Celebrate Diversity, However You Do It

The US has a concept of diversity in the work environment that just might be unique. We say we want a diverse workforce so we get diversity of ideas, and in knowledge work that’s pretty much essential. But it is hard to test potential employees for diverse ideas, so we tend to look for obvious traits like ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and others, to define what we mean.

But that may not work so well everywhere.

Diversity takes different forms in different cultures, and American firms need to be careful about applying their diversity goals from their US offices to their operations elsewhere. Anti-discrimination policies still should apply everywhere, and benefits that are available to employees in the US should, where legally possible, be available to employees anywhere. But if you are leading somewhere other than the US (or possibly Canada) you need to figure out how to get the advantages of diversity within the context of your culture.

The reason we can do things the way we do in the US is because we have an ethnically and religiously diverse society that, at least for the past few decades, has encouraged gender and racial equality, and which generally acknowledges the civil rights of all citizens (I say “generally” because there are certainly still some problems when you get down to the individual level, plus there are still plenty of marginalized groups in American society). We are a nation of immigrants (or, as one great philosopher said, “That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.”) and as a result we have people from all sorts of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This leads us to think a certain way about individuals’ attributes.

So as you look to take advantage of diversity in your firm, think about where you are. If you are in a multicultural society, then the lessons from the US experience could be useful. But if you are in another setting, think about how you might need to do things differently. Capturing and employing a variety of perspectives cannot really be based on religion in a country like Thailand, where 95% of the country is Buddhist. It cannot be based on gender or sexual identity in regions like the Middle East where some societies have strict limits on the role of women and gays aren’t able to be open.

So how do you get a diversity of ideas when you do not have obvious metrics available to you? Well, since the goal of a diversity program is the variety of ideas and perspectives you get, then why not just focus on those? It may be harder than looking at visible characteristics, but then again, it might be more effective, too. Try developing questions for job interviews that help you understand if a potential employee is bringing something new, or more of the same, or just says what they think you want to hear. Pay more attention to portfolios of their work than to CVs. Recruit people from different types of educational and training programs rather than from just the same small collection of schools. Find people who have travelled. Ask them about the last book they read. Basically, try to find something about them that will add something unique to your firm.

Come to think of it…these might be useful ideas even in the US. Because ethnic and gender quotas are dumb. Just because you have a lot of different skin tones and accents in your workforce does not mean you have a lot of different ideas. If the typical ways of creating a diverse workforce are not useful where you are, find something that is.

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