.

Moving Forward...

"All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence."
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As you prepare to enter into today's competitive and complicated job market, remember all of your hard work that brought you to this point. It is that same diligence that will assist you in successfully transitioning to the next level in your professional career. It was once said that success is measured not by the position one has reached, but by the obstacles they have overcome. Remember that even in the most challenging situations, it is those individuals that go the extra mile that succeed.

In a job market that appears to be riddled with confusion and negativity, keep your eye on the prize. Launch your job search process with intelligence, confidence and a positive attitude, and you will be successful. Find a company with the same commitment, attitude and excellence that you personally desire.

Even in a slow economy you will never regret taking the time to find the right company that shares your values and will provide an environment that empowers you to succeed.

Cultural Competency Assessment Questions

  • Does the leadership of the company visibly endorse and participate in cultural initiatives?
  • Do the brochures and other marketing and public relations materials reflect the company's commitment to cultural competence, multi-cultural initiatives and diversity?
  • Do public statements, presentations and conversations with non-minority leaders and employees consistently reflect cultural competence?
  • Can you identify any public statements of non-minority that may reflect a level of cultural competence?
  • If so, were they positive, negative or neutral?
  • What do business and career publications say about the diversity and cultural competence of the organization?
  • as the organization been mentioned in any popular diversity recruiting rankings or articles?
  • Has there been any negative publicity concerning the organization and cultural matters?
  • Do the minority hiring statistics of the company reflect a commitment to cultural competence?
  • Do the percentages of minorities in management or leadership positions reflect a commitment to cultural competence?
  • Do the retention and turnover rates of the organization reflect a commitment to cultural competence?

    o Poor retention and turnover rates can reflect issues in the organization that may be driving out minorities.

  • Do minority employees feel that the company is culturally competent?
  • Personal interviews with minority employees can assist you in answering this question.
  • Is there a confidential process for minority employees to report problems within the organization?
  • These programs are often under the umbrella of employee assistance programs or special human resource initiatives.
  • Does the company have a detailed strategy for cultural awareness that extends beyond diversity training and corporate recruiting initiatives?
  • Is there a diversity committee or office with an official implementation plan?
  • Are there reported goals and objectives?
  • Is the detailed company diversity or cultural awareness strategy promoted?
  • How and where is the strategy promoted?
  • Is the organization successfully involved in multicultural or multinational business initiatives?
  • Do minority employees feel that their compensation is on par with their non-minority counterparts?
  • Are there any references in the company literature to indicate policies and procedures that support cultural competence (i.e., hiring policies, time off for cultural celebrations or holidays, outlined cultural performance competencies)?
  • Are there cultural support programs and services for minority employees, such as training and professional development forums for diverse groups?
  • Is the company involved in any community service activities that seek to assist minority groups?
  • What do minority managers say about their past and present career mobility in the organization?
  • An informational interview with a minority manager will give you great insight to the history and current organizational opportunities for minorities.

Kim R. Wells is the director of the Career Services Office at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Mr. Wells has over 15 years of experience in performance consulting and career development services.


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