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Diversity Professionals Explore Cultural Competency at George Mason University Meeting


Dozens of diversity professionals examined organizational obstacles and solutions in achieving cultural competency at “Workplace Diversity: Practice and Research,” the third annual diversity conference hosted by The School of Management at George Mason University.

The event, which was held July 16-17, drew dozens of professors, executives and researchers from across the country to discuss current best practices and research in diversity management and business education as it relates to cultural competency.

While health care professionals are often cited for embracing cultural competency, an increasing number of businesses and institutions of higher learning have also adopted the ideology. Cultural competency encompasses an individual’s attitude and knowledge about cultural differences as well as awareness about one’s world views.


In a session titled “Increasing Cultural Competency at the Organizational Level,” Dr. Lisa Nishii, of the School of Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, and Robert Rich, managing principal at The Ithaca Consulting Group, discussed organizational cultural competency (OCC) and the consequences of insufficient efforts in maintaining best cultural competency practices in the workplace.

“The group level is ultimately where cultural competency occurs,” Nishii said.

Nishii, whose research focuses on organizational diversity and inclusion, pointed out that one-time practices like diversity training are not going to move organizations toward cultural competency.


”You have the best practices adopted everywhere, but you just can’t expect them to work right,” Nishii said. “You create the process for interaction.”


She also discussed major inhibitors of cultural competency: the presence of biased employment practices, a “we versus they” mentality, and a “top down” leadership style. Nishii said “top down” leadership style occurs when decision-making maintains the status quo.


“It’s important to make the distinction between diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We need to be pushed to form meaningful relationships with people who are different than us.”


Rich, who provides consulting, coaching and training services, said the lack of cultural competency in work settings silences employees and therefore creates more problems in the workplace.

“The employees are more likely to be whistleblowers than (critics) in the organization,” he said.

Friday’s keynote address, “Cultural Intelligence and Discovering Underlying Capabilities for Sojourners,” which was conducted by Dr. P. Christopher Earley, dean of the business school and the Auran J. Fox Chair at the University of Connecticut, included several interactive activities.


Earley played a clip from Steven Spielberg’s “The Terminal,” a film starring award-winning actor Tom Hanks, to spur a discussion about effective and ineffective cultural communication. In the film, the main character – an East European with limited English-language skills – arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York but is not able to enter the U.S. because the country from which he originated undergoes a change of leadership because of a coup. This development voids the man’s passport, visa and other official documents. The lack of cultural competency at the airport immigration services makes the stranded man’s interaction with the director of Customs and Border Protection difficult.


The immigration agent failed to step outside his comfort zone to accommodate Hank’s character, Earley and other participants noted following the clip’s ending.  

“You have to be aware of your own capabilities and limitations,” Earley added.


Other session topics examined the research-practice gap, collaboration building, and how individuals can identify and manage their biases and privileges.

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