Australian Professional Services Giants Are Considering Setting 'Cultural Diversity' Targets In Teams

Australian professional services giants are setting up “cultural diversity” targets to ensure they recruit the right mix of people to do business in the Asian century.

Law firm Baker & McKenzie has recently completed a “stocktake”, asking Australian staff to anonymously volunteer information about their cultural backgrounds.

It found lawyers from 30 countries and more than 25 languages within the Australian organisation; managing partner Chris Freeland said culture was the next step for Baker & McKenzie’s Diversity Committee, which in April set a global gender target of having women fill 30% of partnership ranks.

Baker & McKenzie’s strategy echos that of PricewaterhouseCoopers, which in October announced that it would at least 5% of its partners would be of Asian descent by July 2016.

At the time, PwC said 17% of its employees identified as being of Asian cultural background compared to only 2% of partners.

Managing partner Richard Deutsch said PwC had established its cultural diversity targets independently, and was unaware of any similar programs that had been developed or that were in development elsewhere.

“We see targets as a great way to start a conversation about how to change some of the unconscious habits we’ve formed over the years,” Deutsch said. “Different organisations with different needs will adapt accordingly.

“As Australian organisations become more aware of the need to understand the histories and cultures of different Asian countries to operate successfully, we will see more explicit strategies around this element of a diverse workforce.”

Learning to do business with Asia

According to Jenny McGregor of University of Melbourne group AsiaLink, Australian professional services firms had become increasingly focussed on Asian opportunities and relevant cultural awareness training in the past 3 to 5 years.

More than half of organisations said they lacked the skills to deal effectively with Asian business partners, and some attempted to bridge the gap via language courses, offshore internships, exchange programs and training, she said.

A large number of companies joining AsiaLink’s training programs had done so because “they [had] made serious mistakes” by misunderstanding regulations and “negotiating styles” of their would-be partners.

Freeland said cultural education was particularly important when dealing with lesser known markets like Myanmar, which is attracting a growing number of Australian firms after decades of economic and political turmoil.

Baker & McKenzie currently relies on an international exchange program and in-house knowledge sharing to prepare its lawyers to meet with overseas clients. Its Myanmar expert, for example, is Melinda Tun, a founding member of the Australian-Myanmar Chamber of Commerce.

Freeland worked in China throughout 2008; he said the experience gave him a first-hand understanding of social etiquette, business practices, and building relationships through karaoke.

“Increasingly, there’s a greater sophistication about how Australians look at Asia,” he noted. “There is no one Asia; I was at a regional meeting where I had more in common with our Singaporean managing director than he did with our Taiwanese MD.”

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