Diversity Without Borders

When companies go global, their diversity practices follow. But for organizations entering areas less accepting of Western diversity concepts, promoting inclusion can be a lot harder than it is at home. Just ask Deloitte, a professional services organization with offices in more than 150 countries.

In 2006, the firm realized that even though its Middle East territory staff represented 71 nationalities, it needed to diversify in other ways – like integrating female advancement into the  firm’s culture. “It became apparent … that recruiting, retaining and advancing women would not reach the set targets without some policy and other interventions,” said Rana Ghandour Salhab, talent and communications partner for Deloitte Middle East.

And so the Deloitte Retention and Advancement of Women, DRAW, program was born. Salhab is evidence of its work  — she was the first woman to be made a partner in a professional services organization in the Middle East.

Creating programs that cross global boundaries can be difficult. The process starts by understanding an area’s culture and history, then creating a way for diversity practices to adapt and to gently push legal and social boundaries.

Flex Blending

Diversity itself has diverse meanings and value around the globe, though one group often faces the most social, economic and political discrimination: women.

Depending on the location, however, gender disparities vary. For instance, Western minds often ignore tribal variances in Africa and religion-based separatism in the Middle East, both of which often see inequality as zeitgeist based on media and common misconceptions.

In reality, some parts of the world are more forward-thinking than others. Dubai is a sweet spot for women because of its focus on their education and career advancement, said Audra Jenkins, senior director of diversity and compliance at talent management firm Randstad Sourceright.

“Even working within the cultural and religious norms there, there are plenty of women who can get greater access to opportunities than, say, Saudi Arabia,” she said. “There’s a very different progression there for woman’s rights and advocacy groups than anywhere else in the region.”

That’s the case for diversity all over the world. The U.S. has its own story of diversity — the civil rights and women’s rights movements, for example — and so do other countries. Each country’s history determines what diversity looks like.

“In London or France, that whole concept of diversity has grown up in different ways,” said Lisa Johnson, global practice leader for relocation company Crown World Mobility’s consulting services. “Go to Indonesia, which is one of the most diverse parts of the world, and D&I means something different than in the U.S.”

Because of this, global diversity programs have to be flexible, Johnson said. Sometimes that means using local leaders to spearhead initiatives, and leaving each branch to develop and execute its own diversity and inclusion agenda. 

Social Studies

Whether a company splits the function or leaves it intact, Jenkins said companies have to start by learning, understanding and respecting local nuances to make better decisions regarding diversity and inclusion. Cultural education becomes pivotal to extend an inclusive culture to other parts of the world. Those learning experiences ideally should start at home.

Cheryl Williams, practice group leader for diversity and inclusion at language education organization Berlitz Co., said leaders need to pay attention to what’s currently going on in their workplaces before starting any initiative. Cultural audits can provide an official resource, but examining employee attitudes is also important.

“When people bring a mindset to work that might be at odds with what should be done, it has to do with education and opportunity,” she said. They might not have been exposed to the benefits of diversity and inclusion because of a monocultural society.

Traditional training can mitigate this, but Williams said getting results starts when leaders become role models and mentors. Preparing executives and managers for this position isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor; it requires diversity leaders to approach the situation the same way they approach a new global environment — understand the context, then tailor a solution to turn managers and executives into diversity champions.

Putting Diversity to Work

Once a diversity executive develops leaders’ understanding of an area’s culture and history, programs can be shaped to fit the sociological and legal landscape.

“An organization’s values should be wrapped around human dignity, yet mindful of how it will be processed into the local environment,” Williams said. “Whether it’s a legal area, whether it’s with local community groups, they should really do cultural due diligence around it.”

Out in Africa

The continent known for its lion prides severely lacks LGBT pride.

There are more than 30 African countries with anti-LGBT laws that jail or execute people who are gay or lesbian. Meanwhile, the continent also has been reported as the next hotspot for economic growth. The McKinsey Global Institute reported in 2013 that mobile technology alone could contribute as much as $300 billion a year to its GDP by 2025, making it one of the most growth-prone areas in the world.

Africa is not the only country where LGBT workers are potentially unsafe. Some 79 countries criminalize homosexuality, not including two that ban it indirectly: Russia and Lithuania, where it’s not illegal to be gay, but laws forbid public “propaganda” and same-sex partners.

To grow a business in any of these 81 countries, a company might want to send LGBT employees to set up shop. But is it really fair to ask expatriate employees to hide part of who they are to comply with laws that ban their existence?

“For many, style switching is not appropriate because they have to cover every day,” said Cheryl Williams, practice group leader for diversity and inclusion at language education organization Berlitz Company. “They have to show up as someone else in order to do the job. For them, it’s not just feeling excluded. Depending on the countries’ laws, they could be arrested.”

Lisa Johnson, global practice leader for Crown World Mobility’s consulting services, said diversity leaders should make sure LGBT expatriates receive cross-cultural training and that local human resources offices are alerted and supportive of their arrival.

