By Laurindo Garcia, Content Lead – Catalyse Consulting
Celebrating diversity in the workplace is nothing new in Singapore and other parts of Asia.
An example lies in a tradition that many Singapore companies observe during lunar new year festivities. Imagine hordes of company employees crowding around a round dining table reciting chinese proverbs in loud chorus calling for prosperity for the company. As the chorus continues each participant wield chopsticks in unison to toss a delicious salad of shredded fish and assorted vegetables through the air. Each colourful ingredient in the salad is symbolic of luck in Chinese culture.
The scene is that of a yusheng or lo hei – an annual tradition for family and friends that Singapore companies have also borrowed. As with Lunar New Year, Singapore offices are also abuzz with festivities during Christmas, Hari Raya and Deepavali in acknowledgment of the diversity that thrives within the country. Everyone is invited to participate, regardless of differences in cultural background.
Human history and our personal experiences have taught us that celebrating together deepens engagement between peers, builds a sense of belonging and raises awareness about the variety of cultures from which people hail.
In recent years shifts in culture and the proliferation of personal stories shared on social media, business leaders are awakening to the true breadth of diversity that exists in the modern workplace. Consequently, people managers in Asia are increasingly faced with uncomfortable questions from staff about why certain groups are celebrated while other groups are ignored.
To solve this problem some larger companies encourage employees to form affinity groups as a means to build trust, forge stronger ties and nurture a sense of belonging. The formation of such groups are particularly helpful for women, seniors, people with disabilities, LGBTQ and other traditionally underrepresented segments in the workplace.
Celebrating diversity of underrepresented groups sometimes makes business leaders in Asia feel nervous. The risk of upsetting workplace harmony is reportedly one concern that prevents many business managers from fully embracing diversity.
That said, the workforce of the future is forecast to be the most diverse in history. Learning how to tap into the value of increased workforce diversification is the key to success for any 21st century company and according to research from the World Economic Forum, companies must embrace diversity NOW.
How can the modern corporate leader in Asia do more to celebrate diversity while delivering direct business outcomes for the company? There are three opportunities for business leaders to consider:
- Nurture employee groups to become pipelines of leadership: Employee groups or networks are often formed around special affinities like hobbies, shared life experiences or cultural backgrounds. These groups help build a sense of belonging, especially for new recruits adjusting to the workplace culture. But employee groups have the potential to be more than mere platforms for employees to socialise.
For example, DELL, the computer manufacturer has shown how a structured approach to employee groups can create a pipeline for emerging leaders in the company by providing members with professional development outcomes. Participation in employee groups is known to be one key factor that guides Dell’s leaders when they anoint rising stars in the company.
Well structured employee groups ultimately deliver business value by deepening employee engagement, increasing talent retention and reducing costs associated with staff attrition.
- Refresh your niche marketing campaigns to reflect the modern consumer: Astute business leaders ensure that their workforce reflects the diversity of their customers and opens new market opportunities. Consider how leveraging insights among your diverse workforce can help to deepen customer success stories and increase the reach of your brand.
For example, to mark its 70th anniversary, Poh Heng the Singapore jewelry company revealed a public photography exhibition in the Orchard Road shopping district. The exhibition presented a diverse array of couples across ages, ethnicity, sexual orientation as a celebration of “journey of trust” that the brand has come to epitomise. Poh Heng’s campaign resulted in significant organic social media engagement – that would otherwise cost a fortune in terms of marketing spend – while reinforcing the company’s core values.
Engaging your diverse workforce to reflect the true diversity of your customers helps your company build loyalty, address unmet consumer demand and leverage word of mouth.
- Tapping the power of allyship through corporate giving: Giving back to the community is a core tenet of good corporate citizenship. Corporate giving efforts have historically been decided by the interests of founders and directors. Nowadays some companies are inviting greater participation of employees in corporate giving decisions that encompass donations of cash and time. Some corporate giving programs are designed to encourage allyship between employees and disadvantaged groups in the community.
For example, companies are increasingly implementing gift matching programs where employee donations are matched by the company and employees can nominate non-profit to be part of the program. Allyship programs are powerful channels that help bridge the divide between different groups. For example male employees mobilised to support emerging female business leaders or straight allies mobilised to help LGBT organisations.
Employee driven corporate giving plus allyship initiatives unite a company behind a strong sense of purpose that brings more meaning to daily work. Nurturing allyship among team members is essential for diverse teams to build empathy, find common ground and ultimately leads to productivity gains for the team.
To be sure, some executives say that the workplace is not a place to celebrate diversity and argue that conformity and homogeneity in teams is more efficient, while celebrating diversity leads to chaos. While it is true that diverse teams must grapple more with instances of conflict than homogenous team. But if constructive conflict is managed effectively, business research shows that diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams in terms of innovation and problem-solving.
In closing, celebrating diversity is part of the recipe for successful teams in Asia. Business leaders who create workplaces that enable diverse perspectives to be celebrated while uniting teams behind a common purpose stand the best chance of delivering winning outcomes for their company.
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