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Cultural Competency in the Workplace

, by Francine S. Baker, M.S., Postbaccalaureate iCURE Scholar

Creating a diverse and inclusive work environment requires being culturally competent. “Cultural competence refers to the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, spiritual traditions, immigration status, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities, and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”1 Understanding that everyone, based on where they come from, cultural practices, and life experiences, has values that may differ, enhances the work we do.

The more we learn about the people we work with, the less likely we are to say and/or do things that may be considered offensive or hurtful. Becoming more culturally competent allows us to learn more about our own biases as cultural competency involves becoming more in-tune with who we are as individuals. This includes recognizing our privilege, or lack thereof, and factors that may define us as marginalized.

The following steps2,3 are designed to lay the foundation for becoming a more culturally competent co-worker. This is an ongoing process that requires commitment and dedication to learning more about ourselves and others.

Step 1: Learn more about your own cultural identity

  • Learn about who you are—factors that influence you as a person and a professional.
  • Understand your belief system and the "why" behind your identity.
  • Accept and acknowledge your privilege (socioeconomic status, education, leadership position, etc.), and the factors that contribute to being marginalized (race, gender, immigration status, etc.).

Step 2: Learn about different cultures

  • Learn about the history of others—the social, political, and environmental factors that shape their present-day identities.
  • Learn about other cultures to dig deeper into who you are and the factors that influence your own identity.

Step 3: Actively engage with diverse groups

  • Accept the differences between groups of people to enable yourself to work effectively in cross-cultural settings.
  • Learn directly from those who differ from you—listen without judgement and question for increased understanding, not to debate what others believe.
  • As you engage with diverse groups, it is also important not to overstep*.

Read how the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics has taken steps to improve cultural competency within the Division.

* Overstepping is linked to cultural appropriation, the inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.

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Further resources


  1. National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics
  2. How do I Become Culturally Competent?” from the American Psychological Association
  3. How to Develop Cultural Competence and Why It’s Important: 4 Steps to Building Cultural Competence
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