Two experts explain why cultural diversity can feel forced when introduced by some companies

Two experts explain why cultural diversity can feel forced when introduced by some companies
This article has been sponsored by Monash Business School.

We live in an ever-increasingly connected world. People with different values, beliefs, and assumptions of life influenced by their national, ethnic, or cultural background, all form the incredible societal mosaic we see in modern cities across the globe.

This intermingling of cultures is, of course, nothing new. Although the advent of commercial air travel and the globalisation of business spurred on by the internet revolution has expedited the process, human beings have been trading and intermixing with cultures different to their own for millennia.

The curiosity that fuels the exploration of cultures beyond our own is ingrained deeply in our DNA — it is, ultimately, what makes us human. And yet, if this process is so natural, why are so many companies striving to implement ‘cultural diversity’ as a goal in and of itself?

The great cultural diversity rush

“Many practitioners and scholars alike consider cultural diversity as an attractive business opportunity to increase learning, creativity, and innovation in the workplace,” says Mladen Adamovic, a Research Fellow at Monash University’s Department of Economics.

“The employees’ different perspectives and backgrounds can increase knowledge and information exchanges that lead to the development of new ideas and better problem-solving approaches. Relatedly, sales and organisational performance can improve if employees match the demographics of their customers,” he adds.

Harsh Vardhan, Senior Manager of Investor Relations at ANZ echoes these sentiments. “Multiculturalism is the reality and the identity of Australia. According to our last census (2016) more than a quarter of our population was born outside Australia,” he says. “We have over 300 separately identified languages spoken in Australian homes; and we have the 3rd highest number of international students worldwide.”

Vardhan says that, in the workplace context, when you put together a culturally diverse team, “What you are in fact getting is diversity in thought, diversity in perspectives and diversity in ideas — all influenced and synthesized through our cultural backgrounds, personalities, beliefs and life experiences, yet harmonized to bring forth a unique voice.”

Sounds great, so what’s the problem?

This all sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want a healthy, forward-thinking company full of exciting ideas influenced by a vast array of diverse employees?

Well, according to Vardhan, it’s not so cut-and-dried. “Successful organisations are the ones where human beings are still recognised as individuals and not just subsets of their cultural heritage and the conscious/unconscious biases that come with it,” says Vardhan.

Vardhan explains that even a “good” decision, if made for the wrong reasons, can turn out to ultimately be a very bad decision. “When seen from a purely compliance or ‘tick in the box’ lens, organisations will undoubtedly falter in striving for cultural diversity. Organisations often miss the simple, yet paramount first step of starting with a why — why is cultural diversity of importance to them?”

Adamovic also warns against the perils of this ‘tick the box’ mentality many companies defer to when aiming to implement cultural diversity. “A bad example [of cultural diversity] is when organisations just hire a culturally diverse workforce for legal reasons to avoid discrimination lawsuits or to promote themselves as a culturally diverse employer as part of their employer brand,” he says.

“For these organisations, cultural diversity is like ticking a box. We often observe in these organisations that cultural minorities are employed at the bottom level of an organisation but not in leadership positions.” This situation is less than ideal. No point in having a diverse team when all the leaders and decision makers are still made up of the one dominant demographic.

Adamovic believes companies that focus purely “on avoiding discrimination issues” when striving to implement cultural diversity “can lead to superficial interactions among employees that are characterized by prejudices and fear related to political correctness.”

“For example, managers in such organisations often prefer to not give honest feedback due to their fear of being accused of discrimination. Or, cultural minority employees do not feel valued and respected, because they realise that they were not hired based on their skills but based on their demographic attributes,” says Adamovic.

Cultural diversity should not be looked at as the main goal, but rather as a by-product of a healthy, inclusive company.

Striving to have a culturally diverse company is, at face value, a noble goal. The crux of the issue lies not with the striving for cultural diversity, but with the reason some companies are pursuing it and how they’re going about implementing it.

“There is nothing wrong with having the goal to employ a more culturally diverse workforce,” says Adamovic. “However, this seems to be more a sub-goal to achieve a great and inclusive place to work. An effective main and long-term goal is rather the development of an inclusive workplace, in which all employees feel confident to express their values and identity and reveal their true selves.”

“Otherwise, organisations will not be able to benefit from the different and unique ideas, knowledge, and information of their culturally diverse workforce. At the same time, culturally diverse employees are more likely to feel socially excluded and to identify less with their organisation,” he adds.

Vardhan mirrors these sentiments. He believes cultural diversity, in and of itself, is only as good as how inclusive the organisation’s workplace culture really is. “As such, getting diverse representation and expecting them to assimilate into an existing culture is a fallacy,” he says.

The problem with hiring culturally diverse employees simply for the sake of “ticking boxes” is that it’s not really addressing the issue. It is a mere misguided band-aid solution to a perceived problem — when the real problem is the culture of the company itself. A healthy company will naturally foster an inclusive, open environment, which will, in turn, inherently lead to attracting a diverse range of employees from all sorts of cultural, ethnic, and political backgrounds. A healthy company will not only be accepting of diversity, it will be a healthy flowing river of diverse and varied ideas, from the banks of which diversity naturally grows in abundance. 

“The way I think about this is that diversity enriches the company culture. And inclusiveness, works in conjunction with cultural diversity and helps foster a sense of meaning & purpose, intelligent thought and reasoning, increased productivity, self-care and self-improvement, higher employee morale, and better well-being in general,” says Vardhan.

“After all, employees thrive in an environment where they feel needed, and their contribution is valued.”