Week 2 – Assignment
Diversity and Ethical Codes
A manager at your company overhears another employee who is Caucasian directing the N-word at an African American employee. When she confronts him, he claims that he was using it as a term of endearment—a claim that is not explicitly contested by the “friend” to whom he’s directing it. The manager, concerned that her being Caucasian and in a position of authority, fears her intervention may escalate things, so she chose to accept the explanation and move on. The manager has come to you, the Human Resources Manager, for advice.
In a 1,050- to 1,400-word (or 3- to 4-page) paper (excluding references and title page), discuss the following:
Your company’s diversity code states:
“As team members, we have a responsibility to:
· Do our part to help Acme to serve and earn business from a wide variety of communities and stakeholders.
· Integrate diversity into our sourcing processes.
· Help create an environment in which all team members can contribute, develop, and fully use their talents.
· Keep an open mind to new ideas and listen to different points of view.”
1. What are some of the limitations of the company’s diversity code for multicultural professional practice?
2. In what ways do you believe this code is culturally biased and culturally encapsulated?
3. What evidence is there that this code is culturally sensitive?
4. If you believe there is no evidence that the code is culturally sensitive, what evidence is there that the code is not culturally sensitive?
5. Discuss the importance of cultural sensitivity and explain what you believe are the implications for ethical professional practice.
6. In addition to the required readings, cite at least two additional references that include examples of a better ethical code.  

Required References
Blanding, M. (2013, December 9). How Cultural Conflict Undermines Workplace Creativity [Web page]. Retrieved from (Links to an external site.)

Christie, P., Kwon, I., Stoeberl, P., & Baumhart, R. (2003, September). A cross-cultural comparison of ethical attitudes of business managers: India, Korea and the United States. Journal of Business Ethics, 46(3), 263-287.
Weber, Z. (2004). Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society. Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3), 40-54. Retrieved from

Murugavel, V., & Somaraju, A. (2016). CULTURAL DIFFERENCES ON CONFLICT STRATEGIES IN THE WORKPLACE. International Journal of Arts & Sciences, 9(2), 135-144.

Das Neves, J. C., & Melé, D. (2013). Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity: Learning from Thomas Aquinas: JBE. Journal of Business Ethics, 116(4), 769-780.

Zita Weber

40 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

Working towards culturally
sensitive ethical practice in a
multicultural society

Zita Weber1

Summary: In the last two decades there has been a lot of theorising about mul-
ticulturalism and professional practice. Many practitioners are challenged by
cultural diversity daily. Practising from a culturally sensitive ethical perspective
in a multicultural society is essential for good practice. Postmodern infl uences
and critical questioning are seen to inform culturally sensitive ethical practice
in their encouragement of practitioners’ adoption of multiple belief systems
and multiple perspectives and the need to pose questions challenging practice
regarding awareness of cultural encapsulation and cultural sensitivity. The
development of culturally sensitive ethical practice guidelines within the context
of a multicultural society is proposed, fi rstly, by assessing the cultural sensitivity
of the ethics codes and secondly, by balancing culture and ethical codes.

Key words: professional practice, cultural competence, ethics, cultural diversity,
multiple perspectives, respect

1. Lecturer in Social Work Practice

Address for Correspondence: School of Social Work and Policy Studies,
The University of Sydney, Education Building, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
[email protected]

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Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society

41 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

In the last two decades, there has been a lot written about multicultural-
ism and professional practice (Diaz-Lazaro and Cohen, 2001; Dominelli,
1988; Ivey, 1987; Ivey, Ivey and Simek-Morgan, 1997; Johnson, 1989;
Ivey, Pedersen and Ivey, 2001; Nguyen and Bowles, 1998; Pedersen,
2000; Sue and Sue, 1977; Sue and Sue, 2003; Thompson, 1997;
Wohl, 1989). Many of us are challenged by cultural diversity daily.
Of late, some literature has explored the heightened awareness of the
importance of cultural considerations in practice and the realisation that
culturally competent practice and ethical decision-making need close
refl ection (Goldberg, 2000; Ivey, Pedersen and Ivey, 2001; Pack-Brown,
Whittington-Clark and Parker, 1998; Pack-Brown and Williams, 2000;
Pack-Brown and Williams, 2003).

My own thinking has become sharper over time. Because I’d been a
migrant child, I always believed I had some real understanding and a
deep level of empathy for cultural differences and sensibilities. However,
over the years, I’ve discovered how much I had to learn about the realities
of working with cultural diversity.

Teaching social work students at both undergraduate and graduate
levels in Australia, a country recognised as comprising many different
languages, cultural traditions and ethnic origins, I’m confronted by
cultural sensitivity and competence issues and the ever-present ethical
issues and dilemmas.

Post modern infl uences

Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice presupposes a
post modern stance (Christopher, 1996; Sue et al., 1996), and a move
away from epistemological assumptions that are not necessarily shared
across cultures. Such a stance entertains the existence of multiple belief
systems and multiple perspectives (Gonzalez, 1997; Highlen, 1996; Sue
et al, 1996). For instance, culturally sensitive practice would accept
the existence of multiple worldviews and reinforce the notion that
such worldviews are neither ‘good or bad’ nor ‘right or wrong’. The
refutation of this ‘either or’ view endorses the validity of each worldview
and reinforces cultural relativism by recognising that each culture and
attendant worldview is unique and can only be understood in itself
and not by reference to any other culture and attendant worldview.

Zita Weber

42 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

Socio-politically, this stance is important as it inherently recognises the
unfairness of one group imposing its standards on another.

Postmodernism also would inform the practitioner working towards
culturally sensitive ethical practice that language does not equal
‘perception of reality’. Adopting a relational view of language allows
the practitioner to look beyond the truths and realities of the dominant
culture as enshrined in language, both oral and written. Language and
conceptual constructions vary tremendously between cultures. The
importance of sensitivity to language and the way in which it is used
may be illustrated in the encounter where the practitioner is using
language and formulating questions from their cultural perspective
regarding mental health concerns and the client is viewing the concerns
from their different worldview. Such a situation is exemplifi ed by Tsui
and Schultz (1985) who write,

The therapist must explicitly educate the client about the purpose of
questions regarding clinical history, previous treatment information,
family background and psychosocial stressors. The linkage of these issues
to their current symptoms is not clear to many Asian clients. Many Asian
clients conceive of mental distress as the result of physiological disorder
or character fl aws. This issue must be dealt with sensitively before any
sensible therapeutic work can be effected. (pp.567-568)

Similarly, it is important to take into consideration cultural nuances
of nonverbal cues as different cultural groups ascribe varied meaning
to certain nonverbal behaviour. Eye contact, for instance, is expected
among persons communicating in mainstream English-speaking cultures
(Australia, Britain, USA, Canada). Certain stereotypes have developed
regarding evasiveness and untrustworthiness of those people who avoid
direct gazing. However, it is now well known that in some cultures,
direct eye contact is regarded as disrespectful and an invasion of privacy.
I experienced this cultural nuance when teaching in Texas where some
Mexican-American students employed minimal eye contact with me.
When I enquired about this, it was explained that as a older person in
position of authority, it would be disrespectful to look me directly in
the eye.

Failing to understand the signifi cance of nonverbal behaviour may
pose barriers to effective communication. Again, I experienced a cultural
nuance in expectation when working with an Asian family. Whilst they

Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society

43 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

expected me to provide advice as the ‘authority’ in the matter, I expected
them to be more talkative and active in exploring options in the care of
a member of the family who had been diagnosed with a major mental
illness. Respect for authority may result in passivity and silence and as
Tsui and Schultz (1985) note, ‘Long gaps of silence may occur as the
client waits patiently for the therapist to structure the interview, take
charge and thus provide the solution’ (p.565). Erroneously concluding
that the client has fl at affect or is unmotivated are potential hazards if
the practitioner fails to correctly interpret the often smallest cultural
nuance in nonverbal cues.

Although a post modern stance provides philosophical underpinnings
that embrace the phenomena of cultural diversity and cultural sensitivity,
translating concepts into dynamic, evolving practice poses some critical
questions. Differences and nuances create challenges to our balancing
of professional obligation with expectation of service delivery and
determinations regarding the distinction between client behaviour that
is culturally appropriate and behaviour that is problematic.

Some critical questions

How can we ensure that we develop and maintain cultural sensitivity?
What of the danger of cultural encapsulation? Can we develop culturally
sensitive ethical guidelines and bring culturally appropriate interpreta-
tions to our work? How do we go about teaching about values and ethics
in a multicultural context? These are some questions that both students
and practitioners ask at teaching and learning forums.

In one sense, the only way to address such questions is to pose
further questions that challenge our ways of thinking. To avoid cultural
encapsulation and a practice that is infused with Western assumptions
and values we need to use all our critical refl ective abilities to deconstruct
the sometimes narrowly prescribed ways of working. We need to pose
questions that challenge known practice around (i) not giving advice
and suggestions because it may foster dependency (ii) not taking a
teaching role (iii) not accepting gifts from clients and (iii) not entering
into dual or multiple relationships because establishing boundaries is
important (Sue et al, 1998).

What if the encounter with a client from a different culture demands

Zita Weber

44 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

that you exhibit the expertise and authority that otherwise would be
discouraged as qualities that magnify power differentials between you
and your client? What if the client’s view about mental illness, for
instance, is based on beliefs regarding magic and witchcraft, however,
they ask that you educate them on terminology and the biomedical point
of view, so that they might understand what is being communicated to
them? What if the client proffers a small gift and presses you to accept
at your last session together? What if …. There are endless ‘what if…’
questions we might pose to challenge our ways of thinking and ensure
greater cultural sensitivity.

Essentially, these crucial questions point to the logic of returning to
the fundamentals.

Whenever I pick up the Australian Association of Social Work (AASW)
Code of Ethics (2000), I’m struck by two competing thoughts:

1. it is an essential resource – a valuable document;
2. it is a prescriptive document that has little interpretive value and if

followed to the letter, one would be unable to practice.

There is the ambivalence of feeling contented that I have a reference
book and the frustration that I’m told so little when it comes to sticky

This Code, along with the British, U.S. and Canadian codes, is neces-
sarily a broad-based document which can offer guidance, but cannot
and should not be relied upon to solve ethical dilemmas involving
cultural issues.

These codes contain concepts and ideas that are well-known among
helping professionals. Nevertheless, when considering culturally
sensitive and ethical practice, one crucial question arises: How can
abstractions within codes be interpreted? Subsequent key questions
could be: What questions should we be critically refl ecting upon to
become aware of the power of cultural variables? Most importantly,
how can we translate this awareness into behaviour leading to effective

I intend to work towards developing culturally sensitive ethical
practice guidelines within the context of a multicultural society by
fi rstly, assessing the cultural sensitivity of the ethics codes and secondly,
balancing culture and ethical codes.

Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society

45 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

Assessing cultural sensitivity of the ethics code

Professionals are expected to know and adhere to their ethics code.
However, practitioners also need to demonstrate knowledge about their
codes’ sensitivity to diverse cultures. While codes have embedded within
them requirements for cultural competence, for instance, in the Australian
Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics (2000) Section 4.2.4 is titled
Cultural Awareness – how do some other principles fi t with this?

For example, how do some cultural assumptions and expectations
of our clients fi t with ethics codes’ statements regarding ‘professional

In the AASW Code of Ethics, Section 4.1.4 titled ‘Professional
Integrity’ under (e) states: ‘Social workers will ensure that professional
relationships are not exploited to gain personal, material or fi nancial
advantage’. This sounds perfectly reasonable. But how does the practice
of gift-giving to show appreciation to a practitioner fi t with the principle
of professional integrity as stated? There have been numerous occasions
in my practice as a social worker when ethnic families have brought gifts
to the fi nal session. Does acceptance of such gifts, offered in the spirit of
genuine appreciation, constitute some exploitative material gain? One
supervisor had cautioned me about never accepting any gifts, taking an
unqualifi ed position. Another equally experienced supervisor had taken
a much more relational position. Accepting the offered gift, in his view,
turned on the ‘it depends’ argument. Cultural considerations might well
be a dependent variable. Does accepting the gift suggest greater cultural
sensitivity but less ethical practice or does rejecting the gift signify less
sensitivity and greater adherence to ethical practice? Does a simplistic
position of following the code to the letter make for good practice
– culturally or otherwise? Perhaps the supervisor who recommended
a ‘it depends’ position was suggesting a more balanced and measured
approach, whereby cultural sensitivity was balanced with the spirit of,
rather than the bald words, within a code of ethics.

