Snéha Khilay, a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer, brings to us a managers’ diversity dilemma – should employees refrain from eating in the presence of a fasting colleague and whether an employee’s name can be a matter of concern? Read to find out what Snéha advises.

(c) Flickr user gr1fter

I recently had a meeting with a manager who leads a team of 18 staff members; the staff is a rich array of different cultures and religions. The manager discussed some of her personal issues with cultural diversity and inclusion: 

  • Should staff members eat in front of a Muslim person who is fasting?

  • What do I do if my manager insists on calling my PA Mandakini as ‘Mary’; he says he cannot pronounce her name? I have raised my discomfort with him several times and he just laughs. Mandakini says she does not mind, though she did mention that by calling her Mary, he is inadvertently changing her religion.

The concept of working well together in a culturally diverse environment is relatively new. However, different communication styles can possibly cause misunderstanding and confusion, potentially leading to ineffective team dynamics and stereotyping.

We sometimes create impressions of a person through not just what they say, but also our perceptions, possible preconceived idea of them, including their body language and their manners. For example, our ideas on what constitutes good manners are based on our own cultural norms, and may be considered differently in other cultures. An understanding of where a person comes from, not just geographically, but culturally, can help to smooth our interactions and forge better connections with each other. 
As business increasingly becomes global, small misunderstandings become more frequent and can be dangerous if unresolved. It is vital that when we are meeting and working with people from different backgrounds, we take into account what we say to each other, and also how we say it.  
Mandakini has said that she doesn’t mind her name being changed but feels strongly that this has implications on her religion being changed, which clearly is very important to her. She is over time going to become more resentful that the manager does not appear to bother learning her name. This could have a detrimental effect on their working relationship. 
To the custom of eating in front of colleagues who are fasting, essentially, most people following a particular religious practice do not necessarily expect the lives of other people with different beliefs to be affected within a work context. Some Muslim colleagues have appreciated being invited to a ‘Working Lunch’ whilst fasting and equally value their colleagues’ sensitivity of simply asking ‘Do you mind if I eat my lunch in front of you?’  It is all about showing due care, consideration and sensitivity. 
Cultural diversity is about dialogue, asking questions and sharing dilemmas within a frame that respects differences. Through this process, the channels of learning and showing consideration toward each other become open, resulting in an acknowledgement and value of diversity. Even small changes can lead to vast improvements in working relationship, bringing us all a little closer together. 
As Martin Luther King once said, “Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don’t know each other.”

Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory Equality and Diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at