Cultural competence is an important skill set to have

By Karaitiana Taiuru


If a recruitment organisation promotes a diverse people environment this will attract diverse people to work there and diverse clients. I would encourage all organisations to be respectful of their Indigenous Peoples regardless of business opportunities. By doing so, this reflects to other cultural communities that you are culturally sensitive, diverse and shows respect.

In New Zealand it is mandated that the public sector engage with Te Tiriti o Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document with Māori, its Indigenous Peoples). But businesses, including large corporates are discovering the wealth of knowledge to be found through meaningful engagement with Māori. But, it is important to properly engage with a cultural consultant to avoid cultural appropriation, incorrect usage of words and concepts. 


Organisations could look at incorporating specific cultural values into their strategic plans and business models.


Whether it is an Indigenous Peoples group, religious or immigrant group in New Zealand or Australia: there are a myriad of opportunities to engage in these communities and to form genuine business relationships with these communities and to learn those subtle cultural nuisances that could make your organisation the preferred recruiter or to get the best person into a role that may not have been considered due to that small cultural nuance.


Ascertaining which communities to engage with is likely unique to each organisation based on community, economic opportunities, and future forecasts. But it is common for cultural groups who are seeking business relations, to be discouraged from using an organisation if the staff or the organisation is not culturally aware. Potential staffing appointments for clients could also be lost due to culturally inappropriate behaviour or misunderstandings by recruitment staff.


What are the main reasons for people to be aware of cultural competence, specifically surrounding recruitment?


It is absolutely vital to be culturally competent and aware for both your own professional and personal reputation, the organisation who employs you and to your client who you are recruiting for. We all live in a global village that is diverse and largely appreciative of each other’s differences.

Cultural capability is a chance for businesses to communicate and engage more with culturally diverse businesses.


The world is increasingly becoming more aware and less tolerant of minority cultures’ rights and beliefs. The use of technology has seen events from around the world beamed into our mobile devices and homes very quickly. The media is becoming more diverse and there are generations of people who have different values than say the Baby Boomers and older generations. Our societies have for some time, and continue to be, culturally diverse and we all have responsibilities to learn and appreciate each other’s cultures.

There is a common stereotype that if a person is of a specific ethnicity, they must be culturally competent and a fluent speaker within their own culture. In many cases this is not true, especially with a culture that has been marginalised, colonised or for people who have left their country one or more generations ago. Sometimes people assume that because a person is of an ethnicity that they can speak on behalf of all of the cultures of that ethnicity. This is often not true and would be very difficult for a person of Polynesian or Asian descent to be fully aware of all the myriad of cultures and languages in their ethnic geographical regions.


Another potential issue is that staff within an organisation who are from an ethnic group, are often given a lot more cultural responsibilities in addition to any contractual obligations. Often these staff members become the ‘go to person’ for all cultural questions and tasks. These staff members risk burn out.


Here’s a lesson for recruiters based on my recent personal experience. As New Zealand society is recognising the importance of cultural diversity and the Māori economy is substantially growing to apoint where it can no longer be ignored, many organisations are seeking Māori cultural advisors. I had received six InMail’s from recruiters for such jobs. The roles were for middle management to senior management roles within medium sized New Zealand organisations, in both the private and public sector.

Five of the messages I found culturally offensive and did not want to subject myself or anyone I know to a culturally unsafe environment where the recruiter did not have the skills to recruit for the specialist role. 


The recruiter’s messages either had spelling mistakes, orthographically incorrect or used a mixture of informal and formal language.


All five ignored basic cultural practices for introductory communications and were patronising based on the requests in the correspondence. One Inmail had a long introduction in Māori that was intended as a secondary speech for a formal meeting, not a written communication and certainly not appropriate for LinkedIn for a first message.


Had the InMail’s been more culturally appropriate I would have responded to all of them and showed an interest in two of the opportunities. I would have also shared the email with other people in my network who might have been interested. But I chose to ignore them due to the offensive nature of the messages which I assumed was unintentional. I will also not recommend those recruitment agencies in my future roles where I have input into those decisions.


How can recruiters show cultural competence?


By being aware of the cultural differences with other cultures in your industry and communities and by acknowledging that our global communities are multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious.


I would suggest that pretending to be culturally aware of another person’s culture when you are not could be seen as condescending as opposed to trying. Open communication is important, as is being aware of issues such as cultural appropriation and ensuring your knowledge is based on facts and not stereotypes. I have seen people with good intentions wearing culturally inappropriate jewellery or displaying offensive art in the office.


Using common greetings in the correct manner from the particular culture and understanding some basic cultural courtesies is easy to learn, easy to practice and they make a huge difference. For Māori, hearing a “Kia ora” can be a significant benefit to a relationship. As another example, it is common in Māori and Pacific Island cultures to not hold eye contact for long periods of time. In a western perspective, this is interpreted in a much different way. Identifying these nuances will allow recruiters to identify skills and the best person for the job.

When writing in another language, check that you are spelling words correctly and use special symbols used by the other language. Not doing so can be interpreted in several different negative ways, including a lack of respect for the language. Technologically, most language characters are able to be applied directly from a computer or copied and pasted from another source. Further, without the correct characters the word can have a very different meaning. There are a number of online dictionaries and publications at libraries to use as a reference.


Being able to pronounce and spell non-English names is also beneficial to organisations. For many cultures it is very offensive to have your personal name mispronounced, shortened to appease others and it is frustrating to be asked to spell your name all of the time. If a recruiter can pronounce a personal name, there is likely to be a good relationship.


For New Zealand recruiters dealing with Māori and tribal organisations and corporations there are a number of engagement frameworks and advice prepared by the New Zealand government that could be adapted to a recruitment model. Likewise, in Australia there are Indigenous engagement frameworks that may be of assistance.

Engagement frameworks can be found in online searches and then modified to meet your specific organisation’s requirements. Alternatively a custom written framework can be created with specialists and your organisation. Either way you develop an engagement framework, a focus group is useful to test the framework and further refine it to specifically meet your organisation requirements.


Karaitiana Taiuru is of Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Toa and Scottish descent. He works as a freelance Māori cultural consultant in the areas of Science and Digital Technologies, Māori intellectual property rights and academic research. He recently completed writing a PhD focusing on traditional Indigenous knowledge and effective cultural engagement processes with bio technologies.

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