Intercultural Competence: A Vital Skill For HR

April 05, 2019 by Josh Hrala

There are tons of skills that a well-rounded HR leader has to master in order for them to truly succeed in their role. Right now, one of the most important is something called ‘intercultural competence,’ which – in short – is the ability to work with people of all cultures and walks of life.

Intercultural competence is such a big deal in today’s world because more and more business is happening across cultural lines. And, if you are not aware of how different cultures and backgrounds approach work, you will struggle to thrive as a team.

In this brief blog, we will go over the importance of intercultural competence and explain how you can boost your own intercultural competence skill set.

Let’s jump right in with the very basics.

What Is Intercultural Competence?

Like we said above, the short answer to this question is that intercultural competence is the ability to understand, work with, and engage with people from other cultures and backgrounds. It’s all about understanding different cultures and how they operate, how they view work, and what their core values are.

“Intercultural, or cross-cultural, competence is a crucial skill-set in today’s global workplace, where employees are more likely to interact with co-workers, vendors or customers from different cultures and countries, and need to work productively with people who have been shaped by different values, beliefs and experiences,” writes Lorna Collier in an article for ETS.

Collier uses an example brought forth by Kendal Callison, a senior HR executive with Auth0, who went on a business trip to Italy to meet with the company’s Italian workforce. When she got there, she immediately set up a slew of hour-long meetings where she tried to get to know the staff.

Then, at lunchtime, someone approached her and kindly expressed that Italians value personal connection, family time, and things of that nature. And, as per their customs, they typically relate on a personal level before they engage in any business dealings. Callison, it turned out, had jumped straight into business without establishing anything else. This is because her intercultural competence hadn’t taken into account how Italians may operate differently than Americans.

Here’s Collier again:

“‘That was amazingly enlightening for me,’ says Callison, ‘because here I’d been a bull in a china shop jumping into business content without warming up and developing that personal connection.’ She quickly switched her approach, resulting in colleagues opening up to her and ‘sharing more meaningful information about what was going well and not well.'”

As you can see in this great example, once she changed the way she was operating, everything went smoothly.

Intercultural Competence

This is, of course, just one example, but it’s easy to see how someone can forget that other cultures do things differently, even if those workers work for the same company as you do – just overseas.

Now that you fully know what intercultural competence is, let’s move into more reasons why it’s so important.

Why Is Intercultural Competence Vital In Today’s World?

This is a pretty easy question. As you probably already know, the world is more connected today than it has ever been before. This makes intercultural competence a must for anyone trying to be a well-rounded business person. However, it’s even more important for HR leaders.


Simply because HR leaders need to have a basic understanding of how new hires may operate inside their company. Let’s look at a hypothetical situation now. Say that a new person was hired to a full-time, remote position in Spain.

Spain, on the surface, isn’t much different than America, right? Wrong. The typical day in Spain is broken up in different ways than a typical work day in the US.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “there is a long break—generally two to five hours long—in the middle of the day, during which most businesses are closed and the streets are not very busy. (The few exceptions are bars, restaurants, and the large department stores, which do not close at midday.) The main daily television news is broadcast at this time, as are some of the most popular programs. The workday resumes in the late afternoon, between 4:30 and 5:00 PM, and continues until about 8:00 PM.”

Now, compare that to a US day where lunch – if you even take one – is typically between noon and 1:00 PM. Sometimes it’s only a half-hour. Then, right back to work. In fact, a lot of meetings happen during and after lunch, too. The average office worker also works 9-5 and calls it a day.

In Spain, this is completely different because they break up their day with a really long gap in the middle that is totally unheard of in the US.

Intercultural Competence

So, in our example, the HR leader (and the managers and teams working with the person in Spain) should be fully aware of these differences. Now, the worker in Spain may also understand that US-based companies do not stop working for this gap. This is good because both sides are showing off their intercultural competence. Both sides will have to come together to find a nice middle ground where everyone is flexible. In this instance, the timezone gap would help smooth things over, too.

This is just one example and I’m sure you can poke holes in it. However, the message is solid: in order to work with people of different cultures, you need to understand their culture. You don’t have to be an expert in it, but you should know the basics – enough to be understanding and reasonable.

It’s important to note before we move on that intercultural competence doesn’t just apply to foreign workers, either. America is a diverse place with its own subsets of cultural backgrounds. Everyone is different and people come from all walks of life. By simply keeping intercultural competence on your mind, you’ll find that you can relate to people in a new, more nuanced way.

How Can You Learn Intercultural Competence?

The same driving force that is connecting us more and more is the same thing that is perfect to help drive intercultural competence: the internet.

You don’t need to have a degree in anthropology to have intercultural competence. In the example above, it’s pretty clear that I looked that up about Spain. It took a whopping two-minutes to learn something new (and a full minute of that time was used reading more about Spain that I didn’t even need to).

With that said, your first step resource is good ol’ Google. Of course, as with anything on the internet, make sure the source you are using is a good one. The internet obviously empowers anyone to make a website so do your due diligence and treat your research like research.

If you want something a bit more formal, there are countless educational institutions that offer intercultural competence courses that can give you the tools you need. These classes will not focus on specific cultures or countries, but serve as a way to shore up your skills in a way that empowers you to research on your own. Just like universities and schools help people understand how to learn, intercultural competence classes do the same with a specific goal in mind.

Intercultural Competence

When it comes to your workforce, there are various methods you can use to make sure your staff members have intercultural competence, too. You can do this in training sessions and things of that nature. One of the best ways you can foster intercultural competence organically is to have a diverse workforce to begin with. Countless research papers over the last couple of years have suggested that diverse workplaces perform better than those that aren’t as diverse, too.

This creates a win-win situation. Not only does your business perform better overall, but your staff members have a higher level of intercultural competence, which will help build relationships with people of different cultures as a whole (not only with partners but with customers and clients as well).

Intercultural Competence: The Takeaways

In summary, intercultural competence is the ability to understand and adapt to other cultures. You can think of this as cultural awareness.

By fostering intercultural competence at your workplace, you will better fit into our globally connected workplace where clients, workers, partners, and customers are spread out across the planet, coming from all walks of life and backgrounds.

Not only is intercultural competence a forward-thinking thing to keep top of mind, it also helps your overall business and can lead to you making better relationships with diverse groups of people. In today’s world, this is more important than ever.

To start fostering intercultural competence at your organization, you have a multitude of resources at your disposal. From teaching research methods to holding training sessions, how you handle intercultural competence is largely up to you, though its importance cannot be underlined enough.

Josh Hrala

Josh Hrala

Josh is an HR journalist and ghostwriter who's been covering outplacement and offboarding for over six years. Before pivoting to the HR world, he was a science journalist whose work can be found in Popular Science, ScienceAlert, The Huffington Post, Cracked, Modern Notion, and more.

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