Section 4.1.4 ‘Professional Integrity’ includes under (g) cautions about
dual relationships. Similar provisions appear in the BASW Code p. 7
under 3.4 ‘Integrity’ 3.4.2 e ‘To set and enforce explicit and appropriate
professional boundaries to minimize the risk of confl ict, exploitation or
harm in all relationships with current or former service users, research
participants, students, supervisees or colleagues.’

Zita Weber

46 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

Both these codes of ethics add a qualifi cation to this statement which, in
effect, softens the statement. This qualifi cation relates to minimising the ‘risk
of confl ict, exploitation or harm’. In the BASW Code p. 7 under 3.4.2.f states
‘To avoid any behaviour which may violate professional boundaries, result in
unintentional harm or damage the professional relationship.’

This qualifi cation is important and in order to understand what
professional integrity might look like in relation to cultural sensitivity,
it is worthwhile considering a relatively familiar scenario for many

Let’s take as an illustration the example of an invitation extended
to you by a client to attend a social event. This invitation may come
unexpectedly from a client or family you have been seeing for some time.
The client may be from an ethnic background which has a collectivistic
culture and she thinks of you, as her social worker, as ‘family’. She asks
that you attend her granddaughter’s christening celebration. She would
be ‘honoured’ if you did so.

This invitation poses a dilemma for you as you consider a response
that, on the one hand, conforms to ethical sanctions against dual rela-
tionships and, on the other, respects the client’s genuine valuing of you
within the context of her culture. In previous sessions, she has explained
that her cultural context embraces multiplicity in relationship roles and
that she has had her priest and her doctor to dinner. For this client, the
notion of strict professional boundaries is not part of her culture.

The questions that might crowd your mind could be:

• Is there a real risk of harm or exploitation if I attend the social

• Do I risk harming the client/s if I attend?
• What decision, attending or not attending, would best respect the

client’s dignity?
• How can I respond in a way that refl ects the client’s worth as an

individual ?
(questions adapted from Pack-Brown and Williams, 2003)

Also crowding your mind might be ethical decision-making
frameworks to assist in working through dilemmas. One such model,
forwarded by Welfel (1998) proposes an ethical decision-making model
that consists of nine steps:

Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society

47 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

1. develop ethical sensitivity
2. defi ne dilemma and options
3. refer to professional standards
4. search out ethics scholarship
5. apply ethical principles to the situation
6. consult with supervisor or respected colleagues
7. deliberate and decide
8. inform supervisor, implement and document actions
9. refl ect on the experience

Such a model encourages the sort of critical questioning and refl ection
that offers the comfort of systemic analysis yet pushes the practitioner
to consider the dilemma from several different perspectives (codes,
scholarship and colleagues’ views). Searching out ethics scholarship in
this instance, would necessitate attention to diversity and difference and
presuppose cultural sensitivity.

This framework implies balancing ethical considerations and for me,
effective practice must have a balance.

Balancing culture and ethical codes

In this case of the invitation to a social event, an infant’s christening,
several responses are possible, not all of which are sensitive to both the
client’s culture and ethical principles. What are some of the options?
What are their strengths and drawbacks?

Response 1

Explain to the client that your professional ethics code does not permit
your participation in her social event. This is an example of a response
emanating from a procedural perspective without consideration of
the client’s cultural context and practices. It would be fair to say that
this response is not a culturally sensitive one. In fact, the client might
be within her rights to beg the question, Who is protected here? The
practitioner? The client? Both?

Response 2

Engage the client in discussion around the importance to her for you to

Zita Weber

48 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

attend. It might be argued that this response is more culturally sensitive
than the fi rst, however, it inherently questions the client’s motives,
suggesting to her that her request needs examination.

Response 3

Discuss with the client how she would feel if you did or did not attend.
This response is similar to Response 2, suggesting that her request
must be analysed. In addition, exploring her reactions to your options
is premature and likely to confuse the client.

Response 4

Immediately accept the client’s invitation to attend because you
believe not doing so would offend the client and risk the professional
relationship, which has been a long and positive one. This response,
of immediate acceptance, might suggest that the practitioner has not
carefully weighed the costs and benefi ts of agreeing to attend.

Response 5

Explain your dilemma to the client and tell her you wish to consult with
colleagues, including someone from her ethnic background before you
make a decision. In doing so, the practitioner positions the dilemma
as one related to ethical constraints rather than to the client’s request.
This response considers the process of weighing cultural factors against
ethical constraints. Nevertheless, by suggesting a consultation with
an ‘ethnic expert’, the practitioner inherently questions the client’s
knowledge and understanding of what is appropriate.

Response 6

Share with the client that you feel honoured to be asked to such an
important event in her life, but that her invitation presents a dilemma
for you. This might be seen as a culturally sensitive statement because
it positions the problem squarely in the practitioner’s hands and shares
the dilemma with the client, without demonstrating disrespect for the
client’s wisdom. This response might be followed by Response 3.

In my practice, I have known professionals from many varied back-
grounds to take very different positions on invitations to social events,
particularly when the request has come from a client from a different cul-
tural background. I have never seen any of them take the decision lightly

Working towards culturally sensitive ethical practice in a multicultural society

49 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

and certainly, when I decided to not attend my client’s granddaughter’s
christening, I deliberated carefully, sought my supervisor’s opinion and
spoke with colleagues before deciding that although there was very
little risk of real harm to the client in my attending the event, doing
so would extend boundaries beyond their professional perimeters. My
discussion with the client acknowledged the importance culturally for
her inclusion of me in such an event and my respect for her cultural
position. However, our discussion also covered respect for different
positions and the need for us to continue in roles that clearly indicated
that our relationship was professional rather than friendly. Nevertheless,
I have known other practitioners who have attended social events and
argued that their need to be culturally sensitive was greater than their
need to maintain clear professional role identity.

There are many other examples of the need to balance culture and
ethical codes. Notions related to client welfare is one.

In the AASW code, Section 3.1 Value: Human Dignity and Worth
states that the social work profession holds that ‘each person has a right
to well-being, self-fulfi lment and self-determination, consistent with
the rights of others’. The NASW (U.S.) contains an ethical principle
valuing the ‘inherent dignity and worth of the person.’ Consistent with
this value, social workers are required to ‘treat each person in a caring
and respectful fashion, (being) mindful of individual differences and
cultural and ethnic diversity.’ There is a similar provision in the BASW
3.1.2b p.4

Certainly, the overarching principle contained in these sections of
various codes is protection of the welfare, or best interest, of the client.
Nevertheless, these statements are broad and they leave room for
interpretation and possibly, misinterpretation.

These codes, based as they are on principles of self-determination,
individualism and clear relational boundaries, may well advocate a
stance which is at odds with more interdependent, self-in-relation pat-
terns of some ethnic and cultural ways of being. These contradictions
may place practitioners in a bind – doing what is in the best interest
of the client may confl ict with various ethical codes. For instance, an
Aboriginal woman with terminal cervical cancer rejected all forms of
Western treatment in a large Sydney hospital and although not consid-
ered to be in her ‘best interests’ she insisted on discharging herself and
going ‘home’ to her country community to be cared for by her extended
family. For this Aboriginal woman, her self-determination could be

Zita Weber

50 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

seen to run counter to her best interests. However, she felt alienated in
a big city hospital away from her family and her wish of ‘going home’
to be ‘with family’ was granted. In this case, the social worker and the
team balanced ethical codes with culture and believed that the client
would fare better in what she considered her own caring environment.
The abstraction of ‘best interests’ needs careful consideration in such a
case and self-determination regarding continuation or not of treatment
viewed from different perspectives. Client welfare is not an obvious
matter. Paradoxically, what appears to not be in the ‘best interests’ of
the client, might in reality, be her ‘best interests’.

Consider another situation. Clients from collectivist cultures for
whom self-identity is inseparable from kinship systems may wish to
bring family members with them to group therapy sessions. This may
pose a problem for the professional in terms of the importance of
maintaining the confi dentiality of group members, yet the professional
might understand that it is within the ‘best interests’ of the client to
have the support they want. In this case, the professional must balance
the rights of others and confi dentiality with the expectation of different
cultural groups and aim to negotiate a culturally sensitive decision. This
notion of collectivity and support from family is raised by Pedersen
(2000) who considers the concept of dependency as a potential source
of confl ict between ethical codes and culture.

In many diverse cultures, dependency on others is a way of life. Over
time, cultural expectations regarding strong networks of interdependence
have developed. Sometimes, socio-economic reasons have dictated that
such interdependence is critical to the survival of many immigrants as
well as indigenous people. Again a point of tension arises in that the
ethics codes advise against relationships in which clients feel dependent
on the professional. Perhaps several questions need to be asked to
tease out the elements of the dilemma. Is it possible that a dependent
relationship might be in the client’s ‘best interest’ at least temporarily?
Is it conceivable that a strong relationship with a professional might
provide a sense of security and help the client, who feels they have little
personal power, to build greater self-suffi ciency? Again, paradoxically,
the culturally sensitive practitioner might well be seen to be ‘encourag-
ing’ dependency in order to help the client become more empowered
eventually. Such tensions between individualism and collectivism and
empowerment and dependency are common in work with people
from diverse cultures and the ethical dilemmas they raise need careful

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51 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

refl ection and logical consideration. A mere wish by the professional
to be ‘politically correct’ is not enough, indeed, it runs counter to true
professionalism, which requires that the professional be in a position to
state clearly their dilemma and the reasons for their decision.

A cautionary note

There may be occasions when responding in a culturally sensitive
manner may mean taking an historical view and working with its
implications for clients in the contemporary context. For instance,
an important consequence of oppression of indigenous and minority
groups is the development of an intergenerational healthy cultural para-
noia phenomenon (Ho, 1992; Paniagua, 1994; Smith, 1981). Amongst
Australian Aboriginal people, for example, there is strong suspicion of
professionals in offi cial roles, particularly in relation to child welfare.
Historically, welfare authorities routinely removed children from parents,
a practice that has led to what is now known as ‘the lost generations’.
It makes perfect sense then, that Aboriginal people today might be
distrustful of professionals who offer help, but are also in a position to
recommend removal of children from families. Similarly, in the United
States, this healthy paranoia phenomenon is evident amongst some
African-American people who fi nd it diffi cult to trust professionals who
have disempowered them in the past (Smith, 1981).

However, the question might have to be asked: How do I determine
the difference between client behaviour that is culturally appropriate
and behaviour that is problematic? For instance, when does the healthy
cultural paranoia exhibited by some oppressed cultural groups become
problematic for them? Making that determination from a culturally
sensitive stance is the challenge.

Zita Weber

52 Journal of Practice Teaching 5(3) 2004, pp.40-54 © 2004. Whiting and Birch

Some concluding thoughts

Neither cultural encapsulation where the professional is trapped in one
way of thinking and believing that theirs is the universal way, nor a keen
sense of political correctness makes for culturally sensitive practice. The
professional who wishes to be culturally sensitive and competent and have
confi dence in making culturally sensitive ethical decisions, needs to live
with uncertainty and acknowledge the power of the postmodernist stance
regarding the existence, and legitimacy of, multiple worldviews. At all times,
such a practitioner is performing a delicate balancing act. They must be
guided by and bring together into a coherent whole, ethical decision-making
frameworks, what the ethics codes state, what the client says and believes
and what the practitioner believes refl ects a sincere practice, faithful to the
spirit, if not the letter, of the code of ethics.


