A Manager's Guide to Cultural Intelligence and Diversity

Dave Rees

Walk along Auckland’s Queen Street any weekday lunchtime and you could be fooled into thinking you were in one of the many bustling cities of Asia. Headscarves, turbans, snatches of foreign languages and other signs of cultural difference abound.

It’s a rich, cosmopolitan mix, driven by waves of immigration over the last few decades in New Zealand which have changed the demographic in this country dramatically; primary schools have classrooms where there may be a dozen or more ethnicities and nationalities represented.

The same is increasingly true of the workplace. And there are two dynamics occurring here. Migrants arrive off their own bat and look for work, and in time, their children are educated and trained and also begin entering the workforce. Separately, employers facing shortages in critical job areas are forced to recruit overseas.

We’re all familiar with the notion of a workplace “culture” - often defined as “the way we do things around here” and based on the institutional values and behaviours present. But our definition of culture in the workplace must now be broadened to encompass the aspects that arise from the ethnicities and nationalities of the people present - the way they think and act, which is strongly influenced by their upbringing and the cultural norms of their countries of origin.

In truth this development is long overdue. New Zealand hasn’t suddenly become multicultural; Maori, Pacific, Chinese and Indian ethnicity has been strongly present here for many generations - and in the case of Maori, since the time of very first settlement in this country.

As a manager, this broadening of workplace culture poses definite challenges. The processes around recruiting, training, supporting, rewarding, disciplining and generally managing employees no longer work off a single, simple blueprint. In the distant past, intelligence and experience would generally equip managers with the skills to establish and maintain good relationships with their employees. More recently, emotional intelligence - the ability to sense emotional states and adapt or react accordingly - has become an important tool for managers to be able to understand and manage their reports.

Enter Cultural Intelligence - the ability to view employees through a cultural lens specific to their nationality and background, and, more particularly, to understand the differences between cultures and how that impacts on workplace behaviour. This covers dimensions such as dress, religion (and religious practices), food, important family events like births, marriages and deaths, education and recreation. A case in point: Ahmed (not his real name) is a Middle East-born engineer who works in the head office of a large utility company. He’s a Muslim and, in line with his religion, he prays five times a day, but has no dedicated space set aside where he can do so in a quiet space, uninterrupted and discretely. And when he wishes to eat, the company cafeteria caters for very Eurocentric food tastes. He’s uncomfortable with bringing these issues to his employers’ attention so endures the situation in stoic silence.

Where do you get the learnings from to avoid this sort of oversight? The time-honoured way is by osmosis - learn as you go, but that path is not likely to be a smooth one. A passive approach is folly; much better to develop the understandings from active programmes of enlightenment - doing your homework. You analyse your business market and carry out audits and research to better understand your customers and competitors, so why not do the same with that even more important set of stakeholders - your employees?

Another lens to view workplace culture through is the diversity perspective.

Chief Executives routinely extol the power of diversity in the workplace. It brings fresh perspectives and global experience and insights, along with cultural variety.

And not just diversity in the ethnic sense; age and gender are similarly important diversity parameters forming part of the overall discussion. The “glass ceiling” is a long-standing metaphor for the difficulties women experience in advancing into senior management positions and the issue has been debated widely for some time. But improvements still seem slow and there’s definitely not universal agreement that it’s a problem; witness the recent controversy over comments by Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts. Likewise, organisations have seen for some time changes in the age profile of their staff as employees work past retirement age, while the new breed of job seekers waits impatiently for the baby-boomer generation to pack up and retire.

Organisationally, the diversity picture and record in New Zealand is patchy. Many organisations with a veritable United Nations of employees still maintain a resolutely mono-cultural approach to business - not surprisingly given the overwhelming predominance of European males in charge. Diversity, at best, gets a token nod at times like Matariki, Chinese New Year or the Diwali Festival of Lights. Initiatives tend to develop ad hoc and irregularly from the bottom up, rather than arise from an organisational plan and vision.

Which is not to say there aren’t models of excellence in the New Zealand business environment. Air New Zealand, for example, has a number of significant initiatives happening around diversity, employee engagement and people safety and wellbeing. Among other things, the company has created networks for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) staff, Women, and Young Professionals, graduate and intern programmes for Maori and Pasifika employees, a talent development programme for frontline staff that involved 800 employees this year, and a Women in Leadership programme in 2015. Air NZ’s engagement survey, “Your Voice”, has shown high engagement from ethnic groups.

The more bottom-line-minded might query the need to be active (and expend resources) in the diversity area. But the rewards of acknowledging and fostering the diversity within your workplace are undeniable. Valued employees, whose cultural attributes and mores are understood and accommodated in the workplace, are going to be engaged employees and engagement brings stability and improved productivity to the business. Engaged companies attract great people too.

There is a school of thought that expects migrants to “become kiwis” and conform to some concept of a New Zealand way of doing things. In truth, migrants generally leave their country of origin to find a better way of life, a safer place with good work and education prospects and perhaps a much more benign climate - and New Zealand provides that. But they have only rejected a repressive, unsafe or unpromising environment - they bring their ethnicity intact and are proud of it. Make no mistake, settling into a new country and new jobs and schools is a formidable challenge - particularly if you’ve come out of an adverse situation. If we accept, as we should, that migration enriches the country, supports growth and meets pressing skill shortages, we should do the best job we can to make our new citizens welcome. And the workplace is a prime place to start.

Diversity initiatives don’t just bring benefits from the top down; employees of different cultures will also benefit from the growth in awareness and understanding that comes with thoughtful diversity programmes and initiatives. They are required to work together daily; understanding each other better can only enhance that relationship.

But what are some practical things employers could do to improve their diversity practices and sharpen their Cultural Intelligence? Some tips and tricks:

  • Lead by example. Commitment and modelling from the top counts.
  • Demonstrate and articulate - both internally and externally - that diversity matters to you and to your business.
  • Adopt and uphold policies and procedures that support diversity in your workplace, including policies that discourage discrimination and harassment, and hold all those who work for the organisation accountable.
  • Provide training and education in the workplace to raise awareness of cultural differences and diversity.

As recruiters, we clearly need to understand the cultural dimension from two perspectives: supporting candidates for roles who may be from quite a different country and work environment - and uncertain about “how things are done here”, and working with employers who don’t have much awareness of what it means to be, for example, Iranian or Rumanian.

For employers recruiting or selecting from a candidate pool with a range of ethnicities, some points worth remembering:

  • Learn as much as you can about different cultures.
  • Find out about the holy days of different religions to avoid scheduling interviews at inappropriate or inconvenient times.
  • Network with other employers who have diverse workforces to find out their best practices.
  • Set up a Diversity Committee to assist with recruitment and community relations.
  • If your workplace is unionised, check to see what diversity resources are available through the union.

As employers and managers, your challenge is to understand how diversity permeates your business and how to accommodate it and utilise it to enrich the organisation as a whole. There is no textbook on this but the resource to inform and educate is right in front of us - our migrant communities. And they are more than willing and able to bring us up to speed.


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