Further, not all employees choose to come out to their employers, which means security information should be made available to anyone. That way, employees can access it without outing themselves, Johnson said.

It’s also important to accommodate for a transferring employee’s family. It is not only a matter of equality — companies often allow expatriates to bring their spouses with them — but also a safeguard for engagement. The Society for Human Resource Management reported in 2013 that relocated employees’ homesickness can derail their work overseas.

However, in countries where same-sex relationships, let alone marriage, are punishable by law, spouses and partners aren’t always welcome. Johnson gave an example she heard from an industry peer about a same-sex couple who transferred to an area where their relationship was legal but not socially acceptable. They had to evacuate their apartment because of a fire, and in the stress of the emergency the couple hugged each other, outing them to their neighbors and potentially putting themselves in danger.

Other companies are more creative, she said. To get same-sex partners the right documentation, some have gotten tourist or student visas for spouses so they can travel with their loved one on assignment.

“If your goal is to have employee engagement success in the marketplace with your customers, vendors and of course employees, being inclusive is required,” Williams said. “In order for people to feel engaged and do their best, they first need to feel valued, respected and heard.”

— Kate Everson

That’s what General Electric Co. did in 2013 when it collaborated with Saudi Aramco and Tata Consultancy Services to set up the first female-only workplace in Saudi Arabia. Jenkins of Randstad Sourceright said the company wanted to bring more women into that country’s branch, but to do so it had to play by Saudi society’s rules.

The organizations understood that even educated women could be forbidden from working with unrelated male coworkers. The resulting facility gave 3,000 women jobs that didn’t include the risk of encountering men — an offense that could result in assault or death.

“Some see that as segregation, and it is in a Western perspective, but it’s progressive in the sense that giving jobs to women would otherwise never be able to work because their religion’s or family’s belief system wouldn’t allow it,” Jenkins said. “They feel more confident and secure because they know they’re interacting with other women with the same culture and beliefs.”

The country is changing, however. Saudization, a national policy that requires companies to fill their workforces with Saudi nationals, does not exclude women from the plan, said Sarah Schwab, a partner for business strategy firm Decision Strategies International who has worked with oil and gas companies in the Gulf region to accommodate more Saudi women into the workforce.

For example, companies increasingly allow women to telecommute so they can get the experience and lend their talents without raising objection from their families, who still hold them accountable for maintaining the household and raising children.

“It’s a very nice example of how organizations are finding ways to engage women in the workforce that’s consistent with the ways of the country,” she said. “A lot of organizations are working with the government to meet the objectives of Saudization but also tap into the human capital of their very well-educated women.”

That connection to political and social groups is imperative for diversity programs to succeed beyond a company’s walls. Offering apprenticeships to disenfranchised groups, such as women in Africa, can build a future workforce, but it’s not always enough. Jenkins said organizations should partner with advocacy groups and embrace corporate citizenship. An apprenticeship helps, but many women in Africa don’t have access to food and running water.

“Every global plan has to have a localized action to make it successful,” she said. “You need partnerships [with advocacy groups] to help you understand the culture, how to attract women in the workplace and give them a feeling of empowerment.”

More Than Appearances

Creating flexible, educated and culturally conscious programs might seem like a lot of work, but the returns can more than make up for it.

“It’s not impossible, but I always ask clients, ‘Are you committed, or are you just checking boxes?’ ” Jenkins said. “If you’re truly committed, you’ll do what it takes to make it successful, and it will help branding, talent retention and from a financial perspective because your consumers are watching.”

Because of shifting birthrates, market growth and business interests, customer demographics are no longer concentrated in the U.S. Few companies can succeed without going global or working with international partners, and even fewer thrive sans diversity and inclusion, so it only makes sense that organizations blend the two together.

“The smallest mom and pop shop up to the CEO at a multibillion dollar organization have the same goals because people do business with people,” said Berlitz’s Williams. “That’s the bottom line.”

Even without taking global partnerships into consideration, businesses stand to gain innovation from workforces sourced in multiplicity. Deloitte’s Salhab said a diverse talent pool is a business necessity. “However, we do not consider the benefits of diversity as just meeting compliance targets, but rather more around tapping into the diverse perspectives and approaches each individual employee brings to the workplace.”

She said companies need to be conscious of risks associated with homogenous decision-makers and ensure that diversity is not a program that needs managing but a business strategy and imperative. For example, companies that have a higher percentage of female board members and leaders have a higher return on equity, sales and invested capital.

Then there’s the cosmetic factor. Consumers — particularly social-minded millennials — tend to gravitate toward companies that take action in favor of education and inclusion for disenfranchised groups around the world. So do future employees.

“Global companies are realizing that having a strong diversity and inclusion strategy is critical to recruiting and retaining talent,” said Crown World Mobility’s Johnson. “It’s not just to have a good photo for a brochure or website. … Making sure those voices are heard is critical to business success.”