An article by Trees Vandamme of Obleisk
Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

As a trainer and job coach for non-native speakers for the Belgian company “Obelisk”, I have been in touch with many non-native job seekers from all over the world. They come from different social and cultural backgrounds and have different levels of education. Already from the beginning, it was a bigger challenge for me to differentiate between those different levels and learning paces, than between all of the cultural differences and habits of my adult students.

However, as a trainer, you do remark slight differences among the students. For example, some participants attach more importance to the strict application of their religion than others. At first, some women refused to sit in the same class environment as their male counterparts. Additionally, some participants didn’t want to follow the cooking training as this implied they would need to touch and cut meat. One woman didn’t want to pursue sales, as this meant she’d have to check out alcohol at the cash register. And regardless of faith, it often happens that participants don’t really consider the healthcare sector because they would then have to physically approach the opposite sex (e.g. washing older men). Also, there is often the example of women who do not want to take off their religious headscarf when considering a job. Hence, employers in Belgium can forbid headscarves or other external religious symbols at their workplace. Needless to say, this significantly reduces their chances of finding a job quickly. The more flexible a participant at our workshops is, the easier it is for us to help the job seeker. However, in addition to childcare in the first place, preconditions often have to do with religion, and religion is still an important part of many cultures. Or perhaps we should state that culture is an important part of many contemporary religions? You can be for it or against it, but if you want to successfully integrate migrants into their new society, this importance must be recognised and can often be compromised.

For instance, as a manager working with people from various cultural backgrounds, you could consider allowing a turban instead of a headscarf. This is a less conspicuous garment, but it still covers the head. In my experience, many women who wish to live their religion a bit more strictly, happily agree with this alternative proposal. Moreover, due to hygienic regulations, the hair must for instance anyway be covered in hospital environments. Of course, these compromises must remain achievable and must not require major adjustments for the colleagues. I believe and regularly experience that it is possible to meet in the middle with a bit of flexibility and creativity.

Furthermore, I’ve never quite encountered frictions or disputes based on this cultural diversity in my class groups. On the contrary, it generally created more frivolity, interaction and curiosity among the students, which then resulted in critical thinking, open communication and sincere curiosity towards the vision on labour in the country of origin of the fellow student.

In order to maintain this positive atmosphere, we do try to avoid political topics that can lead to hot-tempered discussions and polarization in the classroom.

These different approaches towards social contacting and learning enrichen and inspire me on a daily basis. They make me feel positive about our multicultural society, even in times of polarization, when our media try to paint more negative pictures based on clickbaits and sensation. In essence, I believe we all want the same. We thrive for a healthy, happy life for ourselves and our loved ones.

On a small scale, my class proves that it is possible to pursue these goals together, despite of our differences. This includes the intercultural workforce, where heterogeneity not only is a challenge, but also an enormous strength in our diverse, modern-day and ever-changing society.