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Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity: Learning
from Thomas Aquinas

João César das Neves • Domènec Melé

Received: 22 September 2012 / Accepted: 1 July 2013 / Published online: 3 August 2013

� Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract Cultural diversity is an inescapable reality and

a concern in many businesses where it can often raise

ethical questions and dilemmas. This paper aims to offer

suggestions to certain problems facing managers in dealing

with cultural diversity through the inspiration of Thomas

Aquinas. Although he may be perceived as a voice from

the distant past, we can still find in his writings helpful and

original ideas and criteria. He welcomes cultural differ-

ences as a part of the perfection of the universe. His sys-

temic approach leads one to place the problem in its proper

context, and to reflect on it from the perspective of virtue

ethics, with a central role for practical wisdom and giving

primacy to neighborly love and natural moral law. Rather

than a set of rigid standards with no consideration of

diversity Aquinas focuses on the common human ground,

which allows for the indispensable dialogue between dif-

ferent positions. When dealing with practical questions, the

problem is one of finding the right balance between general

principle and cultural specifics, tolerance, and dialogue,

always guided by practical wisdom. In this way, Aquinas’

approach is neither rigid ethical universalism with no

consideration for diversity nor moral relativism with no

place for any transcultural and absolute morals.

Keywords Thomas Aquinas � Cultural diversity � Ethical
dialogue � Managing diversity � Natural law � Virtue ethics


Cultural diversity, generally understood as the quality of

diverse or different cultures, often concerns many busi-

nesses. This diversity may typically include differences in

race, ethics, age, gender, religion, and cultural background

though the list of factors reflecting diversity could, in fact,

be wider. In the last few decades, business organizations

have been becoming increasingly diverse and some com-

panies are trying to create multicultural organizations (Cox

1991, 1993, 2001). Cultural diversity appears as a conse-

quence of globalization, and also due to workgroup

diversity in business activities in many places.

Diversity matters regarding competitiveness and per-

formance, as we will see below. Nevertheless, beyond

these goals, although often in connection with it, cultural

diversity posits ethical matters (Gilbert et al. 1999; Noon

2007; Nelson et al. 2012, among others). These include

attitudes toward the ethics of different peoples, the influ-

ence of diversity in making moral judgments, the possi-

bility of reaching basic agreements, universalism and

cultural relativism, dialogue between people of different

cultural background and giving opportunities to histori-

cally disadvantaged groups. Although, some ethical theo-

ries have been applied to these problems, as we also

discuss below, we are far from having a convincing theory

to deal with such dilemmas, which are often very


The aim of this paper is to contribute to managing

diversity ethically by an exploration of some insights of

Thomas Aquinas–Saint Thomas for the Catholic Church–,

one of the outstanding Scholastic thinkers (Melé 2013). We

place special emphasis on his thought in the realms of

natural moral law and practical rationality –closely related

to the virtue of practical wisdom.

J. C. das Neves (&)
CLSBE Universidade Catolica Portuguesa, Palma de Cima,

1649-023 Lisbon, Portugal

e-mail: [email protected]

D. Melé

IESE Business School Av Pearson, 21, 08034 Barcelona, Spain

e-mail: [email protected]


J Bus Ethics (2013) 116:769–780

DOI 10.1007/s10551-013-1820-1

The choice of this 13th century philosopher and theo-

logian may seem awkward, as he lived more than 600 years

before the birth of cultural anthropology, and his approach

to the questions of ethics on cultural diversity is very dif-

ferent from those which tend to be used in our globalized

era. We are, of course, aware that there is a large gap

between contemporaneous conditions and those existing

some 700 years ago, but we assume that if we attempt to

bridge this chasm, we may make valuable discoveries and

identify important ideas. Underlying Aquinas’s writings

there is a certain cultural philosophy, albeit this may only

extend to ‘‘the deduction, demonstration and criticism of

the values and goods of culture according to the meta-

physical and theological principles and guidelines of his

system.’’ (Grabmann 1925, p. 37)

It should be stressed here that this is not a first attempt to

consider Aquinas in business ethics. His influence was

clear in early business ethics (Melé 1999; Wren 2000;

Alves and Moreira 2010; Schlag 2013) from the 14th to

17th centuries, and he is still significant nowadays (das

Neves 2008; Melé 2013; Alford 2013). Several scholars

have applied Aquinas’ thought to specific topics of busi-

ness and management, such as motivation (Llano 1991;

Schoengrund 1996), wealth creation (das Neves 2000), just

price (Friedman 1980; Koehn and Wilbratte 2012, see also

Elegido 2009), social responsibility of business (Wishloff

2009), decision-making (Velasquez and Brandy 1997;

Grassl 2010), just wage (Frémeaux and Noël 2011), and

justice for global business (Dierksmeier and Celano 2012),

among others.

The paper is structured as follows. Firstly, we will try to

identify the nature of some questions of cultural diversity

which arise in business ethics. Secondly, we will present

some insights from Aquinas’ on cultural diversity. Thirdly,

we will discuss some relevant aspects of Thomas Aquinas’

ethics and, in the following section, their significance in

dealing with diversity. Finally, we will present some

practical suggestions taken from Aquinas for an intercul-

tural dialogue.

The Challenge of Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity presents the practical consequence that

people from different cultural backgrounds may have dif-

ferent belief structures, priorities, perceptions, assumptions

about future events, beliefs about the role of information, and

information-processing methods as Pieterse et al. (2013,

p. 784) pointed out, mentioning a review from several

authors (Cox and Blake 1991; Ely and Thomas 2001; Maz-

nevski 1994; Tsui and O’Reilly 1989; and others). This

indicates that cultural diversity has an impact on organiza-

tional groups (Milliken and Martins 1996; Williams and

O’Reilly 1998, with a review of 40 years of research) and

implications in organizing work (Ely and Thomas 2001; van

Knippenberg and Schippers 2007), in managing derived

conflicts (Pelled et al. 1999) and in retaining talented

minorities within organizations (Thomas and Gabarro 1999).

Cultural diversity can also have an influence on orga-

nizational competitiveness (Cox and Blake 1991; DiRienzo

et al. 2007) and performance (Cox 1991, 2001; Milliken

and Martins 1996; Thomas and Ely 1996; Williams and

O’Reilly 1998; Pelled et al. 1999; Kochan et al. 2003;

Jackson et al. 2003, with a review of previous research on

the influence of organizational diversity on team perfor-

mance; Joshi and Roh 2009; McMahon 2010; Pieterse et al.

2013). Cultural diversity can be also related to human

capital. Martı́n-Alcázar et al. (2012) suggests the notion of

‘human capital diversity’ to refer to a construct formed by

demographic attributes (age, gender, nationality, education,

kind of training, tenure, and functional experience) and

human capital attributes (knowledge, experiences, cogni-

tive styles, and values).

At the root of cultural diversity are certain worldviews,

sociocultural heritages, norms, and values shared by

members of one cultural identity (Cox 1993; Ely and

Thomas 2001; Worchel 2005). From ancient times, such

diversity has posited difficult questions. A classical pre-

sentation of cultural diversity, which offers different

judgments and suggests mutual cultural respect, is the

experience of Persian king Darius, as related by Herodotus:

When he [Darius] was king of Persia, he summoned

the Greeks who happened to be present at his court,

and asked them what they would take to eat the dead

bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would

not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the

presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so

they could understand what was said, he asked some

Indians, of the tribe called Calltie, who do in fact eat

their parent’s dead bodies, what they would take to

burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade

him to mention such a dreadful thing. So firmly

rooted are these beliefs; and it is, I think, rightly said

in Pindar’s poem that custom is lord of all. (Herod-

otus 1996, III, 38, pp. 219–220)

Nowadays, cultural diversity challenges many business

firms, especially those which operate in different countries

or have employees with a variety of beliefs, backgrounds,

styles, ages, language, religions and customs. When

considering the clash between different customs at the

firm or market level, it is easy to fall at either of the

extremes, postulating a universal ethics, excluding any

cultural diversity or a cultural relativism, rejecting any

universal principle (Donaldson 1996). Both of these

positions eliminate the question without solving it. This

770 J. C. das Neves, D. Melé


seems akin to a certain often-raised issue in economic

theory of the markets. The extreme models of monopoly

and perfect competitions are the easier to solve, but also the

less relevant. Facing a debate encompassing diverse

cultural elements, one must search for a solution including

both the common ground and the diversity of elements


Some companies, however, at least in their corporate

statements, show that it is possible to harmonize cultural

diversity with universal ethical principles. This is the case

of two well-known companies which accept both cultural

diversity and universal ethical principles. One is Deloite, a

firm of professional services with 195,000 professionals

and operating in more than 150 countries, which not only

accepts cultural diversity but also stresses that it is a source

of success. Thus, its ‘‘strength from cultural diversity’’ is

presented as one of its main corporate shared values

, and

in its 2011 Annual Review makes the self-observation that

‘‘Talented people choose to work where their differences

are respected and they have access to the opportunities to

realize their potential. Diversity is a Deloitte core value—

an intentional part of talent and business decisions; a driver

of innovation and opportunity; and a strength.’’ (Deloitte

2011, p. 12) This emphasis on diversity does not prevent a

strong commitment to ethical principles, including honesty,

compliance with the law, competence, confidentiality,

integrity, objectivity, fair business practices, respect and

fair treatment (Deloite, Ethics & Compliance, s.d).

The second example regards the multinational oil

company, Shell. On one hand, this company adopted a set

of principles (‘‘Shell General Business Principles’’, SGBP),

some of which are related to certain cultural practices,

including dilemmas related to gift and hospitality practices

in certain countries and bribery. The third principle on

‘‘Business Integrity’’ states: ‘‘Shell companies insist on

honesty, integrity and fairness in all aspects of our business

and expect the same in our relationships with all those with

whom we do business. The direct or indirect offer, pay-

ment, soliciting or acceptance of bribes in any form is

unacceptable. Facilitation payments are also bribes and

should not be made.’’ (Royal Dutch Shell plc. 2006) On the

other hand, this company recognizes diversity in taking

into account that some cultural practices should not be

considered as bribes, as a rigid observer might say:

‘‘Understand local customs for the giving or receiving of

gifts, payments, entertainment or benefits. Customs

regarding tips and fees differ depending on the culture.

When a tip is customary and is fair reward for a genuine

service, then that is acceptable. Tips are given after the

service has been received not before. Adaptation to local

customs is not acceptable when this leads to acting in conflict

with the SGBP’’ (Royal Dutch Shell plc. 2003, p. 18)

These two examples, however, do not mean that har-

monizing universal values with cultural diversity is always

an easy exercise, as noted by Donaldson:

When we leave home and cross our nation’s bound-

aries, moral clarity often blurs. Without a backdrop of

shared attitudes, and without familiar laws and judi-

cial procedures that define standards of ethical con-

duct, certainty is elusive. (1996, p. 48)

Definitively, management faces many challenges regarding

cultural diversity, and many companies have introduced

policies and practices to solve these. However, some

findings show that desirable benefits, such as reduction of

turn-over among talented people from minority groups, the

improvement of the quality of life at work or the creation

of an atmosphere of inclusion are often not achieved (Pless

and Maak 2004, mentioning some studies). Considering

this fact, Pless and Maak (2004, p. 130) suggest building a

culture that ‘‘embraces diversity and fosters humanity’’.

We now turn to what we can learn from Thomas

Aquinas in this regard and in other relevant aspects of

managing cultural diversity.

Aquinas’ Insights on Cultural Diversity

Sympathy for Diversity

Several insights on cultural diversity can be found in

Aquinas’ writings. The first is his sympathy for diversity,

which comes from both his faith and from the rational

consideration of the richness of diversity. He argues that

diversity among creatures was necessary in order that ‘‘the

divine goodness might the more perfectly be bestowed on

things’’ and adds ‘‘there should be diversity among them,

so that what could not be perfectly represented by one

single thing, might be more perfectly represented in various

ways by things of various kinds.’’ (Aquinas 1997, III, 97)

The degree of goodness is not the same in everything:

‘‘Perfect goodness would not be found in things, unless

there were degrees of goodness, so that, to wit, there be

some things better than others: else all the possible degrees

of goodness would not be fulfilled, nor would any creature

be found like to God in the point of being better than

others.’’ (Aquinas 1997, III, 71) It is interesting to add that

he connects this with beauty, and even sees here a justifi-

cation for the presence of evil in the universe. He affirms

that the beauty of the universe ‘‘results from the ordered

This may be seen as an application of the motto Alfred Marshall

used in his 1919 classic Industry and Trade: ‘‘The many in the one,

the one in the many’’ (Marshall 1919, p. 1).

