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Professor Grace Guo’s Research Underscores Critical Role of Cultural Training for Diverse Workforce

Employers must know workers’ talents, not rely on stereotypes, she finds

Professor Grace Guo

By Kim Primicerio

Most businesses and organizations recognize the importance of diversity in the workforce and deem it crucial to success, but without proper training, problems can arise.

Grace Guo, associate professor of management and MBA academic faculty director, came to these conclusions after conducting research in 2014 with Akram Al Ariss from the Université de Toulouse in France. In their published work, Job Allocations As Cultural Sorting in a Culturally Diverse Organizational Context, they explore the challenges and issues associated with managing a culturally diverse workforce. They interviewed 50 employees who worked in managerial positions in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), some of whom were native to the region and others who were international employees with roots all over the globe. The research was published in International Business Review in 2016.

When employees move to a new country to work, they’re typically there for about two years, Guo explained. However, she said, when these employees begin working abroad, there’s typically no support or training.

“People have problems adjusting. They don’t feel embedded and they don’t feel like they’re adapting well. They’re in culture shock. There’s no training for the employees who have been there or for the new people. If there’s no training, certain culture cues are ignored and not understood. People can’t assume diversity breeds creativity and innovation without proper management strategy,” Guo said.

Through the 50 interviews, Guo realized that, while organizations saw the value in a diverse workforce, they did not manage it well. Neither UAE employees or international workers going there received training to better understand each other’s cultures or strengths and weaknesses. Instead, she said, employers made decisions based on stereotypes and allocated jobs based on where international employees were from.

“Certain job positions were, in practice, only available to employees of a certain nationality or cultural background. For example, Americans were perceived to be suitable working in sales roles and generally assigned to work in top management teams; the French were perceived to be most effective working in hospitality management and the fashion industry; Indians were perceived to be good at working in media; and Arab employees were largely influenced by commonly shared stereotypes of comparative advantages of international employees’ home countries in certain industries or specialties,” the study reported.

“Organizations can’t afford to use culture stereotypes,” Guo said. “They have to know the talent in all their employees and what they can bring and contribute.” Otherwise, she said, international employees begin to feel left out and not respected. Training must take place on both sides so employees can recognize differences, she added.

Guo’s passion for this research stems from her own experience as an international worker. Born in China, she came to the United States when she was 21 years old for her master’s degree in business administration. She studied at Oklahoma State University and, while she said she was fortunate and didn’t face discrimination, she still had to deal with cultural differences and struggles. She later received her doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and then worked at Merrimack College before coming to SHU in 2010. She teaches freshmen, seniors and graduate students.

“This is so close to my heart,” Guo said of her research. “Without proper management, talent gets wasted—it’s a downhill, vicious cycle.”

The Jack Welch College of Business is highly diverse, and faculty works together to ensure everyone’s skills are utilized, Guo said. The University and College integrate everyone’s knowledge and ensure professors are teaching in their skill area, she added, noting that the same measures must be followed in other diverse workplaces.

Besides training, another way to help international and native employees feel welcomed is to invite everyone to discussions. “Are there monthly forums inviting people to join in on conversations? Different people bring different knowledge, but if you don’t reach out to them and invite them to a discussion, you’re never going to know,” Guo said. Employees from the UAE expressed a desire to learn about their peers and wanted the opportunity to talk about their cultures, but no such opportunities came about, she related.

Guo will continue her research with trips this summer to California and China to conduct more interviews, with the belief that spotlighting the need for training will only enhance companies, make employees feel welcome and allow for success.