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Cultural Diversity in the Workplace: 3 Essential Elements for Success

Katriina Tahka

May 25, 2017

This week, on the 21st of May, we celebrated International Day of Cultural Diversity. Whilst not as well known as Harmony Day in March, it is an important day for global recognition of how cultural diversity can enrich rather than divide communities.

Modern Australian society has been built on an intentional platform of multicultural policy. According to the ABS 2011 Census, 45% of Australians have one or more parents born overseas.

Yet the reality is that we live in a diverse multicultural society which is not reflected in our workplaces. If you think progress in gender diversity is glacial, then the picture for cultural diversity at work is even more dire.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent ‘Leading for Change’ report confirmed that the multicultural diversity in our society is not represented in the leadership of Australian organisations and institutions. 

In corporate Australia, senior leadership remains overwhelmingly dominated by people with an Anglo-Celtic and/or a European background. 

  • Among the 201 chief executives of ASX 200 companies, 77% have an Anglo-Celtic background and 18% have a European background
  • Only 10 chief executives – or 5% – have a non- European background
  • None of our 201 chief executives have an Indigenous background*.

*Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership (2016)


The elephant in the room needs to be named. Australian leadership is not inclusive of Indigenous Australians, our eldest living culture, or of recent immigrants from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Most of our readers are already aware of the challenges that we face in building more inclusive workplaces, and the huge loss of opportunity if we do not embrace the power of diverse thinking in business. Increasingly today business’ strategic plans include innovation and growth targets that require diversity of thinking to be achieved.

Embedding diversity of thinking into our workplace cultures will require a mindset shift to overcome the behaviours that have lead to the current state of Australian leadership, which research has shown is not particularly inclusive of people not named Peter, John or Paul.

 

But where do we start?

One of the best ways to achieve a significant shift in the mindset of companies is to clearly articulate the size of the business opportunity available to early adopters, and the risk of not taking action. Delivering on the change will then require a sustained and strategic approach. When it comes to harnessing the power of cultural diversity we have a golden opportunity in Australia; however business just needs to invite cultural diversity to the table.

In my role as the Chair of the not for profit organisation Joining The Dots I witness first hand at Welcome Dinners the authentic connections and understanding that can be formed between people of different backgrounds when they are able to experience and learn about each other's cultures through conversation, sharing a meal and taking the time to listen to other people's life stories and experiences.

At Welcome Dinners, newly arrived migrants, refugees, international students and established Australians get to do this in a deeply personal environment in a home, with a home cooked meal around a dinner table. I have sat with people from Iran, Persia, Sudan and many more countries that I have never visited. Hearing about their aspirations and hopes for their new life in Australia it is clear that newly arrived people have a great depth and breadth of skills to offer Australian business if only they get the opportunity to do so; and you can only understand this by taking the time to get to know people.

The dinners are impactful because they create a bridge for newly arrived Australians and a safe place for sharing stories without hierarchy, fear or judgment.

Organisations can learn a lot about designing similarly welcoming employee experiences at all stages of the employee life-cycle, not only during the recruitment phase, but also in talent identification, development and promotion. 

Many potential employees feel that they need to conform to organisational expectations and ‘norms’ in order to be a ‘good cultural fit’. If they can successfully navigate the minefield of getting a job, too often the pressure to conform continues to discourage open and authentic sharing of the real persons identity at work. You only need to look at the vitriolic debate about whether women should wear a hijab to work for an obvious example of this, and there are thousands more subtle influences every day.  This is the same experience for many underrepresented people in the workplace including the LGBTI community, women, people living with a disability as well as the many different cultures under-represented in Australian organisations.

True inclusion will create a better place to work for everyone and welcome the different perspectives that will unleash innovation and growth.

What can organisations learn from Welcome Dinners to create a similar employee experience that is welcoming of cultural differences?

Start by encouraging people to share their own stories of their cultural background. Allow people to express their cultural identity and truly listen in order to understand how these different experiences and perspectives can teach the business about different customer experiences. Modern cultural identity goes beyond just country of birth and can include multi-generational heritage as well as an affinity to other countries and religions that are meaningful to people.  Build inclusive leadership skills in your leaders so that they are equipt to create a culture of trust and respect in which open and honest conversations can flourish.

Once you’ve started having the conversations, the next steps are to:

Sounds hard? A-HA has helped many organisations successfully start and accelerate their diversity journey. Let us show you how we can help you achieve your goals, email us or call us on 02 9042 1406.

Topics: diversity-inclusion workplace-culture

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