Project EiKu – Building Cultural Competency through Participation

How can workplace processes be shaped to effectively integrate cross-cultural issues?

As more refugees and migrants enter Germany, the challenges of integrating a diverse workforce increases in scope and scale. Recently, a new model of workplace integration and training was created that answered a simple question: How can a culturally sensitive training program be created in an elderly care facility with high numbers of migrant workers and high staff turnover?


GAB München is a consultancy firm in Munich, Germany that works on the challenges of the changing world of work and labour. MÜNCHENSTIFT GmbH is one of the largest service providers for the elderly in Munich with around 1,800 employees and around 3,000 inhabitants in 13 long-term care facilities.

MÜNCHENSTIFT GmbH has many staff members hired from outside of Germany, mainly from Eastern Europe. Given the diversity of the staff, there were numerous and conflicting approaches to health care generally, and the culture of care for the elderly specifically. MÜNCHENSTIFT struggled with how best to manage this diversity, both to ensure quality and consistency of care, as well as an effective and functioning workplace. Due to differences in approach and understanding, issues of internal communication, culture and workplace coordination arose.

In 2015 Migranet-IQ asked GAB München to develop and test a model to better train and integrate new migrant workers in MÜNCHENSTIFT GmbH, using a participatory development approach.

GAB München developed an approach for cultural competency training taking into account both organizational and individual diversity and culture, as well as effective communication techniques. Two tangible products were developed: a tool kit “Passgenaue Einarbeitung” (Precision Fit) and a visual guide (in the form of comic book) to help migrant workers better understand the introductory training.

Elisa Hartmann, Researcher and Consultant at GAB München, says it was very important for all workers, especially for migrants who are new to the “way things are done”, to be effectively oriented to the system. Employers must be clear about what is expected of workers. Workers need to feel they have space to reflect, clarify and confirm. She found that the creation of the comic was essential. It gave workers something in their hands they could read and refer to as well as visualizations that explained things, regardless of language or literacy barriers.

Materials that introduced the steps to complete what appear to be mundane daily tasks reinforced the actual complexity of the task for new workers. But they went one step further, asking the worker “How did you do this in your old work place? What is new here? What surprised you about this approach?” Hartmann says that this type of reflection was key. Instead of simply telling new hires “you do it wrong,” a dialogue was opened between new workers and their colleagues about individual and workplace cultural differences.

The addition of these tools allowed new employees to adapt their existing skills to the work requirements of the company.

The approach and outcome

Effective training always depends on the individual situation of the new employee. This is especially important with a diverse workforce. For GAB München, training is successful when new employees are quickly able to act independently and can assume responsibility for their tasks. If they fully understand how things are done, are socially integrated in the workplace and feel comfortable with their colleagues, they see themselves as part of the team and can imagine being with the organization over the long term. The training then addresses both the cultural and retention challenges MÜNCHENSTIFT GmbH was facing.

In many cases, workplace training focuses on what needs to be learned. GAB München’s toolbox and comic take into account both what must be learned and how best to design the training in a culturally diverse workplace. The concept of cultural sensitization and cross-cultural competency GAB München works from is based on the assumption that new employee has his or her own individual culture. The more diverse the workforce, the more important it is to take this into account in the recruitment and training process. Good training in a standardized service setting like elderly care means designing training with existing and new employees for a specific situation. The approach must be practical, based on the daily work realities of staff, not a theoretical model of diversity integration.

GAB München approached this as a social innovation issue. True innovation would only be possible if the project was participatory and included a diversity of voices. They developed an approach that included staff at all levels of the organization, from all teams. They had additional principles, key to the project’s overall success:

Employees are experts in their work – the employees from the living areas where the care work is done are the ones who know best what is working in the training – and above all, what does not work. Actively involving the employees to give them the opportunity to contribute their knowledge and skills was essential.

Broad information and transparency – as many employees as possible, as well as workplace organizing and convening bodies, must have the opportunity to express their experiences, ideas, fears and wishes during the development phase.

Results need to be anchored into the organization, at all levels – relevant decision-makers need to be included as early as possible and directly into the process of development so that they can link the model with the existing structures and processes from their position.

Building cross-cultural competencies among local workers was important. However, GAB München found that these competencies shouldn’t be assumed among foreign workers simply because of their diverse backgrounds. Migrant workers weren’t very interested in discussing culture. According to Hartmann, they weren’t interested in being seen as migrants. They simply wanted to be more effective at work. Building their cross-cultural competencies became equally as important.

As a result of their effective participatory approach, GAB München’s tool-box provides concrete recommendations for actions, guidelines and simple visual overviews of complex systems and explanations of daily tasks for new trainees.

GAB München’s approach to workplace learning and collaboration were key to creating a successful outcome. This was a small pilot project in one part of the large MÜNCHENSTIFT GmbH. Hartmann is hopeful that they will be able to continue the work within the organization.

What they have created has already proven to be effective and is being used by other similar organizations. Their model, toolkit and comic are a made-in-Germany solution that can be replicated within and outside of the elder care sector.

Tips for employers:

  • Start your approach with an analysis, or sense-making, to ensure that all relevant challenges are identified and described.
  • Participation from all levels of the organization is essential. The inclusion of all voices, from different departments to different leadership levels and front-line workers, ensures that the solutions are based on actual challenges, not perceived issues. Training should be jointly designed by both employees and managers.
  • Assume solutions exist within the organization. Workers faced with challenges will have ideas about how to meet them. Make sure they have the opportunity to voice their ideas.
  • Don’t assume cultural competence is a one-way need. Diversity and inclusion have many roots – thus, discussing and building this competence among all staff is imperative.
  • Approach on-boarding and workplace training from a practical perspective. Staff are likely very busy doing their own work. Effective training is practical and meets a perceived need.
  • Be open to unorthodox approaches to training and training materials. In Project Eiku, the visual comic approach had much more impact than the training toolkit. Be creative with materials and training approaches, especially when language or literacy might be a challenge.

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