Charlotte O’Connell Of Graebel Companies On Why Cultural Sensitivity Matters in Business | by Vanessa Ogle | Authority Magazine | May, 2024

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Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about cultural sensitivity, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve never encountered a child that said they wanted to be an HR manager, when asked what they wanted to be when they grew up!

My parents’ motto was ‘If you can help someone, why not?’ This mindset was instilled in me and my sisters from a young age and guided my career path, as I chose a very people-centric role.

In school I studied legal studies, not quite sure of what aspect I wanted to focus on. I was fortunate to have earned a position in one of the top law firms in Ireland and while there, I was seconded into HR…and the rest is history! Throughout my HR career, I’ve worked in a variety of sectors including fast-moving consumer goods and online payment providers. For the last nearly six and a half years I’ve immersed myself in the world of global relocation management at Graebel.

I’ve been very lucky to have worked with people who have believed in me and given me the support and guidance to grow into the HR professional that I am today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My dad has always lived — and encouraged me to live — by the mantra, ‘Enjoy the little things as you’ll look back one day and realize they were the big things.’

It would be very easy to talk about big projects or rollouts I’ve worked on but what has kept me motivated and inspired is the colleagues I’ve had the privilege of working with.

Serving in HR, you’re at the forefront of everything people related — you’re there for people going through the best and worst parts of their lives. The magic for me is where you’re in an interview or meet a new hire and you can see the spark and you get to help that spark become a flame. As an HR professional, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is seeing these employees realize their potential and grow into the leaders you knew they could be.

You are a successful individual. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I think the three traits that have best served me throughout my career are resiliency, emotional intelligence and active listening.

  • Resiliency: Throughout my career in HR, I’ve dealt with some very challenging situations, from conflicts to terminations to organizational changes. Being resilient has enabled me to adapt to change, so I can bounce back quickly and stay focused and productive during challenging times. It has also helped me learn to cope with stress and pressure, which I think is inherent to some degree in any job.
  • Emotional Intelligence: I think it would be virtually impossible to work in HR without a high level of emotional intelligence. Being able to empathize with colleagues so they feel heard, understood and supported is critical to my job. It also helps me develop positive relationships with a two-way culture of trust, respect and understanding. Not only is emotional intelligence important in HR, but I feel it’s probably the most important character trait for leaders today, too.
  • Active Listening: It’s important to not just hear the words that are being spoken but to also read the non-verbal cues that are being shared. Understanding both can help you have a truly open and honest dialogue.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. How do you define cultural sensitivity in the context of your business, and why is it important for your company’s success?

First, I think it’s important to clarify that cultural sensitivity is not political correctness. Cultural sensitivity is about a genuine understanding and appreciation of diverse backgrounds. Even more importantly, it’s about helping stakeholders of all backgrounds and lived experiences feel like they have a place in your organization.

I think cultural sensitivity is inherent, to some degree, in the talent mobility industry, as we engage with people from all different cultures and customs, that speak different languages and practice different religions, and that hold different beliefs. To be successful in such an environment requires people that not only understand but accept others’ differences.

To truly achieve the benefits of a diverse and inclusive environment, though, employees must feel a sense of belonging. Belonging doesn’t happen because we create a policy and ask people to acknowledge what they’ve read — those policies must be lived every day, in every interaction, in work and in your personal life too. That’s why we’ve made belonging Graebel’s 2024 DEI theme. We believe if Graebel employees feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work, that will transcend to the service we offer to mobile employees — meaning employees who are relocating for a work assignment — and to our clients.

Graebel has a people-first philosophy that guides everything we do, meaning we strive to always put people at the forefront — from our interactions with colleagues and mobile employees to the clients that we choose to work with. This north star helps us enact real, transformative change, which means this isn’t just a check-the-box exercise for us.

Can you share an experience where cultural sensitivity significantly impacted a business decision or client relationship?

We see ourselves as an extension of our clients, which necessitates a cultural fit between the companies. From the beginning of any client relationship, we immerse ourselves in their workplace culture. I realized early on in my tenure with Graebel that it was vital to understand our clients’ cultural differences to fully grasp the challenges they face on a daily basis. That knowledge is crucial to being able to seamlessly move their top talent globally, remove complexities and problem solve to maximize the relocation experience and our clients’ investments.

What strategies do you employ to foster a culturally sensitive environment within your team or organization?

To create the change we wish to see, we take a bigger picture approach and are focused on not only fostering cultural sensitivity at Graebel, but within the broader talent mobility industry. That means we partner with our clients and supplier partners to engage on their journeys too.

