Common Mistakes When Incorporating Diversity
My friend Carol, a Spanish national, was so excited when four years ago was hired as an architect to work in the construction field in Southeast Asia. Aside from the thrill of living abroad and experiencing a different culture, her enthusiasm came from the fact that she was hired specifically to bring her European expertise and style to the Southeast Asian housing market.
Today, a day does not go by without her complaining that no one in her company considers her ideas. She rightly feels demotivated, and wonders why her CEO went through the trouble of recruiting (and paying more) a foreign architect without taking advantage of her skills.
Whenever I think of her situation, I am reminded of how a good intention (injecting cultural diversity in a company) can fall flat if not implemented properly. Carol’s case is unfortunately not unique.
Diversity in the workplace brings exceptional advantages to a company – new ideas, a broader expertise, access to a wider clientele and attracting top talents. The bad news is that these rewards do not happen overnight and do not happen on their own: managers need to work on implementing them.
I am going to use my friend’s case (but not only) as blueprint to highlight common mistakes made when creating a homogenous workforce.
When hiring people from different nationalities, it is essential that there is a common language that employees can use to communicate. My friend Carol is only one of two people that speak English in her company. This not only means that she and her other colleague have to sit through hours of boring meetings in a language they do not understand, but, most importantly, that she cannot participate in and share ideas with her peers. Furthermore, a decrease in productivity as well as confusions and mistakes can occur if not all the employees understand the instructions put forward in said meetings.
Companies should invest in offering language training to foreign employees, or, if it is an international company, they should offer English classes to local staff.
Handling Cultural Differences
Cultural differences are so broad that sometimes managers not experienced in working within a diverse group of people are not even aware of them.
However, ensuring that members of a team understand other colleagues’ religious, ethnic and ethical backgrounds is a fundamental element for a successful diverse workforce.
HR consultants and psychologists in the field have long argued about the efficacy that diversity training has: some believe that it does not work and, in fact, it can exacerbate prejudice and separation; others claim that there are positive outcomes if the training is voluntary and involves a diverse group of participants.
In my experience, forcing people to accept others never works – you cannot eradicate bias just by saying so, and you cannot make someone accept another person’s background just by saying that they have to.
What I, and many others, have noticed is that creating an environment is which employees can work and mingle together is the best way to get familiar with and overcome cultural differences. Going back to my first point (language barrier), employees that spend time together socially or on coffee breaks naturally tend to overcome any bias or cultural misunderstanding just by simply getting to know the other persons.
Training programs are also useful if they are about team building, rather than cultural sensitivity. As much as my previous colleagues met team building training with snarky comments, these occasions made us bond together, and they were invaluable experiences to flash out diverse attitudes and behaviors that then managers could work on in solving or enhancing.
With diversity come changes. New ideas, various ways of working and different social etiquettes come with it. While those are of great benefit to the productivity of a company, they can be met with resistance from the long-standing employees – this is truer if most of said employees have the same background or come from the same country.
Using again my friend Carol as an example, she has discussed with me her frustration at attempting to implement different procedures, which would streamline her company’s work, in an environment where most of her colleagues follow the same practices, dictated by their culture.
Tackling opposition to changes has to come from the top down, or, in other words, by having the management involving the workforce and explaining the benefits derived from new ideas, trying new procedures and having a homogenous workforce.