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They Told Me I Had to be Competent, but Culturally Competent?

Mar 14, 2011

Increasing numbers of dairy employees are immigrants. Whether you like it or not, you are called upon to be a culturally competent employer.

Duvall, Shaun pro photo 1 11   CopyBy Shaun Duvall
Chris was a lifelong dairy farmer. He grew up milking, managing and cropping. He took over for his parents. It became clear in the mid-1990s that to stay profitable, he would need to expand and hire employees. After doing so, the next challenge was hiring and keeping employees.
After some time, he called me and we worked together to help him become a better employer. Not only did he have to learn to manage people, he had to learn to manage people from a different culture who didn’t speak English well. He traveled to Mexico to the homes of his employees and learned how to be a culturally competent employer.
According to research conducted by Dr. Jill Harrison, UW-Madison, approximately 40% of employees on Wisconsin dairies are immigrants. (Here is a link to her research: I imagine this is true on larger dairies in the U.S. That being the case, you need to know how to do this correctly. Whether you like it or not, you are called upon to be a culturally competent employer. What does cultural competence look, feel like? How do I know if I am competent? And why does it matter?
Let’s begin by defining culture. Paraphrasing from Craig Storti’s book, Figuring Foreigners Out, culture is the characteristic behaviors of a group of people that reflect shared values and beliefs. In other words, your actions are guided by your beliefs. This means that your actions are neutral. They are simply reflections of your values and beliefs.
The same behavior in one culture may reflect a different value in another. For us, looking someone in the eye reflects a belief that it is important to be direct. For other cultures that value showing of respect to an employer (superior), looking one in the eye can mean a challenge or defiance. Same neutral behavior, but very differently interpreted.
If you start to think about this, you can observe many of your behaviors, and then analyze the value or belief that lies behind it. Do the same with your employees. Instead of judging a behavior, simply ask what might be the value or belief behind it? Lots of misunderstandings can be prevented by doing this. (A caveat here: This doesn’t mean that you have to agree. You simply understand.) Expect that your employees do the same. Explain the belief or value behind what you do. Get them to begin doing the same with their actions. 
Secondly, recognize that no culture is better or worse than another. They are different in ways and similar in ways. The important thing is to set aside judgment. Recognize and celebrate the ways we are different but also the things that we have in common: values, beliefs and connecting with others.  Be OK talking about our values and asking about theirs.
Thirdly, recognize the benefit you receive from growing more culturally aware and competent. We have so much to learn from one another. Why waste time and energy working so hard to be different? It is just like learning another language. You never get “stupider” learning another language. Likewise, you only become wiser and a better employer having more cultural competency. Of course, it matters because a better employer/employee relationship means more profitability.
In producer Chris’ words, “It is an investment of time that bears great rewards. Getting to understand little and big things, from differing meaning of gestures, to understanding their concept of an employer, and helping them to reach their potential that pays off richly on my farm, and in my life. I know it does for them as well.”
Puentes/Bridges is a nonprofit organization that, under Shaun Duvall’s direction, promotes cultural understanding, particularly in the dairy industry. Duvall also operates SJD Language & Culture Services, LLC, a translation and interpretation business. For more information, contact Shaun Duvall at or (608) 685-4705.
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