Here’s a snapshot of what we’re doing internally, with clients and with supplier partners to achieve our goals:

  • At Graebel: We prepare educational initiatives that help foster awareness of and appreciation for culturally diverse workplaces. Each course assignment includes a companion guide to dive deeper into the lessons and we also offer facilitated discussions hosted by our Learning and Development team or a Graebel DEI Council regional lead. These intimate conversations are limited to 30 people and feature breakout sessions to encourage collaborative interaction with team members around course topics. Through these conversations, we hope to help employees progress in their DEI journeys and recognize the role they play in creating the change they wish to see in the workplace.
  • With clients: We offer DEI consulting services for our clients, to help them take DEI to the next level to create meaningful, lasting change. We meet clients wherever they may be on their DEI journey by building upon their current mobility-related DEI initiatives to foster innovative and inclusive workplaces of the future. We also offer new ideas, guidance and program recommendations to clients who are new to DEI or that don’t have a current plan established for building a more equitable and inclusive workplace.
  • With supplier partners: Whether it’s at our annual Partner Alliance Conference, in our Power of Partnership supplier quarterly or in our ongoing work, we’re constantly seeking out opportunities to share our insights and to learn from our supplier partners on their inclusivity efforts. Just as we’re extensions of our clients’ teams, our supplier partners are an extension of our team, so our aim is to build a consistently culturally sensitive network for mobile employees.

How do you handle situations where cultural misunderstandings or conflicts arise in the workplace?

To resolve cultural misunderstandings or conflicts, you truly do need to have an environment where employees feel respected and valued. That environment is more conducive to employees sharing their perspective on what happened, which is a necessary step to resolving the situation without making any assumptions.

It also requires you, or the mediator, to have an understanding of different cultures, so you can help explain to each party the others’ perspective, or where/how the misunderstanding arose. That in turn can help employees understand and appreciate each other’s differences and prevent future misunderstandings.

This can be a delicate balance, as some cultures prioritize indirect communication and employees would prefer not to share their opinions and concerns. It’s our job in HR to come from that understanding and find a way to help those employees feel comfortable expressing themselves.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Reasons Why Cultural Sensitivity is So Important in Business?”

  1. Creates a Safe Work Environment: A safe work environment isn’t just about employees’ physical safety. Embodying a culturally aware work environment ensures that all colleagues can be their real selves at work, creating a sense of emotional safety. This looks like employees having their thoughts, suggestions and ideas heard and considered when making business decisions. That in turn benefits businesses, as studies show that culturally sensitive workplaces can retain and attract talent, improve employee morale, strengthen relations across departments and locations and enhance innovation and creativity.
  2. Minimizes Bias and Prioritizes Fairness and Inclusion: Ensuring that more viewpoints are incorporated and spreading awareness of different cultural values and identities helps to minimize bias in hiring, internal promotions, decision making and termination. Everyone in a company contributes to a culturally sensitive workplace by acting with openness and kindness when speaking with colleagues and by ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard when working on group projects.
  3. Promotes Innovation and Creativity: Work environments where people feel free to express their opinions and speak freely promotes the exchange of diverse perspectives, ideas and experiences. When colleagues from varying cultural backgrounds work together, unique perspectives can lead to new product development, diverse approaches to problem solving and improvement to service offerings.
  4. Builds Trust and Helps Avoid Misunderstanding: Showing respect for differing customs, beliefs and values helps to build trust and create strong relationships with clients, vendors and colleagues from a range of backgrounds. Being aware of different cultural norms also helps to prevent misinterpretations, misunderstanding and potentially unintentional offence. Being conscious of the significance of your actions, body language and gestures all helps in cultivating trusting relationships within a culturally diverse work environment. To build trust at Graebel, all Graebel leaders are participating in Stephen Covey’s ‘The Speed of Trust’ training, which teaches that trust is critical for professional success and should be at the heart of everything we do. It’s one of the many ways Graebel is investing in its people and provides guidance on best practices we should be applying in our work.
  5. Improves Collaboration and Job Satisfaction: Studies show that when employees are fulfilled and encouraged at work, they are happier — which leads to increased motivation, productivity and discretionary effort. Motivated and fulfilled employees also tend to stay with their companies, which reduces turnover and elevates productivity, service delivery and therefore revenue. Collaborative, open teams learn from each other and work better together, which can result in personal and company growth. Employees who relocate are exposed to diverse business environments and cultures and when the assignment is done, employees bring those perspectives and insights back to their companies, helping build cultural sensitivity within their teams. Plus, our latest annual State of Mobility Report found that 80 percent of report participants were more likely to remain with their company long-term because the company invested in their relocation.

In what ways has focusing on cultural sensitivity given your business a competitive edge or opened up new markets?

We pride ourselves on the fact that many clients have told us the reason they chose to work with us is because of our values — truth, love and integrity — and the cultural fit with our company. In particular, one of our highest revenue clients specifically said that our DEI practices and offerings and our cultural alignment with their company is why they selected us over our competitors.

During the prospecting process, we consciously seek ways to bring our culture to life in person, to help prospects understand who we are and what we stand for. We start building trust from the beginning and that carries through during our partnership, enabling us to do great work together.

In a global organization, it can be hard to navigate the balance between company culture and local culture. Our values are universal, and we apply them consistently across our offices, while at the same time recognizing and supporting the culture differences that resonate with our client base and local employees.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start a movement centered around cultivating empathy and compassion. I would want inspiration to stem from the importance of empathy and compassion in our daily lives and give people practical advice and tips on how to cultivate empathy. If we were able to encourage compassion and empathy as guiding principles in our interactions and decision-making process, I think a movement like that could bring a positive change in the world for everyone.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I’d love to connect with you on LinkedIn!

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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