See, e.g., Code of Conduct of Canada Deloite:


20Conduct.pdf Accessed on January 31, 2013.

Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity 771


unity of good and evil things, seeing that evil arises from

the lack of good, and yet certain goods are occasioned from

those very evils through the providence of the governor,

even as the silent pause gives sweetness to the chant.’’

(Aquinas 1997, III, 71)

Influence of Culture and Rational Morality

The second pertinent insight regards the influence of cul-

ture and education on moral behavior, on one hand, and

rational morality, on the other. Regarding the former, he

affirms that ‘‘custom, especially if it dates from our

childhood, acquires the force of nature, the result being that

the mind holds those things with which it was imbued from

childhood as firmly as though they were self-evident’’

(Aquinas 1997, I, 11). Actually, this is no great novelty but

an application of the old Aristotelian principle that ‘‘cus-

tom is a second nature’’ pointed out in De Memoria et

Reminiscentia (Aristotle, 1931, chap. 2).

Aquinas, although recognizing the influence of culture

on moral behavior, holds that in spite of such influence a

permanent basic question remains: what is the right thing

for me to do here and now? In order to answer this axio-

logical question, according to Aquinas, it is necessary first

to assert the meaning of the particular situation. Evaluating

specific actions must start by determining their general

sense. Thus, beneath the ethical question there is another

query, which is not ethical in itself, but which is crucial for

the foundation of ethics—it is necessary to know what the

game is before establishing what constitutes a good move

or a good player. Listening to Aquinas and his coherent and

integrated vision of reality allows us to go a step further

and state that the meaning of any specific situation is

connected to the deeper meaning of reality. This leads us to

inquire about the purpose of reality and life, the funda-

mental investigation of human existence. Where did we

come from? Where do we go from here? What is the reason

for life? Is there the Absolute?

From Aquinas’ perspective it is not possible to have a

reasoned and defensible answer to any ethical question

about the right thing to do without a specific answer to the

ontological, anthropological, and metaphysical questions

on the meaning of the activity and the purpose of

behavior. In the philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas

this connection is obvious precisely because it is a system.

The whole structure deducing choice and ethics from

happiness (in the sense of human flourishing) as the ulti-

mate human end is an expression of this relation.


connects with another old Aristotelian principle, men-

tioned by St Thomas: ‘‘such a man is, such does the end

seem to him’’ (1981 I-II, 58, 5; Aristotle 1934, III, 5).

This raises the need to acquire knowledge of the ultimate

end of the human being and behave in accordance with it.

Both faith and reason, which in Aquinas are in full har-

mony, provide the answer, which comes from both divine

law and rational moral law. The latter, according to

Thomas Aquinas, can be discovered in human nature. We

will return to this point below when dealing with natural

moral law.

Tolerance and Non-Discrimination

A third insight is an attitude of tolerance. Tolerance for St

Thomas and his contemporaries meant respect for other

persons and their ideas, but without showing ambivalence

or weakness in one’s convictions. Similarly, Aquinas is

aware of the importance of avoiding discrimination against

persons (acceptione personarum), since this is a violation

of distributive justice (see Aquinas 1981, II–II, 63).

Albeit quite different from topics pertinent nowadays,

we may find useful cues in specific analyses by Aquinas,

since certain controversies in the 13th century are in some

way akin to our current debates. This is the case of a

question his posited in the Treatise of Faith (Aquinas 1981,

II–II, 10, 11), dealing specifically with unbelievers. He asks

whether the rites of unbelievers should be tolerated.

Business ethics is at first sight alien to this inquiry, but, it is

very relevant to today’s economy. It is not difficult to find

examples of immigrant workers practicing their own reli-

gion in a company within a country in which the majority

has a different faith. The attitude recommended by Tho-

mas, accompanied by a justification, is the following:

Human government is derived from the Divine gov-

ernment, and should imitate it. Now although God is

all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He

allows certain evils to take place in the universe,

which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater

goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue.

Accordingly in human government also, those who

are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest

certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be

incurred. (…) Hence, though unbelievers sin in their
rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of

some good that ensues there from, or because of some

evil avoided. (Aquinas 1981, II–II 10, 11)

Notice that the purpose, as always, is the highest good

possible, but this may require accepting some evil.

Again, this general attitude of lenience and open-

mindedness finds its justification in the actions of God

See Aquinas 1981, I–II, 1, particularly article 6, on ‘‘Whether man

ordains all to the last end?’’.

The general principle here is: ‘‘a just judge regards causes, not

persons.’’ (Aquinas 1981, II-II 63, 1).

772 J. C. das Neves, D. Melé



It should be said this tolerance is an application of

an old principle, today mostly ignored in political activism,

which was stated first by Augustine of Hippo and quoted by

St. Thomas: ‘‘human law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds:

since while aiming at doing away with all evils, it would do

away with many good things’’ (Aquinas 1981, I-II 91, 4)

Relevant Aspects of Thomas Aquinas’ Ethics

Virtues and the Primacy of Love

The moral philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, presented in

several of his works

has been studied by many scholars

(among whom we find, Garcı́a-López 1979; McInerny

1982, 1992; Wadell 1991; Westberg 1994; Finnis 1998;

Schockenhoff 2003, Chap. IV; Houser 2004; DeYoung

et al. 2009; in addition to twenty-seven scholars in a col-

lective work edited by Pope 2002). Although Thomas

Aquinas’ ethics is frequently known for his doctrine on

natural law (see below), it is essentially a virtue ethics. He

discusses ethics through virtues, but virtues are not inde-

pendent from the natural moral law. On the contrary,

transgressions of the moral law (sins) are ‘‘contrary to all

the acts of virtue’’ (1981, I-II, 100, 2).

Following Christian tradition, Aquinas’ ethics is a virtue

ethics in which love or charity (charitas) has primacy

(Wadell 1991). In Aquinas’ words, charity (love) is the

form of all virtues. As he explains, ‘‘in morals the form of

an act is taken chiefly from the end’’ (198, I-II, 23, 8); and

ultimately all virtues have love as their true end. This

means that charity directs the acts of all other virtues to the

last end and, consequently, gives the form to all other acts

of virtues. In other words, charity is the efficient cause of

all virtues (Ibidem).

In line with Aquinas, the official teaching of the Roman

Catholic Church points out that the practice of all the

virtues is animated and inspired by charity (love), and

charity binds everything together in perfect harmony; it is

the form of the virtues and articulates and orders them.

Charity is the source and the goal of Christian practice; it

upholds and purifies our human ability to love, and raises it

to the supernatural perfection of divine love (cf. Catholic

Church 2003 n.1827).

Practical Reason

Along with the primacy of love, practical reason is central

in Aquinas’ ethics. He explains what practical reason is by

saying: ‘‘the reason that deals with things to be done for an

end is the practical reason’’ (1981, II–II, 47, 2). In other

texts, he also affirms that practical rationality is intellectual

discernment between good and evil (1981, II–II, 94, 12)

which leads one to knowing the human good and to acting

in accordance with it (1981, II–II, 94, 1, 3). Practical

rationality presupposes we have an innate habit, termed

‘synderesis’, which incites us to seek good and to reject evil,

inasmuch as through first principles we proceed to discover,

and judge what we have discovered (1981, I, 79, 12).

The existence of practical reason and ‘synderesis’ in

every human being is shown by the common experience of

moral discernment between good and evil. This discern-

ment includes certain behaviors. While some of these are

universally understood as good, such as sacrificing oneself

to help another person, the contrary is the case with others,

such as trampling underfoot another person in pursuit of

one’s own interests.

In contrast with theoretical reason which is ‘contem-

plative’, i.e., oriented to the knowledge of the truth and

with no connection to the action, practical reason seeks

‘practical truth’ which makes a choice morally right. In this

sense, Aristotle, who is followed by Aquinas to great

extent, although with certain differences (Celano 2010),

introduced the idea of practical reason, by considering

firstly the role of moral virtues in making (ethically) right

choices. He affirms: ‘‘moral virtue is a disposition of the

mind in regard to choice, and choice is deliberate desire, it

follows that, if the choice is to be good, both the principle

must be true and the desire right, and that desire must

pursue the same things as principle affirms.’’ (1934, VI, 2)

In other words, a correct desire is necessary for good

behavior, but this requires both understanding what is right

and having the will to do it. Then Aristotle adds: ‘‘We are

here speaking of practical thinking, and of the attainment

of truth in regard to action (…) The attainment of truth is
indeed the function of every part of the intellect, but that of

the practical intelligence is the attainment of truth corre-

sponding to right desire.
’’ (1934, VI, 2, italics are ours)

There is a specific intellectual virtue, termed prudence

or practical wisdom, which reinforces the capacity of

practical reason. According to Aristotle, practical wisdom

(or prudence) ‘‘is a truth-attaining rational quality, con-

cerned with action in relation to things that are good and

bad for human beings.’’ (1934, VI, 5) Practical wisdom,

does not deal with universals only, but needs to take

This may remind us of the necessity to imitate the patience of the

Divine Providence, which ‘‘causes his sun to rise on the evil and the

good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’’ (Bible,

Matthew 5: 45).

Particularly, Commentary on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (In

decem libros Ethicorum expositio) (Aquinas 1993 [1271–1272]);

Summa Theologica (Summa Theologiae) (1981, 2nd part [1273]);

Summa contra gentiles (1997, 3

part [1261–1263]).

That is truth about the means to the attainment of the rightly-desired

End (note in the Rackham’s translation of Nicomachean Ethics).

Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity 773


cognizance of singulars also (Aristotle 1934, VI, 7).

Similarly, Aquinas affirms that practical wisdom or pru-

dence as ‘‘right reason in action’’ (1981, II–II, 47, 2), or

‘‘right reason about things to be done’’ (1981, I-II, 58, 3).

In other words, in both Aquinas and Aristotle, prudence

‘‘represents the agent’s ability to deliberate, decide and

properly to order the process of practical reason to

action.’’ (Westberg 1994, p. 187) Practical wisdom rein-

forces practical reason to discern in each particular situ-

ation what is truly good and to choose the right means of

achieving such good.

Practical wisdom also acts as a driver of all moral vir-

tues. Acting with generosity, for instance, requires deter-

mining what action means being generous in a given

situation. Such determination requires practical wisdom

(prudence). As Aquinas affirms, ‘‘choice of the means is

the concern of prudence.’’ (Aquinas 1981, I-II, 58, 3, 1)

This is in line with Aristotle who said ‘‘true virtue cannot

exist without Prudence’’ (Aristotle 1934, VI, 13), and

‘‘virtue ensures the rightness of the end we aim at, Pru-

dence ensures the rightness of the means we adopt to gain

that end.’’ (Aristotle 1934, VI, 12)

Natural Moral Law

Virtues, animated and inspired by love, and practical wis-

dom converge into natural moral law. Practical rationality

discovers human good as something which should be done.

According to Aquinas, ‘‘good is the first thing that falls

under the apprehension of practical reason, which is

directed to action: since every agent acts for an end under

the aspect of good.’’ (1981, I-II 94, 2) This leads him to

enunciate the first principle of natural moral law, which is

founded on the notion of good, and expresses as a funda-

mental ethical duty inherent to good. ‘‘The first precept of

law is that ‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be

avoided’. All other precepts of the natural law are based

upon this: so that whatever the practical reason naturally

apprehends as man’s good (or evil) belongs to the precepts

of the natural law as something to be done or avoided’’

(1981, I-II 94, 2).

According to Aquinas, the first general principle of the

natural law includes two principles, sometimes jointly-

termed the ‘double precept of love’: ‘‘You shall love the

Lord your God’’ and ‘‘You shall love your neighbor as

yourself’’ (Bible 1966, Matthew 22:37-39). Drawing from

Aristotle he understands that in loving others, one is

seeking his or her own good. He adds that these ‘‘two

principles are self-evident to human reason, either through

nature or through faith.’’ (1981, I-II, 100, 1, 1) Thus,

although the first principle of natural law is compatible

with Christian faith (and others religions too), basically it is

a rational discovery, not only a matter of religious faith.

