By Janice Mulholland

04 March 2013 - 15:46

New research shows that employers around the world value staff who understand the role of culture at work. (Image credit: Mat Wright).
New research shows that employers around the world value staff who understand the role of culture at work. ©

Mat Wright.

We asked employers in nine countries how they view the role of intercultural skills in the workplace. Janice Mulholland of the British Council in the USA summarises the research.

The reality of today’s global economy is changing the way employers look at job candidates. While relevant experience and technical know-how remain must-haves for employers, they are also looking for employees with the ability to understand people from different cultural backgrounds, build trust, demonstrate respect, and speak other languages.

To find out the value of these intercultural skills, we conducted a survey of more than 360 recruitment decision makers at large organisations in nine countries: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Jordan, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US).

This new report – Culture at Work – looks into how employers view intercultural skills in the workplace, why these skills are important, and how they stack up next to other necessary skills in employers’ eyes.

What do employers understand by ‘intercultural skills’?

To understand where employers are coming from, we first asked them to describe intercultural skills for us. The most frequent descriptor was ‘the ability to understand different cultural contexts and viewpoints.’ The second and third most frequent descriptors were ‘demonstrating respect for others’ and ‘adapting to different cultural settings’, followed by ‘accepting cultural differences’, ‘speaking foreign languages’, and ‘being open to new ideas and ways of thinking’.

Why do employers think that intercultural skills are important?

We asked employers why these skills were important. While they gave many different answers, it seemed that many of the employers surveyed agreed on a few important reasons, all of which have benefits to an organisation’s earnings. One told us that 'employees with these skills bring in new clients, work within diverse teams and support a good brand and reputation.'

Employers also see risks associated with not having employees with these skills. The top risks identified were loss of clients, damage to an organisation’s reputation and team conflict. All of these risks could also have financial implications for an organisation.

How do employers evaluate job candidates for intercultural skills?

Once we established how employers define intercultural skills and why they are important, we asked them about how they evaluate job candidates for these skills.

While the majority of employers reported that they do not screen for intercultural skills in the application or interview process – at least, not formally – most were able to explain what they look for in job candidates that could be related to intercultural skills. These are the top five indicators of intercultural skills:

  1. Strong communication throughout the interview and selection process
  2. The ability to speak foreign languages
  3. Demonstration of cultural sensitivity in the interview
  4. Experience studying overseas
  5. Experience working overseas

How well do education systems support the development of intercultural skills?

Finally, we asked employers how well they felt their country’s education system supported the development of intercultural skills.

The answer was a mixed bag globally, with some employers feeling good about the role of their education systems (Indonesia, Jordan, and UAE) and others mostly disappointed (China and South Africa). In some countries, respondents were either neutral on this issue (UK) or completely divided (US and India, with nearly a third of respondents in each category).

While opinions were certainly mixed about the success of the education system, it seemed that most employers agreed on a short list of things that education providers could do more of to improve the development of intercultural skills. Those suggestions included teaching communication skills, encouraging foreign languages, encouraging overseas study and developing research partnerships.

Update, 26 January 2017: Professionals in London can register to take part in our Intercultural Fluency course on 28 March 2017.

Read the full Culture at Work report, published in partnership with consulting and research firms Booz Allen Hamilton and Ipsos Public Affairs.

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