When we talk about globalisation in the modern era, one of the major hallmarks is the interdependencies of our circumstances. The pandemic and the war in Ukraine are just two major and recent examples of how much our economies (and lives more generally) are connected. But this is not recent – we have lived in a globalised economy for several decades now, by some counts, nearly half a century. Companies like Amazon and Google reach nearly every point on the planet. Organisations have call centres in one jurisdiction, manufacturing plants operating in another, and headquarters based in yet another locale. Within countries like the UK and America, offices and shops are filled with workers and patrons from every ethnic, religious and geographic background imaginable. Some would say we don’t need to be as sensitive to cultural differences because we are no longer interacting with ‘foreigners’ thousands of kilometres away but fellow citizens at the next desk (or at least the same Zoom call). However, the reality we need to become more, not less, culturally aware as our globalisation continues to deepen.
Recognising the diversity of cultures in a globalised economy is more important than ever.
It is incredibly important to recognise that our old versions of cultural sensitivity are in need of an update, not deletion. In the past, one would prepare for a trip to a different part of the world by learning business customs and social practices that were appropriate for our destination. It might be understood not to bring a hospitality gift that contained alcohol, for example. Or we might learn a certain amount of non-business conversation was expected and polite before delving into a professional transaction. That’s all fine and still useful. But we’re also more mentally prepared for an ‘us and them’ perspective when we hop on a plane and are immersed in another culture. Where we risk getting it wrong is often in our own backyard.
For example, most organisations are closed for major UK holidays including Easter and Christmas. However, a large number of Britons are not Christian, and accordingly, many employees – and patrons — are not Christian. There are multiple things to consider here. First, as your employee demographic is diverse, you might well consider a flexible holiday policy. Allow those who would prefer to work Christmas and Boxing Day, to do so in exchange for the ability to take a day off to observe their own high holidays. It also will help you meet the needs of customers who don’t celebrate those days and would like to do business with you. Most importantly, it fosters an environment of inclusion and recognition.
Similarly, major organisations can revisit the smaller but important cultural notes reflected in our workplaces. This includes everything from serving kosher or halal options in the canteen, to acknowledging other major holidays in the workplace. Don’t try to guess the right way to do this, either. Be transparent about the goals you’re trying to achieve regarding more inclusion and ask for volunteers to help you celebrate other cultures in a way that is authentic and appropriate. The last thing you want to do is further insult the very groups you are trying to make more visible.
Of course, not all of this has to be focused in such on the nose cultural references. You can commit to obtaining artwork created by or featuring less represented groups, or order in lunch from a catering group that specialises in cuisine native to the groups you wish to recognise. Again, don’t insult people: bringing in ‘their’ food or drink doesn’t mean that you’re meeting their needs. This is particularly true if you have more serious cultural sensitivity work to do, or, if a specific group is facing particularly challenging times. For example, imagine how workers with ties to Ukraine who live abroad might need special support. Being sensitive to others means also being aware of political events, natural disasters and other real-time crises that impact certain team members.
Remember that the point of inclusivity is to broaden the lens of what is ‘normal’.
Efforts to be inclusive do not have to be high profile and overly constructed. Sometimes what people want is for their own cultural traditions and practices to be normalised. Don’t ever refer to someone’s dress as ‘garb’ or their food as ‘exotic’. That is itself a sign of your own cultural norms, and what is unusual to you is commonplace to another. (As a Chicago native, I find a Scotch egg a lot more unusual than a pierogi.) The most important thing is not so much the ‘what’ (how you create more inclusivity) but the ‘why’: being more sensitive to the diversity of your employees, providers and customers improves workplace culture, fosters loyalty and improves your operational fitness in a globalised economy.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.