Related with the first principle of natural law is the

Golden Rule, proposed by most religious traditions (Melé

2009, p. 79), which can be formulated as: ‘‘So whatever

you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’’ (Bible

1966, Matthew 7:12). For Aquinas, the Golden Rule is an

explanation of the rule of neighborly love (1981, I-II, 99, 1,

3). For Aquinas, love of one’s neighbor as oneself is ‘the

master principle of morality’ while the Golden Rule is ‘a

means by which we can bring specificity to that principle’

(Duxbury 2009, p. 1593).

The crucial aspect of Aquinas’ natural law theory is that

it is directly founded in the basic elements of humanity.

This does not exclude a transcendent foundation of natural

law, implied by the deeply systemic form of his philoso-

phy. He states: ‘‘It is evident that the natural law is nothing

else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal

law.’’ (Aquinas 1981, I-II 91, 2)

From the first principle of the natural law, Aquinas

deduces a set of precepts grasped by reason from natural

inclinations, such as preserving human life and of warding

off its obstacles, practicing sexual intercourse in a proper

way and caring for the education of offspring, goods

derived from the inclination to know the truth about God,

living in society, shunning ignorance, avoiding giving

offense to those among whom one has to live, and other

related practices (Aquinas 1981, I-II 91, 2).

According to Aquinas (1981, I-II, 100, 3) some ele-

mental precepts of natural law—derived from the first

principle and its immediate precepts—are contained in the

Decalogue or Ten Commandments as ‘proximate conclu-

sions’ from the first principles of natural law. All of the

precepts of the Decalogue refer to the double precept of

love, as conclusions from general principles. (1981, I-II,

100, 3, 1) They can be known by everyone through

immediate refection or, in some cases, through wise per-


The Ten Commandments are shared, with small

differences, by Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Ali et al.

2000) and most likely by other great religions and wisdom

traditions. Other secondary precepts of natural law can be

inferred from the Ten Commandments, such as the obli-

gation of giving back a loan or honoring legitimate con-

tracts, which can be inferred from the precept ‘‘you shall

not steal’’, one of these Ten Commandments.

As noted above, Aquinas’ ethics is a virtue ethics, but

not of contextual or ‘autonomous’ virtues. On the contrary,

He affirms that ‘‘two kinds of precepts are not reckoned among the

precepts of the Decalogue: viz. first general principles, for they need

no further promulgation after being once imprinted on the natural

reason to which they are self-evident; as, for instance, that one should

do evil to no man, and other similar principles: and again those which

the careful reflection of wise men shows to be in accord with reason;

since the people receive these principles from God, through being

taught by wise men.’’ (1981, I-II, 100, 3).

774 J. C. das Neves, D. Melé


he understands that virtues are interrelated with natural

law—their precepts direct all the acts of virtue (1981, I-II,

100, 2). Among the virtues, justice is quite relevant for

social life, ‘‘life in common of man with man pertains to

justice, whose proper function consists in directing the

human community (Ibidem; see also Dierksmeier and

Celano 2012).

Criticisms and Responses to Aquinas’ Natural Moral

Law Theory

Some concerns have been raised regarding the acceptance

of natural moral law, but many of these are due to misin-

terpretations of what it is. This is not the appropriate place

to present the current debate on natural law in any depth,

but a brief review of some criticisms of Aquinas’ approach

to the natural moral law and the corresponding answers

seem worthwhile.

A quite simplistic criticism is that the existence of a

natural law is a naı̈ve, simplistic and old-fashioned view of

a period before significant exposure to remote civilizations.

The quote from Herodotus above may serve to discard this

as mere ignorance. Cultural interrelationship is a multi-

secular experience. Nevertheless we must face this chal-

lenge on its own terms.

Another misinterpretation is in seeing natural law as an

inevitable law, like physical or biological laws are. It is

possible to break moral law, including natural moral law.

Moral law is a driver for our freedom. Violations of natural

law tend to prove, not disprove its existence. If there were

no law, there would be no violations.

Another possible confusion is presenting a uniform view

of natural law theories. There is a rationalist view of nat-

ural law developed from the 17th century onward which is

completely different from Aquinas’ approach. This is the

case, for instance, of John Locke (1989) who defended the

existence of self-evident natural rights in every human

being, which are the main content of what he termed ‘law

of nature’ or natural law. In the rationalistic approach the

reflection on natural law was split from any teleological

connotation. In contrast, Aquinas’ natural law is rational,

but not rationalistic. He, like Aristotle, was a realist phi-

losopher, and focused on intrinsic ends of the human

nature. His starting point is the observation of the world

and from sense experience forming ideas in the mind. He

looked for a sense of reality which should guide human


The natural law proposed by Aquinas should not be

accused of falling into the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (Moore

1951/1903), nor of falling foul of the so-called ‘Hume

Law’, which holds that, ‘‘ought to’’ (prescription) cannot be

derived from ‘is’ (description) (Hume 2000/1739, III, I, 1).

A naturalistic fallacy would be explaining good in terms of

‘pleasant’ or ‘desirable’ or, similarly, understanding that

what is natural is inherently good and that what is unnatural

is inherently bad. As noted above natural law, as proposed

by Thomas Aquinas, takes into account natural tendencies

to understand what constitutes human good, but these

tendencies are neither morally good nor bad in themselves.

It is through rationality that we discover human good from

the ends to which these tendencies are oriented. Thus, the

good of life is understood from the tendency to strive to

survive; the good of sociability and friendship from the

tendency of living in society, the good of the truth from the

tendency to know, and so on. Consequently, ‘‘ought to’’ is

not directly derived from ‘‘is’’. It is known from a rational

understanding of the teleology of the human nature express

through its basic tendencies. Natural law is ‘natural’ basi-

cally due to the rational nature of the human being,

although it also considers natural tendencies of human.

Aquinas’ Ethics in Dealing With Cultural Diversity

The three previously-mentioned elements essential in

Aquinas’ ethics–the primacy of love, practical wisdom,

helping practical reason, and natural law–provide guide-

lines for dealing with diversity, and more specifically, for

making decisions related with diversity. Starting with the

latter, natural law presents basic universal ethical norms or

precepts, but its application takes each specific situation

into consideration.

Thomas Aquinas makes it clear that natural law is

knowable to every human being in its most general

principles: ‘‘The natural law, as to general principles, is

the same for all, both as to rectitude and as to knowl-

edge.’’ (1981, I-II 94, 4) But, at the same time, he rec-

ognized that in some cases it may be difficult to know

certain goods and the duty to act in accordance with

them. Thus, some aspects of the natural law can fail in

terms of both knowledge (knowledge of good) and rec-

titude (willingness to do good), since ‘‘in some the reason

is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposi-

tion of nature; thus formerly, theft, although it is

expressly contrary to the natural law, was not considered

wrong among the Germans, as Julius Caesar relates’’

For a brief presentation of the present state of the debate on natural

law theory see, among many others, George (1999) and Biggar and

Black (2000), Murphy (2008), and the International Theological

Commission (2009).

As G. K. Chesterton puts is ‘‘A false ghost disproves the reality of

ghosts exactly as much as a forged banknote disproves the existence

of the Bank of England—if anything, it proves its existence’’

(Chesterton 1908, Chapter IX, p. 160). The same may said about

the violation of natural law, which proves more than disproves its


Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity 775


(1981, I-II 94, 4).

This could explain, at least partially,

the diversity of moral judgments within cultural diversity,

without denying a common moral law based on human


In Aquinas’ thought, natural law contains common

principles for all people, but it is not a close set of stan-

dards. Thus, taking natural law as written in stone and

unchallengeable is a misconception. Further reflection can

discover and add new contents to the natural law. Aquinas

writes, ‘‘nothing hinders the natural law from being chan-

ged: since many things for the benefit of human life have

been added over and above the natural law.’’ (1981, I-II 94,

5) This could be the case, for instance, of modern issues

regarding the natural environment (pollution, responsible

use of resources and waste disposal, etc.) which had not

been considered as a part of natural law up to recent times,

although the Christian attitude has generally shown great

respect for the natural environment, as can be seen in

people like St. Benedict (6th century) and St Francis of

Assisi (12th century).

Thomas Aquinas was very much aware we live in a

pluralistic and diverse world. This is exactly the reason he

states for the existence of positive laws: ‘‘The general

principles of the natural law cannot be applied to all men in

the same way on account of the great variety of human

affairs: and hence arises the diversity of positive laws

among various people.’’ (1981 I-II 95, 2, ad 3). However,

positive laws should not be contrary to natural law.

Among the multiplicity and divergences, we may

glimpse at human nature, in which each culture is present.

Natural law, being based on human nature, is a basic ref-

erence for dealing with diversity, since we all are human

beings. This allows us to combine natural law with cultural

diversity. A correct interpretation of Aquinas’s thought on

this point is again provided by the official teaching of the

Catholic Church:

Application of the natural law varies greatly; it can

demand reflection that takes account of various con-

ditions of life according to places, times, and cir-

cumstances. Nevertheless, in the diversity of cultures,

the natural law remains as a rule that binds men

among themselves and imposes on them, beyond the

inevitable differences, common principles (…) [It]
provides the solid foundation on which man can build

the structure of moral rules to guide his choices. It

also provides the indispensable moral foundation for

building the human community. (Catholic Church

2003 n.1957).

On the other hand, as noted above, natural law contains

fundamental first principles and secondary principles, i.e.,

‘‘certain detailed proximate conclusions drawn from the

first principles’’ (Aquinas 1981, I-II 94, 5). According to

Aquinas, ‘‘the natural law is altogether unchangeable in its

first principles’’, but regarding its secondary principles, he

adds: ‘‘the natural law is not changed so that what it

prescribes be not right in most cases. But it may be changed

in some particular cases of rare occurrence’’ (1981, I-II 94,

5). In example he mentions ‘‘goods entrusted to another

should be restored to their owner. Now this is true for the

majority of cases: but it may happen in a particular case that

it would be injurious, and therefore unreasonable, to restore

goods held in trust; for instance, if they are claimed for the

purpose of fighting against one’s country.’’ (1981, I-II 94, 4)

What does not changed is rationality: ‘‘it is right and

true for all to act according to reason.’’ (Ibidem)

As noted, natural law presents basic universal ethical

norms or precepts, but its application takes each specific

situation into consideration. According to Aquinas, it is

‘‘through the conscience we judge that something should

be done or not done; and in this sense, conscience is said to

incite or to bind.’’ (1981, I, 79, 13) Due to the natural habit

of ‘synderesis’ (se above) we can make moral judgments

about particular situations (Ibidem). As Langston (2011)

explains ‘‘the function of conscience for Aquinas is to

apply the general principles of ‘synderesis’ and the more

content-laden secondary principles developed from pru-

dence to particular circumstances. Prudence is involved in

the application to particular circumstances, according to

Aquinas, because it is connected to the correct perception

of individual circumstances.’’

In Aquinas’ ethics, particular situations should be

judged in the light of the natural law with practical wisdom

as a prudent person would do. As noted above, practical

wisdom does not deal with universals only, but needs to

take cognizance of singulars also (Aristotle 1934, VI, 7). In

line with this, Aquinas affirms, ‘‘it is necessary for the

prudent man to know both the universal principles of rea-

son, and the singulars about which actions are concerned.’’

(1981, II–II, 47, 3) Applying this to our problem means

considering both universal principles of natural law and

particular situations, including every aspect of diversity.

Practical reason and prudence or practical wisdom seems,

therefore, a key element for diversity as well as the cor-

rectly application of universal principles.

According to Aquinas, general principles of the natural law, in the

abstract, cannot be blotted out from men’s hearts. But ‘‘natural law is

blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is

hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of

practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion’’ In

addition, ‘‘the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out

from the human heart, either by evil persuasions, just as in speculative

matters errors occur in respect of necessary conclusions; or by vicious

customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even

unnatural vices (…) were not esteemed sinful.’’ (Aquinas 1981, I-II
94, 6).

