When Inclusion Meets Culture

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

For every member of the global workforce to thrive, we each need to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and of each other. A one-size-fits-all approach to global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts just will not suffice in our incredibly diverse world. Read on to discover how to bridge boundaries at the intersection of culture and inclusion.


DEI: Cultural Origins

Many current ideas and practices related to DEI are culture-bound, having originated within specific cultural contexts, particularly western Europe and the United States. Although there is a common impulse to broaden such inclusion initiatives, obstacles often arise when they’re taken abroad, including puzzlement, resistance, apathy, or misuse. Imposing one set of culturally based assumptions on people elsewhere can easily become a recipe for failure, and even a violation of vital inclusion principles. Elsewhere we have outlined 10 Ways to Adapt Inclusion Efforts Globally.

The DEI narrative in the United States requires a focus on race based on the country’s history. At the same time, other countries such as France or Germany don’t allow public institutions to collect data on race, and instead attempt to address issues related to gender or immigration background. In Nigeria, key DEI considerations include ethnicity and religion; the legacy of social caste is still relevant in India; and in Singapore race is considered a taboo topic altogether. These are just a few examples that caution against a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion, especially one with a U.S.-based perspective.

“It is ironic and unfortunate when inclusion efforts fail because their terminology, applications, or learning methodology are unwittingly ethnocentric,” say co-authors Dr. Ernest Gundling and Dr. Cheryl Williams in their book, Inclusive Leadership, Global Impact. “Even when an initiative is supported with the best of intentions, negative outcomes are especially likely when it is deeply rooted in the original home country’s distinctive history and business environment.”


The Stakes

Whether you’re part of a global team or a local one, chances are that your workplace and the tasks you are engaged in will involve a more diverse range of people from this day forward. Demographic trends indicate that South Asia and Africa, for example, will hold an increasing percentage of the world’s workforce – more than 40% by 2050 – and the residents of major economies such as Germany, the UK, or the U.S. have become far more diverse as well. Many members of the global workforce are also asking themselves, “Does this organization represent my values?” Millennials and Gen Zers are mandating this; they simply will not work for a company that doesn’t align with their beliefs, including an embrace of DEI, and the continued Great Resignation confirms their willingness to change jobs.

With your workforce and company reputation at stake, your leadership must take DEI efforts seriously while ensuring that they are both globally relevant and effective. “At worst, a clumsy focus on differences creates a shared climate of hypersensitivity and drives groups of people apart with a heightened sense of mutual injustice,” Dr. Gundling and Dr. Williams continue. “Far from finding common organizational goals, the new focus becomes payback to right supposed wrongs, and a conviction that the others will never ‘get it.’”

The History

In its early days, the intercultural field was primarily focused on “going global”—how to move, live, and work abroad, and how to acquire basic cultural skills for working with countries like Japan or China. At the same time, there was a growing parallel focus on “domestic diversity.” In response to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, employment discrimination against “protected classes” (defined based on race, color, national origin, sex, and religion) was legally prohibited in the U.S.; European companies, particularly those in the Nordic countries, frequently chose to highlight gender equity. While the intercultural and domestic diversity fields had some commonalities, they operated relatively independent of one another until the early 21st century.

Several factors have driven greater integration of intercultural and domestic diversity work. “Global Leadership” program designers, tasked with applying intercultural competencies to developing talent in key markets around the world, often found themselves needing to consider issues faced by minority groups in the headquarters location. Meanwhile, diversity efforts gradually expanded beyond their initial drive for legal compliance to place greater emphasis on competitive advantage and organizational culture change. Both research and experience revealed the need for “inclusion” to fully leverage the potential of a diverse workforce, and references to “Diversity” were relabeled as “Diversity & Inclusion,” with the reverse wording of “Inclusion & Diversity” sometimes used to underline the importance of inclusivity.

Many large organizations began to combine intercultural and diversity work under one roof, seeking to globalize their initiatives, but found that exporting domestic diversity strategies and terminology to other countries without adaptation was not a recipe for success. Ultimately not only the business case for Inclusion & Diversity, but also commitments to equity, belonging, and social justice for their own sake, have become part of various corporate acronyms as well (DEI, DEIB, DIB, JEDI, IDEAS, etc.). Multinational employers are still struggling with how to translate their core values into places where these are not already part of the social fabric. For instance, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, almost 40% of the world’s population lives in countries controlled by authoritarian regimes.


Inclusive Workplaces

Newer, integrated intercultural and DEI approaches start with identifying those who are marginalized in each location. Both intercultural and DEI practitioners should ask themselves: What are the local diversity considerations, and what is the local edge in terms of representation and social justice? Beyond national culture, it is also essential to understand ‘cultures within cultures,’ or the diversity that exists within each nation as well. In this way, practitioners can uncover their role in building sustainable inclusion strategies that resonate locally.

Most successful global inclusion efforts today highlight a short list of core principles and leave room for adaptation and interpretation based on local circumstances. Tapping into local institutions and local people usually reveals ways to be more inclusive in any environment in local terms, while still retaining a global purpose. Organizations expanding their presence in global markets must learn to start major initiatives – inclusion rollouts as well – with their global implications in mind, instead of seeing global as an “add-on” to what already exists.

Global DEI considerations should not be just an afterthought to a strategic initiative planned mainly at headquarters, a single leadership competency called “Inclusivity” or “Global Mindset,” or a half-day module in a six-month leadership program. Inclusive workplaces are created based on mutual respect and a consistent pattern of trustworthy behavior, because trust is the basic currency of inclusion. Inclusive leadership within global organizations requires self-awareness, cultural knowledge, careful listening, outreach to people with different life experiences, and persistent, stubborn efforts to find common ground.

Take a look at distinct diversity factors in countries around the world in our new Global DEI Challenges Map.