To what extent can large global businesses operating across culturally diverse regions design a single global plan to increase diversity and inclusion?

Global Diversity Practice consultant Kamaljit Poonia, a specialist in diversity and inclusion for over 15 years and previously an advisor to the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Cabinet Office, outlines some of the key considerations to consider when planning culture change on a global scale.

 

1. What typically prompts multinational organisations to start to plan activity around diversity and inclusion? Is it compliance, legislation, HR, or something else?

This depends on where the organisation is in its diversity journey. There can be a range of factors from basic legal compliance, to a business imperative, to ethical and social considerations.

Legal compliance is a factor. But increasingly organisations are seeing the benefits of diversity and inclusion as a commercial imperative and some are now also acknowledging their contribution in making the world a better place socially and doing ‘the right thing’.

Addressing these issues at a compliance level is important to show that fair policies, systems and processes are in place. People working for an organisation are more likely to feel an allegiance if they see that employees are treated fairly and processes are transparent. There is also an increase in countries asking for equal pay data or other equality metrics. Organisations are having to consider how they provide this data and how they can use it to improve their practices.

Global markets are by their very nature diverse across cultures, nationalities, customs and habits. Organisations that address diversity in their business strategies are more relevant to customers and will be better placed to attract the best talent. This contributes to making organisations more resilient to future competition and change.

The questions organisations ask themselves when looking to embed diversity in their business strategies include:

  • Which products do we need to be relevant to the diversity of our customers?
  • Do we have the best people to serve our customers?
  • Are there biases that are affecting competitiveness?
  • What are relationships like within the business and with customers?
  • Are employees bringing the best of themselves to work or are there factors that are holding back their ability?

2. What are the tell-tale signs that companies should be addressing diversity and inclusion within their businesses?

Diversity and Inclusion will be relevant to all organisations, though there might be incidents or legal requirements that focus the need to take action, for example, a discrimination case.

Often the issues emerge more generally.

Organisations might get a sense of emerging issues through staff surveys. High staff turnover or high sickness rates may be evidence of bullying or harassment. An inclusive working culture can help to remedy these issues and reduce cost to the organisation.

If the organisation has not given the signal that inclusion is taken seriously staff may not speak out so leaders will need to look for ways to encourage feedback.

Questions to be asked include:

  • Are we providing the best experience for our customers?
  • Are our staff working in an environment that brings the best out of them?
  • Are there systems in place to deal with conflict?

3. To what extent is there a ’good time’ for planning activity? For example, companies in the process of looking at acquisitions or mergers – should they put diversity and inclusion to one side?

The best time for planning to improve diversity is now. Start where you are in your business planning. There is no ‘right’ time or quiet time. The business will always be busy. However the benefits of diversity and inclusion will be profound if addressed in a holistic and achievable way.

If you are especially busy then start small. Determine what you can deal with now. Make an assessment and do something. Don’t wait. It may help to bring in expertise to start developing an achievable plan.

If you wait, the risk is that diversity and inclusion will remain an after thought and will be considered to be marginal to the business.

Developing a strong, positive, inclusive culture will make you stronger for the other big projects as well. Link diversity and inclusion to everything – deal with it at each stage.

 

4. Who should be involved in the planning process?

Senior management must be involved as strong leadership is important and will signal that diversity is not something that will be put on the back burner.

Even if you start in a small way, involve representatives from other parts of the business or department. Ensure it is not seen as just a HR issue.

Be inclusive in planning diversity and inclusion and involve a cross-section across the organisation as the plan will touch everyone. Even if the intention is good, there is a risk that excluded teams or individuals may feel like diversity is something that is ‘done to them’. The whole organisation needs to see that they have helped to shape, influence or have a voice in diversity. Obviously not everyone can be involved to the same degree, so find ways to include as many as possible. For example, everyone can take part in a survey.

Be especially careful to include middle managers to ensure they help to implement the plan long term. Middle managers are essential to embed diversity into the organisation. If excluded, they may even covertly sabotage the process.

 

5. What are the key constituents of the plan? Is it one plan – or many?

The exact nature of a plan and its implementation will depend on the size and shape of the company.

Establish your key themes through consultation and analysis, and by reviewing your business in the global environment and competitively. This will enable you to identify the main and immediate priorities.

Individual regions, departments, teams, specialists can then develop their own implementation plans linking to the wider organisational themes. This individual local planning enables everyone to own the issue and see the value it brings to them. It empowers them to define how they will derive value from the central issues that have been addressed.

 

6. How should activity be rolled out?

Think big – start small. Choose something small and positive that can be achieved quickly to kick off the rollout. Make it real, achievable and demonstrable, as this will resonate and help to engage people.

If there is a long term five- or 10-year target, identify the small steps that need to happen in the next six months.

Don’t be afraid to pick the low hanging fruit.

Review and build on outcomes every year, redirecting as required. See it as an iterative process that evolves with your culture. As people see tangible change happening, they will start to understand the bigger aims.

From the outset, create spaces where people can talk about their challenges, as individuals and also in groups. Cultural change can be as much a personal as an organisational journey.

Look at how different technology formats for delivering training, information or networking to globally dispersed audiences can help to ensure that the same message is delivered consistently to all employees.

 

7. How can global businesses know if they are doing the right things in the right places in the right ways?

There will be a variety of ways of measuring depending on the issues involved and the aims of the programme.

For some issues it will be important to set up some metrics. These can be hard metrics around sales to a particular target audience, or employee retention.

Where the issue is more attitudinal, staff surveys and other feedback mechanisms will work better – even ensuring leaders have their ‘ears to the ground’ more effectively.

Take stock every year and determine if you are still on track and heading in the best direction. Keep coming back to the organisational relevance: are you still addressing the priority issues?

Diversity and inclusion is an evolving journey. While you are on it, people have moved and changed how they are thinking and behaving. Are you still relevant? Is the organisation resilient to emerging change? Is there still respect?

Planning diversity and inclusion centres on business issues and success, and the commercial objectives underpin a wider humanitarian issue of how we behave towards one another. The goal of profit can be aligned with those of people and of the planet, and this creates true relevance.

 

8. In your experience, what are the key success factors for global diversity and inclusion initiatives?

The most important evidence that an organisation is diverse and inclusive is its success at achieving its goals.

A motivated workforce that delivers, is creative and able to bring about innovation will help ensure that the company adapts to change and has a strong reputation, both for the quality of its products and services, and for how it respects the people with whom it works.