776 J. C. das Neves, D. Melé


Regarding universal principles, the first principle of the

natural law –‘good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to

be avoided’– includes what is generally accepted as human

values and good and also show the ends of virtues. Living

in accordance with such values and virtues should be at the

core of dealing with diversity. As noted, this includes the

Golden Rule and justice, one of the first requirements of

which is respect for human dignity and rights.

From Aquinas’ thought one can infer that every human

being has intrinsic dignity, because (s)he is a person, and

person ‘‘signifies what is most perfect in all nature’’ (1981,

I, 29, 3). Human dignity is discovered from both faith and

reason. According to the Bible (1966, Genesis 1:27), man

and woman are made God’s image. In addition, the human

being is intelligent and free to be judge and master of him

or herself; and he or she is the source of actions, which are

his or her own and fall under his responsibility and control

(cf Aquinas 1981, I-II, Prologue). Human rights, at least in

a seminal way, can be related with Aquinas’ natural law

(Messner 1965, pp. 278, 326; Maritain 1951, pp. 95, 97ff)

and with the fundamental virtue of justice.

Natural law entails human dignity and natural human

rights. These notions are in many consensual and com-

monplace elements of our culture, above all in the uni-

versal declarations of human rights, and they are used in

codes of conduct of business firms.

Neighborly love, and all other virtues animated and

inspired by it, are also very relevant in Aquinas’ ethics, as

noted above, and this has implications in dealing with

diversity, since this love does not reject diversity. In

Christian tradition, assumed by Aquinas, love for one’s

neighbor in universal, diversity does not matter –we will

remember here the parable of the good Samaritan (Bible

1966, Luke 10:25–37), in which someone (a Samaritan)

takes care of a man, from a tribe which was an enemy of

his own, who had been attacked and was badly wounded.

To sum up, Aquinas’ ethics provides universal princi-

ples through natural law, which includes, on one hand, an

absolute respect for human dignity, along with the exis-

tence of natural rights, human values and virtues; and on

the other hand the consideration of particular situations,

including diversity, and their evaluation with practical

wisdom. This is not too far from the Donaldson’s proposal

the above-mentioned article (1996), although with some

qualifications. This scholar suggested three principia or

criteria for companies operating in a global context–we can

add in dealing with diversity: (1) Respect for core human

values, which determine the absolute moral threshold for

all business activities (2) respect for local traditions, and

(3) the belief that context matters when deciding what is

right and what is wrong (1996, p. 52). Aquinas’ approach

as presented here permits us to accept ‘core human values,

which determine the absolute moral threshold for all

business activities’, if such values are consistent with

‘human good’ understood though practical wisdom. As we

have mentioned this should include absolute respect for

human dignity and human rights. Local traditions can also

be accepted in everything which is not contrary to the

natural law. Of course, context matters and it should be

considered by reflecting from universal principles of nat-

ural law with the support of practical wisdom.

Ethical Dialogue

Last, but not least, Aquinas suggests not only a normative

approach for making moral judgments but also practical

suggestion for an ethical dialogue, and the possibility to

rise certain consensus, without putting aside the search for

the truth. In St Thomas’ time, debates (disputatio) were a

method widely used in academic work to reach conclu-

sions. He would thus be very much in favor of ethical

conversations between different positions. The starting

point is a sincere respect for good and truth, which exists in

everybody. This is derived from the general principal that

good and truth are everywhere:

As the good is in relation to things, so is the true in

relation to knowledge. Now in things it is impossible

to find one that is wholly devoid of good. Wherefore

it is also impossible for any knowledge to be wholly

false, without some mixture of truth. Hence Bede

says (Comment. in Luc. xvii, 12) that ‘no teaching is

so false that it never mingles truth with falsehood’

(Aquinas 1981, II–II 172, 6).

This approach is neither relativism nor a skepticism

regarding the truth, but tolerance with people, carefully

considering their arguments and showing one’s own

reasons. It is by no means imposition of one’s opinion.

In the 13th century, the firmness of each debater’s

conviction was obvious –although presently is much

muddled. In most of the articles of the Summa Theologiae,

the major work of Aquinas, we find the author gathering

those bits among the several positions to reach the answer.

But all efforts must aim at the truth, not neutral consensus,

not vague average or eclectic ambivalence.

Among many ideas about ethical debates found in St

Thomas works, we may comment on two. The first is to

Thus, Apple Supplier Code of Conduct explicitly quotes the

Universal Declaration of Human Rights and one of the sources and

has as its first rule: ‘‘Suppliers must uphold the human rights of

workers, and treat them with dignity and respect as understood by the

international community.’’ A different question is whether or not this

is applied in some cases or situations. Thus, Apple has been accused

by The Economist of having lied regarding its activities in China

(Anonymous 2012).

Managing Ethically Cultural Diversity 777


always make sure all parts in the conversation have the

right motives. Many discussions increase the problem,

because this aspect is overlooked. When considering how

to debate with unbelievers he says: ‘‘On the part of the

disputant, we must consider his intention. For if he was to

dispute as though he had doubts about the faith, and did not

hold the truth of faith for certain, and as though he intended

to probe it with arguments, without doubt he would sin, as

being doubtful of the faith and an unbeliever. On the other

hand, it is praiseworthy to dispute about the faith in order

to confute errors, or for practice.’’ (Aquinas 1981, II–II 10,

7) All conversations are only virtuous if the participants

have the right intention. If in the discussion someone aims

only at attacking truth, profiting from distortions or creat-

ing confusion, the dialogue is better avoided.

A second very useful rule we can learn from Aquinas

has to do with the kind of reasoning we should use. If, as

was stated above, cultural differences are relevant due to

differences in world view, then it is very important to find

the common ground, in order to derive the logic and

argumentation. Again a theological discussion of Aquinas

time sheds light on the importance of seeking common


In a debate [ordained to eliminate doubts about the

truth of something] one should use the authorities

accepted by those with whom we dispute. For

example, if we debate with Jews, it is necessary to

present the authorities of the Old Testament. With

Manicheans, which reject the Old Testament, it is

necessary to use only authorities of the New Testa-

ment. But, in debating with Schismatics, which

accept both the Old and New Testament, but not the

teaching of our saints, as is the case with Greeks, it is

necessary to debate with them from the authorities of

the Old and New Testament and the doctors which

they accept. If they are not convinced by any

authority, we should descend to natural reasoning to

convince them. (Aquinas 1269, IV, 9, 3)

This finds application in business. An example of this

general attitude, conveyed by the two principles, may be

found in Marks and Spencer code of ethics: ‘‘Discuss the

concern with your line manager. They have a responsibility

to listen and respond to any matter that is of concern to

you.’’ (Mark and Spencer 2010, p. 8)


Cultural diversity is an inescapable reality and a concern in

many businesses where it can often posit ethical questions

and dilemmas. Our discussion leads us to conclude that,

although Thomas Aquinas may be perceived as a voice

from the distant past, his writings content helpful and

original ideas and criteria to inspire managers in dealing

with cultural diversity.

According to Thomas Aquinas, cultural differences are a

part of the perfection of the universe, their impact on ethics

proceeds mostly through their world visions, and they exist

over a common ground of human nature. He suggests an

attitude of tolerance toward people ideas and religious or

ethical position, without giving up the search for truth, and

to avoid discriminations in judgments, acting with impar-

tiality as a requirement of justice.

Aquinas systemic approach aids us in placing the

problem in its proper context, where it can be reflected on

from the perspective of virtue ethics, with a central role of

practical wisdom and the primacy to neighborly love, and

the moral natural law.

Rather than a set of rigid standard without considering

diversity, Aquinas focuses on the common human ground,

which allows for the indispensable dialogue between dif-

ferent positions. When dealing with practical questions the

problem is always one of finding the right balance between

conviction and compromise, general principle and cultural

specifics, tolerance and dialogue, always guided by prac-

tical wisdom. Aquinas provides many valuable guidelines

in the search for this balance, which can be applied in

current business situations when dealing with diversity.

Aquinas’ moral system may be useful for modern man-

agers who face ethical issues and dilemmas raised from

cultural diversity. A system, however, which requires fur-

ther research and development. Our finding show, however,

some basic attitudes for managing diversity: (1) deal with

diversity with sympathy, (2) being tolerant with other

positions without adopting a skeptical or relativistic position

in searching the truth, (3) remembering that everybody has

some aspect of truth to be considered, (4) applying neigh-

borly love toward everyone as a first principle of morality,

(5) developing practical wisdom to be able to apply uni-

versal principles to specific situations risen from diversity,

(6) Balancing universal and permanent basic standards (first

principles of natural law) with local customs and particular

context, (7) trying to proceed though conversation and

debate, finding a consensus with good arguments, but

always with respect for human dignity and rights.


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Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction prohibited without

International Journal of Arts & Sciences,

CD-ROM. ISSN: 1944-6934 :: 09(02):135–144 (2016)



Vignesh Murugavel and Ajay Somaraju

University of Texas at Dallas, United States of America

Studies have established distinct cultural preferences for resolving workplace conflict; however, few

studies examine these cross-cultural differences within the context of a common host country. This

study proposes to abridge the gap in research by exploring conflict strategy preferences of South Asian,

East Asian, and Western cultures within the United States. Putnam and Wilson’s (1982) Organizational

Communication Conflict Instrument was distributed with a demographic sheet across 312 working age

individuals. Responses from individuals brought up in South Asian (n=95), East Asian (n=88), and

Western (n=89) cultures were grouped and analyzed, respectively. Findings revealed that East Asians,

South Asians, and Westerners preferred compromising/collaborative strategies over the alternatives. In

addition, East Asians were more likely to use controlling strategies than Westerners, Westerners were

more likely to use compromising/collaborative strategies than East Asians, and South Asians’ responses

resembled Westerners’ more than to East Asians’. Finally, westernization did not predict foreign

individuals’ conflict styles, suggesting that individuals did not simply conform to host country norms.

These results provide evidence for foreign individuals resolving disagreements differently within a host

country than within their heritage country and hold implications for the applicability of Hofstede’s

Individualism-Collectivism paradigm within a multinational company.

Keywords: Culture, Conflict, Organizational psychology, Applied psychology.



Organizational conflict refers to the exchange of opposing viewpoints within the workplace. Role

relationships influence organizational conflict through coworker-coworker and subordinate-superior

interactions (Khan et. al, 1964; Holt & DeVore, 2005; Putnam & Wilson, 1982). All cultures do not

experience these role relationships in the same manner (Hofstede, 1984), leading to an increased potential

for inter-organizational conflict in multinational companies (MNCs).

Not only should managers/leaders of MNCs resolve such conflict, they should also adjust their

approach to handling these differences across cultures. Approaching conflict resolution requires an

evaluation of employee conflict styles. Regarded as the first researchers to establish a conflict measure,

Blake and Mouton (1964) created a trait based dimensional model that examines individual conflict styles

(Putnam and Wilson, 1982). Blake and Mouton (1970) describe these dimensions as concerns for people

or results, from which they derive five distinct styles of conflict management.


136 Cultural Differences on Conflict Strategies in the Workplace

Though subsequent studies’ findings converge to provide the basis for a dimensional model of

conflict, problems exist in their methodology. As these studies follow a trait based model, they imply a

predisposition of the individual towards using a certain conflict style. Determining this predisposition

may not prove useful. Though the measurement may find that individuals innately prefer one conflict

style over the others, the context of a given conflict can force these individuals to utilize a style that they

do not inherently prefer to achieve a resolution. In addition, an individual may score highly on as many as

three different styles (Putnam & Wilson, 1982). Therefore, though individuals may carry the strongest

disposition towards a certain conflict style, they may also strongly tend to use another conflict style. This

may provide conflicting information as some styles contradict each other. All of these deficiencies in

conflict studies lend themselves to faults in reliability and validity.

In order to address confounds in Blake and Mouton’s (1964) trait-based model, Putnam and Wilson

(1982) created the Organizational Communication Conflict Instrument (OCCI). The OCCI splits conflict

preferences into three strategies: control, non-confrontation, solution-orientation. Utilizing a

strategic/situational paradigm that emphasizes the context of the situation over immutable traits, the OCCI

yields higher test-retest reliability and internal consistencies than almost all other measures of conflict

communication (Wilson & Waltman, 1988). Thus, the OCCI provides for strong “real-world” application

when evaluating employee conflict strategies.


