The global workforce is increasing and shows no signs of slowing.

While having global, remote teams can mean good things for business – reduction in employee turnover and decreased operational costs, for example – it brings about its own unique challenges, too.

For one, working with teams around the world, or even from different regions in the same country, requires keen cultural awareness as well as the ability to adapt training materials to different needs.

In one study by Accenture, 200 executive leaders named four key difficulties they faced when training global teams, including:

  • How decisions are made in different cultures
  • How attitudes differ on task completion
  • How conflicts are resolved
  • How important protocol and hierarchy are maintained

These difficulties often require trainers to develop different training materials for different teams. But in certain cases, it may not be possible to create totally individualized content.

In these cases, it’s important for employers to understand how to create culturally appropriate eLearning courses.

Why Cultural Sensitivity Matters for Global Employees

The idea behind cultural sensitivity, also called Cultural Intelligence (CQ), is one of cultural relevance.

It’s the theoretical basis that underlies a good diversity training approach.

Is the created coursework adaptable to localized culture? Is it sensitive to the diverse needs of the learner (race, age, gender, etc.)? Will employees understand the references? Are the images appropriate? Can they even read the language?

Ideally, individualized programs would be created for distinct groups.

The option that many employers are forced to take instead is one of neutrality: to make your course as “neutral” as possible so that the majority can understand it, and few are offended by it.

Yet, it’s not always easy to create a totally neutral course (one that can easily be changed from one region or country to another). Issues can arise with languages, references, images, and so on. But it’s not impossible.

There are several ways to ensure that even the most basic eLearning course is as culturally aware as possible.

How to Create Culturally Sensitive Employee Training

The key to training a globally dispersed workforce is uniformity, with smaller elements (images, examples) that can be easily changed wherever necessary.

A complete overhaul of your training materials may be impractical, but there are a few things you can do to ensure cohesiveness while remaining aware of any cultural differences.

1. Translate text wherever possible

Today, translating online courses into multiple languages can be done relatively painlessly, especially when utilizing a professional translation service.

This will not necessarily require you to create entirely new training materials, which can save time and costs for organizations that work with employees from various linguistic backgrounds.

Successful translation, however, has to take into account the cultural context. In the case of eLearning, this means localization, or the process of adapting content to a specific, local region.

Localization is not just about changing the language of all textual elements, but it also includes making design and visual modifications (see point #3 below).

Translation and localization ensures that training is relevant while also being cohesive for all employees across the cultural and regional divide.

This may require training leaders to be somewhat familiar with the culture, or it might mean involving a subject matter expert who is a native speaker to ensure that presentation style is a cultural match.

2. Use international formats for same-language materials

Modifications may still be required for global workers who do speak the same language, however.

The United States and the United Kingdom are both considered English-speaking countries, for instance, but both have various dialects, slang, and terminologies that might conflict.

In these cases, using an international format is best practice for developing cohesive content among same-language employees. This means using globally accepted formats for numbers, dates, currencies, images and graphics.

This may involve using geo-specific terminology in some sections and more neutral (intentionally formatted) language in others, or providing an explanation for one definitions use over another.

For example, you might spell out one word and include the geo-localized word next to it “10 feet (3.048 meters).”

As for which localized word should come first, consider the location of your organization’s headquarters or where the majority of your workers reside.

If your headquarters is in the UK, you might choose to use British English with American English in parenthesis, for example: “3.048 meters (10 feet).”

As a general rule, however, similar language coursework should adhere to international standards whenever possible.

It’s also important to note that some things, like jokes or references, won’t always translate well between cultures. If a cultural idiom or reference is necessary, consider including an explanation or link along side it if possible.

Again, as a general rule for culturally sensitive materials, it’s best to avoid slang, idioms, puns, acronyms, metaphors and similes, which may be difficult to translate or baffle translators and confuse non-native speakers.

The main course should be designed to be easy to translate, including any industry-specific terminology used.

 3. Choose neutral visuals and graphics

Apart from the text language of the course, be careful when selecting visuals and graphics.

While a “picture speaks a thousand words” (which, coincidentally, is a phrase that might not translate across cultures), certain images can have various meanings or cultural undertones depending, not all of which are positive.

Pictures of hand signals, for instance, can have a range of meanings depending on the country.

The goal here is to avoid confusing or offending your target audience with inappropriate and insensitive imagery.

Wherever possible, be cautious in your choice of graphics, colors, and even emotions displayed (when using emoticons or human faces, for example).

It’s best to avoid specific cultural and religious symbols as well, as they might be offensive or inappropriate.

While it may not always be possible to predict which images will be flagged as offensive, the more research you can do before or during the creation of your eLearning course, the more mistakes you will catch.

If you have access to a native speaking employee or translator, be sure to ask about any graphics or images to avoid.

They may have insights into the specific region that can help you create neutral imagery.

Final Thoughts

These issues surrounding cultural sensitivity in the workplace will only grow as the global workforce continues to grow.

While we often recommend creating individual courses (or microlearning courses), we also know it’s not always possible to create hyper-individualized coursework for certain training programs.

In these cases, your best option is to create a culturally sensitive, “neutral” course that can be translated into various languages.

A neutral, culturally sensitive course should be well translated by a professional, formatted to international standards (if possible), and use non-offensive imagery.

To ensure the best quality of your coursework, be sure to work with professionals who understand the ins and outs of your industry and have the capacity to create culturally sensitive courses for you.

Just remember: you don’t have to do it all by yourself.

Jonathan Davis is an accomplished professional with experience helping Fortune 500 companies achieve success in employee communication and training programs. Jonathan focuses on delivering reliable, successful outcomes that increases employee engagement through highly targeted deliverables, creative messaging and robust programs.