Opinion: Shaping inclusion in diverse Asia

A concerted effort from policy makers, organisations and society at large is crucial in building an inclusive society, writes Subhankar Roy Chowdhury, head of human resources at Lenovo Asia Pacific

Opinion: Shaping inclusion in diverse Asia
A concerted effort from policy makers, organisations and society at large is crucial in building an inclusive society, writes Subhankar Roy Chowdhury, head of human resources at Lenovo Asia Pacific

With the recent protests in Charlottesville, the memo by a Google employee, and the attacks on minorities across the world it is hard to turn a blind eye to the increasing intolerance today. 

Sadly, these negative sentiments are being translated to behaviours in the workplace. A study published by Gallup* reported that intentions of employees leaving their organisations due to their managers being of a different race were higher when placed in an actively disengaged work environment as compared to an engaging and inclusive work environment. 

Asian workers are expected to spend close to a third of their lifespans working.** With such an extensive amount of time invested into the workplace, organisations have a key part to play in building inclusive, diverse and plural societies - here are four ways organisations can kick-start the change in the workplace: 

Develop inclusive values, policies, practices and benefit programmes
Asia is home to a multitude of ethnic groups, cultures, and environments. Given this, organisations need to be considerate to the needs of their diverse workforce. Apart from formal written policies such as Code of Conduct, it is crucial that organisations have policies that cater to the various needs of their employees. Be it a simple policy of enabling an employee to choose from a set of optional festival holidays based on the employees religious belief, or having a religious space in the office, organisations must make it a priority to address the diverse needs of their diverse workforce through customised policies and benefits plans.

Beyond race, culture and religion, let us not forget age. With the workforce set to be comprised of five different generations for the first time ever in 2020^, it is also increasingly challenging for organisations to engage heterogeneous groups of employees with varying and distinctive values, characteristics, preferences, attitudes, and beliefs. For instance, millennials’ affinity with the digital world has conditioned them to expect instant access to information whenever and wherever they wish - both in their personal and work life. As such, they value similar things in an employer brand as much as they do in a consumer brand - and organisations must keep up.

Strongly enforce policy violations 
However, developing inclusive strategies is just half the battle won. Organisations need to strongly enforce policy violations in order to cultivate an equally strong adherence. Policy violations could take place in various ways - from race and religion, to sexual harassment. Apart from the dis-reputation that takes years to rebuild, organisations face huge financial damage. Case in point, Fox News agreed to pay Gretchen Carlson US$20 million to settle her sexual harassment lawsuit against Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. This is not a one-off situation - the tech industry is also currently wreathing in a storm of sexual harassment cases. Several powerful tech entrepreneurs have been made to leave their positions after alleged sexual misconduct surfaced at their organisations.

A survey revealed that one in three women has been sexually harassed at work. Yet, a staggering 71 per cent of those who encountered sexual harassment keep mum^^, with fewer bystanders reporting the incident. Evidently, there is an imminent fear of retaliation, and an overwhelming culture that permits such behaviour. Barriers caused by social stigma needs to be eradicated through firmly enforcing policy violations. 

Debar customers and groups promoting intolerance
Thirdly, the advent of social and digital platforms has meant that there are more avenues for groups to promote their divisive ideologies. A website to host, a payment system to raise money online and social media platforms to share - all these enable those with divisive agendas with the necessary access to resources to fund, channels to communicate and organisations to orchestrate - making up the ecosystem to further the cause of divisiveness.

For instance, in the wake of Charlottesville, many Internet organisations came under scrutiny for not acting swiftly enough to pull extreme content or material that favoured hatred or incited violence. Organisations have an obligation to society to increase vigilance in tackling cyber hatred - users who promote divisiveness on their platforms - to curb socially divisive groups that may be in conflict with its own commercial goals.

Rethinking diversity strategies
Last but not least, organisations with leaders hailing from diverse backgrounds usually espouse the cause of diversity. This is because a leader’s empathy and commitment often arises from his or her own understanding of what it means to be an outsider - resulting in more sensitive diversity priorities. 

In short, one way is to start diversity from the top. A radical but interesting example would be Deloitte’s most recent diversity strategy upheaval by turning its approach upside down. Instead of empowering “out-groups” through dedicated networks such as employees of colour, women and more, the firm is ending its women’s network and other affinity groups and instead focusing on men. Why? Because these networks seldom empower them, but instead divide people up into subgroups - resulting in further isolation. Deloitte’s central idea is to offer all managers, including the white male leadership who still dominate, the skills to become more inclusive, then hold them accountable for building more-balanced businesses. 

It’s a win-win situation. 

A study found that organisations that had higher-than-average gender diversity and employee engagement also had 46 to 58 per cent better financial performance than those that were below the median on diversity and engagement^^^. 

All in all, a concerted effort from policy makers, organisations and the society at large is crucial in building a plural and inclusive society. This includes HR leaders taking more ownership in in building a strong culture of inclusiveness, diversity and fairness for all employees, such as inculcating a strong value based work ethic and training to have an imprint on employees’ social behaviour. Just as the song “Imagine” penned by John Lennon goes, “Imagine there’s no country/It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too”.

  *Gallup, Using Employee Engagement to Build a Diverse Workforce, 21 March 2016
**OECD, Society at a Glance, Chapter 1: How do People in the Asia/Pacific Region Spend their Time?, 2011
  ^Maritz Motivation, Motivating the Workforce of 2020, 2016
  ^^Cosmopolitan, Survey: 1 in 3 Women Has Been Sexually Harassed at Work, 17 February 2015
 ^^^ Gallup, Using Employee Engagement to Build a Diverse Workforce, 21 March 2016

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