The effect of culture on workplace behavior is widely documented (e.g. Corey, Fok, and Payne, 2014;

Chang, 2002; Lee & Rogan, 1991). Researchers have often used Hofstede’s cultural dimensions to

categorize the effect of culture on workplace behavior: power distance, individualism-collectivism,

masculinity-femininity, uncertainty avoidance, long-term orientation, and indulgence (Hofstede, 1984;

1991; Hofstede & Bond, 1988). In particular, individualism-collectivism refers to an individual’s cultural

view on the importance of the individual versus the group. Individualistic cultures tend to view members

as autonomous and loosely connected, while tightly knit social frameworks characterize collectivistic

cultures (Song, Yong-Jin, 2004). The individualism-collectivism dimension accounts for the largest

difference in employee workplace behavior (Lee & Rogan, 1991), leading most cross-cultural research to

examine this dimension in comparative studies (Song, Yong-Jin, 2004).

Research does not universally support this dimension as the explanation for behavioral differences

between cultures. Other theories that propose cultural values as a more salient element than the

individualist-collectivist dimension have empirical support as well (Silverthorne, 2005). Morris et al.

(1998), Bond & Wang (1983), Chow & Ding (2001), and Tse, Francis, & Walls (1994) posit that

pervasive cultural values like self-enhancement, long-term relationships, and conformity underlie conflict

strategy usage. Consolidating these independent theories requires further research and theoretical

development of workplace and cultural constructs.

Understanding cross-cultural organizational conflict necessitates recognition of conflict strategies

within the context of both heritage and host country cultural values. Current research often focuses on the

former (e.g. Ohbuchi and Takashi, 1994; Chiu and Kosinski, 1994; Corey, Fok, & Payne, 2014), while

downplaying the latter; therefore, research does not often address the effect of a host country’s cultural

values on an individual’s conflict strategy. Knowing foreign individuals’ conflict strategies in their

heritage country may not predict their actions in a host country. For example, determining the effect of

collectivism or conformity on a Chinese employee is not enough if only limited to the scope of work

situations in China. These effects are possibly inapplicable when this Chinese employee immigrates to a

Western country and interacts with the unique cultural values of the West. This Chinese employee, who

may have consistently used an avoidance based conflict strategy during disagreements with a Chinese

superior, could change communication methods based upon exposure to Western ideals and norms.

As MNCs increase foreign hires, effectively resolving workplace conflicts with people of different

cultural backgrounds within a common country is paramount.

Vignesh Murugavel and Ajay Somaraju 137

This study proposes to examine the relationships between conflict strategies and cultural differences.

Specifically, we explore strategy usage and cultural differences of South and East Asian populations

within the United States. Based on past research, there are several assumptions we can make. The goal of

this study is to determine whether the following assumptions, based on findings from individuals’

heritage countries, will hold in a common host country (U.S.). If the aforementioned findings do not

generalize, we predict Westernization explains differences between individuals’ behavior in host and

heritage countries.


The control strategy involves insistently pursuing self-interests and demonstrating a domineering

disposition during resolution formation. Westerners, particularly US citizens, often practice such

“competitive and adversarial” strategies during conflict resolution (Li, Cheung, and Kau, 1979; Leung

and Lind, 1986). Therefore, we expect Western participants in our study to utilize the control strategy

more than the alternatives. Furthermore, we expect Westerners to utilize the control strategy more than

East Asian participants.

Westernization is the process by which foreign individuals modify their behavior and/or values to

include traditionally Western principles. Morris et. al (1998) proposes that shared socialization leads to

behavioral social conformity; therefore, foreign populations in the US should converge towards western

ideals over time. Studies purporting Westernization affecting managerial values (e.g. Lin, 1995) provide

evidence for this phenomenon. We expect Westernization will predict foreign individuals’ control

strategy usage scores.

The non-confrontation strategy involves shying away from direct disagreements, resolutions

involving this style develop through indirect communication. East Asian culture emphasizes this

communication style through creating a deferential atmosphere and interpreting direct confrontation by a

subordinate as shots to management’s authority (Tjosvold and Sun, 2000). This evidence, along with

documented preference of avoidance strategies by Chinese workers (Bond and Wang, 1983), leads us to

predict that those from East Asian cultures will utilize the non-confrontation strategy more than the

alternatives. Furthermore, we expect East Asians to utilize the non-confrontation strategy more than

Western participants.

Since South Asian and East Asian cultures are both considered highly collectivist and Western

cultures are considered highly individualist (Hofstede, 1984), we predict that South Asian scores will not

significantly differ from East Asians’ scores across strategies. Conversely, we predict that South Asian

scores will significantly differ from Western scores on all strategies. Furthermore, we also predict that

East Asian scores will significantly differ from Western scores on all strategies.



Data were collected using a two portion self-reported survey. The first portion of the survey consisted of a

demographic sheet that evaluated age, gender, ethnicity, cultural background, and years spent in the US.

The second portion was a modified OCCI (Wilson & Waltman, 1988). The questionnaires were

administered to participants using convenience sampling through various social media outlets on the

Internet; all respondents lived in the US. There was no time limit for completing this survey.

Out of the 312 questionnaires, 291 were usable, as incomplete responses were discarded. Out of the

remaining questionnaires, 19 were unused because they did not fit the demographic of interest. The age

range of the participants varied widely from 18 to 71 (N=262; SD=9.29). There were 183 (63.1%) male

participants and 107 (36.9%) female participants. The cultural distribution of studied participants was

138 Cultural Differences on Conflict Strategies in the Workplace

relatively equal among East Asian (N=88, 30.2%), Western (N=89, 30.6%), and South Asian (N=95,

32.6%) cultures.

Organizational Communication Conflict Instrument (OCCI)

The Organizational Communication Conflict Instrument (OCCI) (Putnam & Wilson, 1982) reliably

measures an individual’s conflict style within the construct of three distinct strategies. The OCCI contains

35 items that measure conflict strategy usage on a 7-point Likert scale. These items refer to workplace

scenarios within the context of approaching conflict with a supervisor. Our study borrowed Wilson and

Waltman’s (1988) modified version of the OCCI. This instrument is comprised of 30 items from Putnam

& Wilson’s original Form B that load significantly higher on one strategy. The amount of usage of a

certain strategy is coded by using the formula observed in Wilson and Waltman (1988).

The conflict strategies were tapped using the following questions from Wilson and Waltman (1988).

Solution-orientation: Questions 1,4,6,8,9,11,13,16,19,20,21

Non-confrontation: Questions 2,5,7,12,14,15,23,24,25,27,28,29

Control: Questions 30,26,22,17,18,10,3

Sample items included:

* “I make my opinion known in a disagreement with my supervisor”

* “I steer clear of disagreeable situations”

* “I suggest solutions which combine a variety of viewpoints”


Within-Subjects Effects

To test the hypothesis that Westerners would have lower control strategy scores compared to their scores

for solution-orientation and non-confrontation strategies, a repeated measures ANOVA was conducted on

our Western demographic sample on their strategy scores across all three strategies. Results revealed

significant main effect of strategy indicating differences between the three strategies, F(2, 176) = 69.77,

