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The deal with diversity

The deal with diversity
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First Published: Sun, May 16 2010. 09 01 PM IST

Different shades: Integrating diverse cultures in a company is essential for success.
Different shades: Integrating diverse cultures in a company is essential for success.
Updated: Mon, May 17 2010. 11 55 AM IST
Scene: A woman employee and her male colleague are waiting in office to meet their boss. As the clock ticks past 5.30pm, the woman keeps calling home to give messages. The male colleague sniggers. Finally, an hour later, the boss breezes out of his cabin, and with a light apology, postpones the meeting for the next day, saying he has to rush to pick up his wife.
Different shades: Integrating diverse cultures in a company is essential for success.
This is a scene from a training video shot a few weeks ago that will be shown to the Indian employees of a global telecom giant as part of its diversity management initiative. The key message here, according to Delhi-based Santhosh Babu, managing director, Organisational Development Alternatives (ODA), who helped make the video, is gender inclusivity. “In a diverse workforce, superiors need to be sensitive about the needs of every kind of employee. Given that women typically have a lot to handle, both at home and office, the boss could have handled this situation differently,” he says.
Cut to LG India, Greater Noida. A popular sport played here is Choku, which is a cross between soccer and volleyball. The largely Indian workforce has picked up the nuances of this Korean game and enthusiastically takes on the expatriates. Meanwhile, at the company’s dining hall, everybody from the top management to the shop-floor worker queue up in the same line for fare that can be as diverse as pongal or a Bengali speciality dish.
These are the little ways in which the Korean firm tries to integrate diversity at its workplace, cutting across nationalities, regionalities and hierarchies, says Sudhanshu Pathak, team head, learning and development, at LG India.
Getting a focus
Cultural integration and diversity management are gaining momentum at the Indian workplace. What was earlier only a key focus area of the United Nations workplace, where diversity training is done on moral and humanitarian grounds to do away with race, religion, gender and nationality biases, is being seen increasingly in the corporate domain as well. French consultant Marc Avanzo, who works with ODA in the area of leadership development (and who has in the past worked with WHO and conducted diversity training for UN organizations), says that among the diversity issues reported by workplaces are ignorance about other cultures, lack of capacity to understand the points of view of others, hidden racism, and even reverse cultural effect  (the rejection of one’s own culture).
Of course, the corporate rationale for diversity management is different. It’s less to do with social responsibility than to do with retaining talent, doing business in a globally interconnected world—most importantly, it stems from the recognition that not understanding cultural nuances can cost a company dear.
“The lack of cultural awareness preparation has many levels of impact—from an embarrassing moment to a breakdown in inter-company communication to a lost deal or accord,” says Satyanarayana Vinjamoori, the Hyderabad-based head of human resources at Automatic Data Processing, Inc. (ADP), a Fortune 500 business outsourcing solutions company, explaining why his company deems it necessary to invest in cultural and diversity training. Right from induction, employees are trained on cultural differences, including communication, language subtleties, punctuality, interpersonal relationships and clothing. In addition, country-specific training on accepted business behaviour and so on is given at the time of posting.
The diversity officer
Ever since companies began expanding globally and demographic shifts at the workplaces became evident, one has seen the rise of the chief diversity officer (CDO) or diversity champion, an executive leadership position that is now seen in companies such as Infosys and Standard Chartered. This title did not exist till a few years ago, but now almost 20% of the Fortune 500 companies have either a designated diversity officer or champion.
So what exactly does the diversity officer do? Take Chennai-based Srimathi Shivashankar, senior diversity lead at Infosys, who says the company created this post in 2007. She has a small team to drive the diversity and inclusion agenda, but says her ultimate brief is to create hundreds of change agents across the company who will carry forward innovative programmes such as “Creating a Common Ground” and diversity dashboard (which sensitizes key stakeholders such as team heads, supervisors, project managers) on managing diversity.
To put it simply, for a company such as Infosys—with 113,796 employees on its rolls, straddling the geographies of South America, Australia, North America and Asia—talent management has to include diversity management.
The gender bender
While diversity training in its true sense includes tackling a whole range of biases (from caste, religion and ethnicity to disability and illnesses), in most corporate workplaces, as Babu points out, a huge chunk of the diversity programmes seem to be focused around women. Certainly true if you look at the effort invested by Infosys in its Women’s Inclusivity Network, HDFC Bank in its Sisterhood of Strength, Wipro in the Women of Wipro, and Standard Chartered in its gender agenda.
Standard Chartered’s Rajashree Nambiar, general manager, distribution, and designated diversity champion, points out  why gender gets such high priority. Globally, StanChart addresses six strands of diversity through its Diversity and Inclusion Council. But in each country, it does a survey to identify employee concerns and focuses on those. In India, it ran a programme called Voice of Employees in 2006 where, through surveys and focus group discussions, it found the priority concern was gender. This led to StanChart improving infrastructure for its women employees (such as setting up creches), addressing their work-life balance issues, and facilitating career growth by providing them more opportunities across functions.
At StanChart, “it’s let the best person get the job and not let the best man”, says Nambiar. Annually, a diversity and inclusion audit by a third party is conducted to track the percentage of women in junior management, middle management and senior management, as indicators of career progression.
Another reason why gender diversity gets so much attention is that the responsibility of a diversity officer is not just to drive employee performance and thus deliver business results, but also widen the talent pool. Given that there are so many qualified women out there who are not part of the workforce, companies design gender inclusivity progammes to attract them.
Shivashankar points out that Infosys keeps track of women employees who take maternity leave. “Over a period of three years, we found 83% of those who took leave rejoined the company back on time—which is an indicator that the diversity programme is working,” she says.
A more inclusive workplace
Gender may be top of the agenda, but companies are addressing other issues too. Both Infosys and StanChart have consciously begun hiring the differently abled. Nambiar says StanChart hired differently abled staff in 2008, and revamped its offices soon after to make them disabled friendly, holding sensitization workshops for colleagues so that they could create a comfortable working environment for everyone.
Bangalore-based Ritu Gupta, senior manager, resourcing, consumer banking, south India, with StanChart, recalls the workshops held for colleagues when the differently abled were inducted. The workshops focused on the challenges the differently abled might face, including tips on how to communicate with the visually impaired who could not pick up gestures and expressions. In addition, a “buddy” was assigned to each differently abled staffer for six months, to help them assimilate into the system.
Often prejudices and biases exist at a subconscious level, says Shivashankar. But in diversity training, the company does not take a moral stand on whether having these biases is right or wrong. The aim is to help the employee make the appropriate response, based on the company’s value system, when a potential situation arises.
Ultimately, says Shivashankar, diversity management is not a social responsibility—it is part of the triple bottom line imperative—people, planet, profits.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, May 16 2010. 09 01 PM IST