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Championing a Diverse and Inclusive Culture

Jun 8, 2020 | 16m

Gain Actionable Insights Into:

  • Why you can’t have diversity without inclusion
  • Connecting with narratives and the human element
  • How the little things matter when you lead by example


Of Chopsticks and Cultural Sensitivity

What do Burger King and Dolce & Gabbana have in common? In 2019, both brands came under fire for culturally insensitive advertisements featuring Asian stereotypes. Burger King’s New Zealand branch ran a campaign on Instagram showing people attempting to eat its Vietnamese Sweet Chilli Tendercrisp Burger in an awkward manner, using oversized red chopsticks. Chopsticks also featured in Dolce & Gabbana’s advertisement promoting its runway show in Shanghai – a Chinese model was depicted having trouble eating Italian food with chopsticks, with a male narrator asking, “is it too huge for you?”.

After a wave of bad publicity and controversy spread on social media, both brands tried to walk back their missteps, releasing apology videos and reiterating their respect for cultural diversity. But the damage was already done – as a direct result of the controversy, Dolce & Gabbana’s products were dropped from Chinese e-commerce sites like Alibaba and JD.com, while the planned fashion show was cancelled by the Chinese government. The fashion brand also saw its sales revenues take a hit, with its Asia-Pacific market having dropped to 22% from 25% of its total turnover.

Planning a marketing campaign is a multi-step process that requires several levels of approval. For companies with robust cultures of diversity and inclusion, avoidable mistakes like these would have been caught early on. Diversity and inclusion is not just an optional feel-good initiative for organisations – those who ignore the need for diversity and inclusion in the workplace are at a very real risk of hurting their branding, reputation, sales and bottom line.

Moreover, it literally pays to have a culture of diversity and inclusion in your company – in 2018, McKinsey and Co’s ‘Delivering Through Diversity’ report showed that organisations that had gender diversity performed 15% better or reported 15% better financial results than their respective industry peers. On top of gender diversity, organisations that championed ethnic, cultural and racial diversity saw their financial performance increase up to 35%. These numbers translate to benefits on the individual level as well – another McKinsey report found that executives working in companies with cultural and ethnic diversity earned 0.8% to 3.5% more than their industry counterparts, before accounting for tax.

In today’s business landscape, it’s clear that organisations that practice what they preach on diversity and inclusion will not only create more positive and empowering spaces, but also stand to gain financially. Conversely, those that fail to adapt to the growing need for diversity and inclusion in the workplace will find themselves losing touch with a new generation of consumers, who have higher societal expectations for diversity and are willing to hold companies to account with their wallets.

Understanding Diversity and Inclusion

Over the years, progress has been made on improving gender equality in the workplace. Both men and women have benefited from the growing popularity of measures like paternity and maternity leave. Countries and companies have taken steps to correct the gender wage gap, and women are seeing greater representation in senior leadership. In 2020’s Fortune 500 list, a record 37 organisations are led by female CEOs; back in 1998, only two female CEOs appeared in the top 500.

While the push for greater gender equality must continue, as well as that for diversity and inclusion at large, the mainstream focus on gender issues in the workplace have led many people to misunderstand diversity as a synonym for women’s rights, gender equality or gender-specific strategies and programmes. In truth, gender is but one aspect in the overall umbrella of diversity and inclusion. Reaching a better understanding of diversity and inclusion requires us to unpack the term and drill down to its fundamentals – many have focused solely on the ‘diversity’ part, but the ‘inclusion’ part is equally crucial to keep in mind.

While the term is ‘diversity and inclusion’, you can only have diversity when you first have inclusion, though both are equally important. When your employees go to work, do they feel safe and welcome? Are they made to feel valued and respected – both for their contributions, and for who they are? If these needs are not met by your office culture, you don’t have an inclusive workplace. Your organisation will attract diversity only when people are thriving in an inclusive environment.

Potential talent looking at your company from the outside will be more motivated to join if they see existing employees operating in an office culture that lets them be at their best while being themselves. When you cultivate a space that empowers and encourages people to do better because their fundamental needs (feeling safe, valued, welcomed and respected) are met, talent from diverse backgrounds will know that your organisation can help them excel, because they’ve seen you do the same for your employees. That’s why diversity and inclusion is so important in today’s context, where the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the spotlight on issues like racism and inequality.

