Pictures help avoid confusion in the barn

Hiring employees from diverse cultural backgrounds has rewards and challenges

Tina Varughese

Communicating well with employees can be challenging at the best of times, but throw additional languages and new customs into the mix, and it can be a minefield for the unprepared.

“I think we’ve become way too politically correct in this country and we need to call a spade a spade… because it would really help us to understand people a lot better,” said Tina Varughese, who specializes in cross-cultural communications and spoke at the annual Manitoba Swine Seminar in Winnipeg last week.

“When we know better, we do better,” she said, noting that businesses often reject potential employees based on misinterpretations of cultural customs. For example, someone interviewing an indigenous person might be put off if they don’t maintain eye contact. The reality is that people from some cultures, including some indigenous cultures, avert their gaze out of respect for the person they are speaking to, Varughese said.

“So if you misread these signals, you might be ruling out the best person for the job before they even have a chance,” she said.

As the pork industry continues to ease labour shortages with foreign workers and new arrivals, learning how to navigate cultural differences is absolutely crucial, said Varughese, who was born to parents of East Indian origin in Saskatchewan. Even common Canadian hand signals — like the thumbs-up sign — can have hugely different and offensive meanings to people from other cultural backgrounds.

“And you do not want to be the person who just accidentally flipped the new employees the bird,” Varughese said.

But nowhere is good communication more important than when it comes to safety, especially when working around livestock and machinery.

“I think when you are working with people who don’t have English as a first language, it’s really key to use pictorials, pictures, and all techniques of communication,” she said. “That means audio, visual, and kinaesthetic. Audio, you’re going to speak the message, visual, you will use pictures, PowerPoint, graphs, whatever it takes, video and kinaesthetic means you’re going to use examples of anecdotes, or stories to get that message across.”

It’s also important to understand if your employees are direct or indirect communicators.

While Canadians tend to be very direct in their communication, Varughese said Filipinos are usually indirect communicators.

“So they don’t tend to say they don’t understand something,” she said — a situation that could lead to real danger in a hog barn. She suggested using open-ended questions to avoid confusion.

An open-ended question gives an employee the opportunity to expand on what they understood and what they didn’t, without overtly saying no to anything, Varughese said.

At one time learning about cultural differences and other people’s customs was considered a nicety, something that a business person or employer might take an interest in if they were inclined to, she said.

“For business today, it’s a necessity,” Varughese said.

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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