p < .001, 2= .44. A follow-up pairwise comparison indicated that participants had significantly lower solution-orientation strategy scores (M = 3.19, SD = .08) compared to all other strategy scores (non- confrontation, M = 4.30, SD = .10; control, M = 4.72, SD = .09), all ps < .001. Also, participant’s non- confrontation strategy scores (M = 4.30, SD = .10) were significantly lower than their control strategy scores (M = 4.72, SD = .09), p = .006. Remembering that lower scores indicate increased strategy usage, these results are inconsistent with our hypothesis, Westerners actually used the solution-orientation strategy more than the control or non-confrontation strategies. It is also interesting to note that Westerners used control strategy the least compared to the solution-orientation and non-confrontation strategies. To test the hypothesis that East Asians would have lower non-confrontation strategy scores compared to their scores for solution-orientation and control strategies, a repeated measures ANOVA was conducted on our East Asian demographic sample on their strategy scores across all three strategies. Results revealed a significant main effect of strategy indicating differences between the three strategies, F(2, 174) = 27.21, p< .001, 2= .24. A follow-up pairwise comparison indicated that participants had significantly lower solution-orientation strategy scores (M = 3.69, SD = .07) compared to all other strategy scores (non-confrontation, M = 4.18, SD = .07; control, M = 4.18, SD = .08), all ps < .001. Also, participant’s non-confrontation strategy scores (M = 4.18, SD = .07) were not significantly different than their control strategy scores (M = 4.18, SD = .08), p = 1.00. Remembering that lower scores indicate increased strategy usage, these results are inconsistent with our hypothesis, East Asians actually used the solution-orientation strategy more than the non-confrontation or control strategies. Vignesh Murugavel and Ajay Somaraju 139 A repeated measures ANOVA was conducted on our South Asian demographic sample on their strategy scores across all three strategies. Results revealed significant main effect of strategy indicating differences between the three strategies, F(2, 188) = 65.57, p< .001, ^2= .41. A follow-up pairwise comparison indicated that participants had significantly lower solution-orientation strategy scores (M = 3.26, SD = .09) compared to all other strategy scores (non-confrontation, M = 4.32, SD = .09; control, M = 4.41, SD = .10), all ps < .001. Also, participant’s non-confrontation strategy scores (M = 4.32, SD = .09) were not significantly different than their control strategy scores (M = 4.41, SD = .10), p = .40. Remembering that lower scores indicate increased strategy usage, these results reveal that South Asians used the solution-orientation strategy more than the non-confrontation or control strategies. Between-Subjects Effects To test the hypotheses that East Asian scores will significantly differ from Western scores across all strategies, East Asians would utilize the non-confrontation strategy more than Westerners, Westerners would utilize the control strategy more than East Asians, and South Asian and East Asian responses will resemble each other on more strategies than South Asian and Western responses will resemble each other, a multivariate ANOVA was conducted with the three participant cultures (Western, N = 89; South Asian, N = 95; East Asian, N = 88) as independent variables and the three conflict strategies (solution- orientation, non-confrontation, and control) as dependent variables. Results exposed a significant main effect of culture on strategy usage in general, F(6, 536) = 9.08, p < .001, 2= .09 ,indicating culture has some effect on how our participants approached conflict. Specifically, results revealed a significant main effect of culture on solution-orientation strategy scores, F(2, 269) = 11.68, p < .001, 2= .08; no main effect of culture on non-confrontation strategy scores, F(2, 269) = .76, p = .47, 2= .01; and, a significant main effect of culture on control strategy usage, F(2, 269) = 8.47, p < .001, 2= .06. This indicates that cultural differences influence solution-orientation and control strategy usage but not non-confrontation strategy usage. A stringent posthoc analysis was conducted to further explore results. A Games-Howell Post hoc analysis revealed that East Asians, M = 3.69, SD = .08, significantly differ from Westerners, M = 3.19, SD = .08, on their solution-orientation strategy scores, p < .000, and control strategy scores, (East Asian, M = 4.18, SD = .09; Westerners, M = 4.72, SD = .09) p < .000; however, East Asians, M = 4.18, SD = .09, do not significantly differ from Westerners, M = 4.30, SD = .09 on their non-confrontation strategy scores, p = .59. These findings do not support our hypotheses that East Asians would utilize the non-confrontation strategy more than the Westerners; In fact, East Asians and Westerners did not differ in their use of the non-confrontation strategy. Furthermore, although the comparison revealed that that East Asians significantly differ from Westerners on their control strategy scores, this finding supports our hypothesis that Westerners would utilize the control strategy more than East Asians. Remembering that lower scores indicate increased strategy usage, the means (Westerners, M = 4.72, SD = .09; East Asian, M = 4.18, SD = .09; p < .000) reveal that Westerners actually use control strategy less than East Asian. The analysis further reveals that South Asians, M = 3.26, SD = .08, significantly differ from East Asians, M = 3.69, SD = .08, on their solution orientation usage; however, South Asians M = 4.32, SD = .09, and East Asians, M = 4.18, SD = .09, do not significantly differ on non-confrontation strategy usage, p = .43, and control strategy usage, (South Asian, M = 4.41, SD = .09; East Asian, M = 4.18, SD = .09) p = .17. These findings indicate that South Asians responses resemble East Asian responses on two strategies. Additionally, results from the analysis reveal that South Asians do not significantly differ from Westerners any of the three strategies. South Asian, M = 3.26, SD = .08, and Westerners, M = 3.19, SD = .08, do not significantly differ on solution orientation strategy usage, p = .80. South Asian, M = 4.32, SD = .09, and Westerners, M = 4.30, SD = .09, do not significantly differ on non-confrontation strategy usage, p = .99. Finally, South Asian, M = 4.41, SD = .09 and Westerners, M = 4.72, SD = .09, 140 Cultural Differences on Conflict Strategies in the Workplace only trend toward significantly differing on control strategy usage, p = .07. These findings indicate that South Asians scores resemble Western scores on all three strategies. In conjunction, the above two findings indicate that South Asian responses resemble Westerner responses on conflict strategy usage more than they resemble East Asians on conflict strategy usage. This conclusion does not support our hypothesis that South Asian and East Asian responses will resemble each other on more strategies than South Asian and Western responses will resemble each other; in actuality South Asian responses resemble Western responses on more strategies than East Asian responses. To determine if sex difference affected our results, a co-varied multivariate ANOVA was conducted with the three participant cultures and sex (male, N = 169; female, N = 102) as independent variables and the three conflict strategies scores as dependent variables. Results revealed a significant interaction of sex and culture on strategy usage in general, F(6, 528) = 2.82, p = .01, 2 = .03. However, there were no significant interactions on each of the strategies. There was a trend towards a significant interaction of sex and culture on control strategy usage, F(2, 265) = 2.79, p = .06, 2 = .02 and solution orientation strategy usage, F(2, 265) = 3.00, p = .05, 2 = .02; but no significant interaction of sex and culture on non- confrontation strategy usage, F(2, 265) = 2.32, p = .10, 2 = .02. These trends toward significance warranted running this additional multivariate ANOVA to see any changes in significance in strategy usage between cultures from our initial MANOVA. The co-varied results from the pairwise comparisons of the test only produce new relationships between control strategy usage and culture. The comparison now reveals that South Asians, M = 4.41, SD = .09, significantly differ from East Asians, M = 4.18, SD = .09, p = .01; and South Asians’ scores significantly differ from Westerners’, M = 4.72, SD = .09, p = .02 on control strategy. These findings now showing that South Asians only resemble East Asians on one strategy (non-confrontation) and South Asians resemble Westerners on two strategies (solution orientation and non-confrontation) once co-varied with sex. The general interaction between sex and culture on strategy usage and trends towards interaction on specific strategies implies that sex plays some role in influencing cultural differences on communication strategies during a conflict. Though the effect of sex on our study merited consideration, even when accounting for the changes that occurred when results were co-varied, our general findings remain constant. East Asians still reported using the control strategy more often than Westerners, East Asians' scores were not different than Westerners' on non-confrontation strategy, and South Asians' responses still resembled Westerners' on conflict strategy usage more than they resembled East Asians' on conflict strategy usage. Time spent in the U.S. To test the hypothesis that time spent in the U.S would predict control strategy usage in our South Asian and East Asian sample two linear regression were run on time spent in the U.S. with control strategy usage as the dependent variable for our South Asian sample and East Asian sample. The results of the linear regression for our East Asian sample revealed that time spent in the U.S. (M = 3.20, SD = 4.23) did not predict control strategy usage (M = 4.17, SD = .77), = .129, t(70) = 1.09, p = .28. Also, time spent in the U.S. did not explain a significant portion of the variance in control strategy usage, R2= .02, F(1, 70) = 1.92, p = .28, in our East Asian sample. The results of the linear regression for our South Asian sample revealed that time spent in the U.S. (M = 10.92, SD = 10.55) did not predict control strategy usage (M = 4.49, SD = 1.03), = .129, t(68) = -.21, p = .84. In addition, time spent in the U.S. did not explain a significant portion of variance in control strategy usage R2= .001, F(1, 68) = .04, p = .84, in our South Asian sample. These results do not support our hypothesis that time spent in the U.S. would predict control strategy usage in our South Asian and East Asian sample; in fact, time spent in the U.S. did not have any predictive power on control strategy usage. Vignesh Murugavel and Ajay Somaraju 141 Discussion This study provides further confirmation of the effect of culture on conflict resolution. Although the general trend found culture having an effect on behavior, this study found several inconsistencies with current research that also suggests this. Inconsistencies with Current Research As the OCCI measures conflict approach through the context of a disagreement with a supervisor, previous research indicates that East Asians would prefer a deferential, non-confrontational strategy emphasizing the authority of management over subordinates. Contrary to previous research, our study found that the East Asian demographic group preferred a solution-oriented approach over a non- confrontation approach. Analyses comparing strategy usage between cultures further support this inconsistency. Westerners and South Asians were just as likely as East Asians to use the non- confrontation strategy. This implies that East Asians within the U.S. may not avoid disagreement or conflict any more than any other culture. Research describes Western cultures, the U.S. in particular, as more likely to use adversarial and competitive techniques in communication than East Asians (Li, Cheung, and Kau, 1979; Leung and Lind, 1986). Since dominating an argument and ‘forcing’ behaviors characterize the control strategy (Putnam & Wilson, 1982), research would predict a stronger control profile for Westerners compared to East Asians. This study found that East Asians were actually more likely to use the control strategy than Westerners. This suggests that East Asians are less avoidant and Westerners are less controlling than previous research predicts. Analysis of strategy usage within the Western culture supports these findings and points to a more collaborative picture of Western communication, revealing a stronger preference for solution-orientation than control strategy. Researchers often explore cultural tendencies within a heritage country (e.g. South Asian evaluation within South Asia). This can lead organizations to overgeneralize researchers' findings to all individuals from that heritage country regardless of the individuals' current context. For example, South Asians in a host country (ex. U.S., China, etc.) would be expected to behave the same as South Asians within South Asia. The largest discrepancy between the current study and previous research is the evaluation of culture and conflict within the context of a host country rather than the heritage country. We propose that a fundamental difference between individuals' behavior in their heritage country and individuals' behavior in a host country exists and accounts for the inconsistencies we observed. Implications for the Individualism-Collectivism Dimension Previous research often uses the Individualism-Collectivism (I-C) dimension defined by Hofstede to account for variations within workplace behavior (Song, Yong-Jin, 2004). Results from this study suggest that using the I-C dimension to account for behavior may be misguided and that the model itself may not apply to foreign populations within a host country. Collectivist cultures often use avoidance based strategies to maintain an air of deference and respect. In contrast, research describes individualist cultures as normalizing, if not encouraging, subordinate-supervisor disagreements (Song, Yong-Jin, 2004). From the I-C perspective, our study yields contradictory results. South Asians and East Asians both use the solution-orientation strategy more often than non-confrontation. South Asians and East Asians are more likely to use the control strategy than Western cultures. Therefore, collectivist cultures in our study preferred direct confrontation strategies just as much, if not more than, individualist cultures. Although South Asian culture emphasizes collectivist ideals, South Asian responses more closely resemble Western responses than East Asian responses; South Asian responses did not differ from Westerners' on any strategy but differed with East Asians' on one strategy. Under the Individualist scale (Hofstede, 1984) South Asian cultures fall closer to East Asian cultures than Western cultures. 142 Cultural Differences on Conflict Strategies in the Workplace The finding that South Asian responses did not differ at all to Westerners’ across all strategies implies that the I-C dimension may not sufficiently account for behavioral differences. South Asian and East Asian cultures likely emphasize related but distinct values, causing them to score similarly on blanket labels like Collectivism but differently on more contextualized measures like the OCCI. Our findings suggest that the I-C dimension does not accurately explain the behavior of foreign populations within a host country and may neglect important nuances between cultures. Cultural fit and Identity Threat as Possible Explanations Foreign participants in this study were either immigrants or sojourners (people who plan to stay in a country temporarily) living in the United States. Thus, the cultural fit construct may account for some of the surprising findings in this study. Individuals who choose to immigrate or visit a foreign country may already have values that match those of the host country (Heine, 2008). Time spent in the U.S. did not predict any changes within foreign individuals' conflict strategies. This suggests that Westernization had no effect on individuals' responses, implying that individuals did not change their strategies once they arrived in the United States. Individuals from this study's South Asian and East Asian sample may inherently mirror scores of Westerners, causing their conflict strategy preference to differ from what previous research expects. This can account for the ubiquitous preference of solution orientation within cultures, why there was no difference between cultures on non-confrontation strategy usage, and may offer some explanation as to why South Asian responses mirrored Western responses so closely. Another possible explanation arises from identity threat. Individuals who perceive themselves as foreigners or outsiders in American culture may feel the need to ‘fit in’ & distance themselves from traditional ethnic behaviors (Steele, Spencer, & Aronson, 1995). Thus, these individuals may exaggerate conflict strategies they perceive as ideal in Western culture (e.g. dominating, adversarial behaviors) or downplay strategies they perceive as incompatible with Western culture. This would explain why East Asian respondents were more likely to use the control strategy than Westerners and why East Asians were less likely to use compromising strategies (solution-orientation) than Westerners. Combining identity threat and cultural fit can account for the large majority of conflicting results this study has with current research. For instance, a Chinese individual who chooses to immigrate to the U.S may already practice direct confrontation, but perceive Western culture to be even more confrontational than himself. Therefore, in order to fit into the organization, he may overcompensate and exaggerate his already confrontational nature, leading to a stronger preference for adversarial, dominating behaviors than his American co-workers. Though each of these explanations holds some level of merit intuitively, they are still far from definitive. Reaching a conclusive theory for these findings requires further research. Limitations Since the OCCI was developed in Western culture, its level of generalizability to other cultures poses as a limitation to this study. The measure itself may have a bias toward Western ideals. The OCCI may be incapable of evaluating differences between respondents from non-Western cultures as strongly as differences within Western respondents. Although less widely used, other more culturally focused measures, such as the Intercultural Conflict Style (ICS) Inventory (Hammer, 2005), may produce responses that better represent cultural differences. Further problems with the OCCI stem from the usage of Likert-style self-report questions to quantify conflict strategy usage. Self-reports present many problems in cross-cultural research. Many cultures have an inclination to respond in a certain manner independent of the question being asked. Eastern cultures are more inclined to prefer moderate answers to extreme ones (moderacy effect) which may affect results. The acquiescence bias, a tendency of holistic/Eastern cultures to find truths in situations, could also skew results since participants may respond strongly to all questions, causing them to score highly on multiple strategies. In addition, collectivist Vignesh Murugavel and Ajay Somaraju 143 cultures respond to questions in socially desirable manners more so than Western cultures (Heine, 2008). This bias may result in responses that represent perceived social norms instead of the respondent's true behavior. These biases are especially pertinent to the current study since Eastern and collectivist cultures compose most of our foreign sample. Finally, our sample of participants from South Asian, East Asian, and Western cultures was mostly comprised of individuals from India, China, and America. Therefore, the results from this study may not generalize to individuals from other countries who are part of the same broader culture. Future Research The context of gender adds an additional dimension to a given social interaction that should not be understated. When responses were co-varied for gender, South Asians were distinct from both East Asians and Westerners on the control strategy. They reported using the strategy more frequently than Westerners but less frequently than East Asians. Furthermore, because this study found trends towards interactions between sex and culture on solution-orientation and control strategies, future research should address relationships between these factors. A thorough model of conflict should address all contextual factors in a conflict scenario. The strength of the OCCI stems from its situational conceptualization of conflict. Similarly, in order to truly address all cultural contexts, future research must place influences from individuals’ various cultural backgrounds within the larger cultural framework of the society that hosts the individual. Direct comparisons between cultures in host and heritage countries will expand the understanding of the effect of society on cross-cultural interactions. 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