Many advocates for diversity and inclusion push hard and go fast, which is good, but are they willing to help those from the majority group get on board? That’s a blind spot, and one many are willing to ignore. To use a West-centric outlook on this issue, much of their business landscape used to be dominated by white males with traditional mindsets. Many from that generation now feel ostracised and quite excluded from the conversations of diversity and inclusion that we’ve been having. Sure, it’s easy to cut them off as ‘relics of the past’ and not bother reaching out to them. But if not everyone in the organisation is made to feel included, can your culture still be considered an inclusive one?

When engaging people from more privileged backgrounds, you should try to personalise issues of diversity and inclusion and ask that they view it from a different perspective. When you genuinely try to connect with people, it’ll be easier for them to relate to the topic at hand. Shed some light on how their actions and words could make others feel, and when you make this issue real, relatable and impactful to them on a personal level, they’re more likely to change or make a concerted effort.

Diversity and Inclusion’s Key Challenges

One key challenge for diversity and inclusion across all organisations is striking a balance while progressing through the implementation phase. Diversity and inclusion is a complex topic. With so many things making up diversity, many in our profession, myself included, have to carefully decide on what to prioritise and concern ourselves with. We’d certainly love to advance every possible cause supporting diversity and inclusion, but with the reality of limited time and resources, we must be purposeful regarding what we are able or unable to do.

Many organisations are also afraid to be specific about their positions on diversity and inclusion. For companies who have given a vague commitment to being inclusive, some are concerned that further emphasising the key issues they stand for may potentially cause offence or impact their branding and reputation. While it’s ‘safe’ for a company to simply say they support diversity and inclusion, it’s quite meaningless and unconvincing if there’s no detailed commitment or evidence of diverse and inclusive practices to back that up.

Companies that are interested in becoming diverse and inclusive are also confronted with some issues. Since diversity and inclusion is perceived as a large and abstract topic, some companies may not know where to start, while others may be too afraid to take action in fear of making mistakes or offending people. That fear can paralyse decision-makers, and the company ends up doing nothing at all.

How do we meet these challenges head-on? First, an admission – on an individual level, no one’s a real expert on this stuff; even I don’t think I’m an expert on diversity and inclusion, since my lived experience will be very different from someone else’s lived experience. In this profession, being humble in what we know and what we don’t is a good start. Furthermore, when others do make mistakes or say the wrong things, the best thing we can do is to acknowledge it, learn from it and then move on quickly. When you dwell on missteps for too long, it can feed into your fears, which then contributes to paralysis on the decision-making level.

If you find yourself giving an opinion on something that you’re not fully well-versed on, be humble about it. Be authentic and upfront about what you know and what you don’t: “Where this issue is concerned, these are my thoughts and opinions, and since I don’t know everything, I’m open to learning from feedback or being corrected.”.

Such humility is fundamental to anything which relates to diversity and inclusion. For instance, if you’re building a programme for workplace accessibility, you can’t just interview one person with one type of disability and use that result to represent the whole community of persons with disabilities. Besides being humble about the limits of your knowledge and understanding, you need to listen to a diversity of voices, thoughts and opinions – these will help you frame your thinking, inform your strategies and fully develop your programmes. Moreover, you need to be agile enough to continually adjust and improve your initiatives along the way, as new information flows in and you become more skilled at managing diversity and inclusion.

In some parts of the business world, making an effort to be diverse and inclusive is perceived as being ‘politically correct’. Personally, I find that hiding behind the label of ‘politically correct’ is a convenient escape route for those who are afraid to venture out of their comfort zones and learn from experience. It’s easy to frame the issue as not wanting ‘political correctness’ in the workplace, but I believe that the inaction also has to do with the fear of saying something wrong, or not knowing where to start. For such reasons, the first step towards diversity and inclusion is never made.

Yes, diversity and inclusion can be complex. It can be difficult and complicated, but so is standing up for a belief and committing to it. It takes courage and leadership to champion your ideals and put them into action. The common thread that unites leaders and trendsetters in the field of diversity and inclusion is a willingness to take risks and learn, to try something instead of doing nothing. It’s not a coincidence that risk-taking and an appetite for learning happen to be fundamental for running businesses successfully. Diversity and inclusion is hard work, and there’s no avoiding that, but ultimately it’s also greatly fulfilling for everyone.

Finally, to engage those who would fall back on the idea of ‘political correctness gone mad’, you can’t force them to embrace diversity and inclusion – it’ll only create more resistance to your approach. Instead, be willing to talk to them and hear their perspective, while challenging them to step out of their comfort zone. Meet people where they are. That way, both of you can then really get an understanding of why they feel the way they do, and the conversation can progress from there.

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Alisha Fernando

Head of Diversity & Inclusion, APAC




DEI in Practice