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Cultural Intelligence Helps Build a Food Safety Culture

By Judy Sebastian

Today, my breakfast was the sum of fifteen ingredients coming together. In case you’re wondering, raisins were not one of them. The food industry is one of the most interconnected and diverse global industries. The making of one balanced meal alone rests on the shoulders of producers, manufacturers, distributors, and consumers. Food safety culture would be incomplete without cultural intelligence, a powerful yet undervalued skill, is the ability to mindfully navigate geo-cultural differences when developing strong teams.

A recent study by Deloitte in partnership with FMI (Food Industry Association) highlighted an urgent and important need for organizations to revisit their DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) strategies. While non-food consumer staples executives reported a gradual and healthy increase in the representation of women and other historically marginalized individuals, their counterparts in the staples (food) sector, reported “food is falling behind on diversity in leadership”.

When critical decision makers are clear on where they want the organization to be, getting there gets easier because of how consistent they are in their communications.

This opportunity for improvement calls for a shift in not only organizational design but also organizational learning. Cultural shifts take time and may require additional resources, such as training and development tools. Cultural intelligence should become a core competency to help leaders co-create a culture of belonging. A few areas worth exploring to help convert concepts into sustainable and scalable change are:

Closing the equity gap

Equity audits can be eye-opening. What is perceived as fair and accessible may in fact be challenging, disjointed, and biased for some individuals. Employee referral programs have a higher probability of biased recruitment outcomes.

We subconsciously gravitate more toward individuals ‘like us’ and place them in our inner circle of trust. A creative way to counter this would be to have hiring managers and panels perform ‘blind interviews’ wherein the preliminary screening steps eliminate identifiable traits such as ethnicity, preferred languages, school of study, etc. Though this shift may seem radical to some, the results are emphasized on a merits-based approach.

Executives and senior leadership teams should normalize performing pay equity studies. Pay equity or pay parity audits, if done well, help reduce and ultimately eliminate the wage gap. According to the 2022 study conducted by PayScale, women earn $0.82 for every $1 men earn. These organizational cultural barriers exist across various industries, not just the food sector. Co-creating equitable opportunities will require a partnership between senior executives, Human Resources, DEI Councils and ERGs (Employee Resource Groups).

Creating a culture of learning

Learning and growth are linked to each other. Creating strategies that fuel cultural change and foster inclusion can seem a bit daunting at first, but if performed with the right support systems and mindset, will be a rewarding experience. It is not uncommon for individuals to experience a ‘paralysis through analyses’ or ‘perfection paralysis’. When working with my clients, my recommendation is to accept that change will remain a constant, and the goal is progress – not perfection.

Learning and development strategies should not be confined to a one-time event, during orientation or compliance trainings. An organization that learns collectively, is an organization that grows exponentially. Leveraging diverse learning styles and socializing learning is an impactful way to drive change. Socializing employee engagement surveys, reporting out key findings by ERGs and engaging the workforce

Defining organizational values first.

Driving a holistic approach, requires clarity, consistency, and compassion. Senior leaders and executives can lead by example through their words and actions. It is not ambiguity that leaves talented individuals feeling concerns and uncertain – it is the lack of clarity. When critical decision makers are clear on where they want the organization to be, getting there gets easier because of how consistent they are in their communications. Showing up with compassion is just as important too. How one shows up as a leader, impacts trust.

Normalizing emotional intelligence and compliance

Food safety and quality management is logic driven, but not incapable of being humanized. Cultural differences cannot be confined to either-or statements. The reality is cultural intelligence requires individuals to challenge binary thinking and embrace ‘both-and’ scenarios. A strong example of this is performing supplier audits. When a food product exchanges many hands, and must pass through a complex supply chain, it impacts food safety culture. Numerous studies have also highlighted how a simple tweak to inspection schedules can minimize outbreaks, and reduce an auditor’s bias.

One can indeed remain culturally intelligent without compromising on food safety and security.

About the Author:

Judy Sebastian has a dual specialization in food safety management, and organizational culture transformation. She is the Principal Consultant at  Apex Global Consultants (based in Portland, OR) and the senior food safety consultant at Apex Food Consultants (based in Dubai, UAE). Her primary area of focus lies in transforming an organization’s culture through people-development strategies.

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