This Heritage Week: embrace cultural diversity in the workplace


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As national politics and discourse seem to grow more inward-looking and divisive across South Africa, it is worth remembering that it has been well demonstrated that successful businesses think inclusively. A recent study from Forbes finds that “the best way to ensure the development of new ideas is through a diverse and inclusive workforce.”

It brings tangible benefits. One might think this applies only to large corporates, but it is even more important in the context of franchises and other small businesses. They rely entirely for their revenue on local, and diverse, communities. Embracing cultural diversity in the workplace is an important first step for any business that wants to be competitive on a community basis.

At face value, it may seem like having a diverse staff is unrelated to bottom-line results. And that may be so unless one takes the further step of actively embracing their culture. A business culture that values cultural diversity – including gender, racial, ethnic, language and religious diversity – can translate directly into greater profits.

What cultural diversity accomplishes

  • Boosting marketing efforts: a diverse workforce is attractive to a more diverse customer base. It instills trust from customers more likely to feel comfortable doing business there. Cultural sensitivity, insight, and local knowledge means higher quality, targeted marketing
  • Diverse teams are more productive and perform better: franchises that value diversity, tend to have lower staff turnover and absenteeism, thereby improving operations.
  • Drawing from a culturally diverse talent pool allows a franchise to attract and retain the best talent, while employees are likely to be more engaged and feel that their employer understands and respects them and their culture.
  • Driving creativity and innovation: the interchange of ideas within a diverse team brings a wider range of solutions. They are perhaps better able to design and deliver products and services that meet the needs of potential customers.
  • Local market knowledge and insight makes a business more competitive and profitable.

This comes with challenges

  • Integration across multicultural teams can be difficult in the face of prejudices.
  • Professional communication can be misinterpreted or difficult to understand due to languages and cultural barriers. The most infamous example is from KFC in China, whose chicken was marketed as so tasty, you’ll “eat your fingers off!” (A poor translation of their brand tagline, “Finger lickin’ good”.)
  • There may be different understandings of professional etiquette.
  • Conflicting working styles across teams.

Tools to overcome those barriers

If you want to take advantage of the business advantages that diversity can offer, there are some tools for doing so:

  • Encourage an attitude of openness – even if one’s workforce is not yet particularly diverse, encourage employees to be open-minded and accept perspectives of people different from themselves.
  • Set an example of attributing value to all ideas, and don’t allow negative or degrading talk about other groups.
  • When hiring, seek candidates who look, act and think differently from oneself and other employees and start enjoying the benefits of having a diverse team.
  • Offer diversity training – begin opening the eyes of employees to the value of workers from a variety of backgrounds. For training sessions, bring in speakers from a variety of cultures to share their varying perspectives and what it brings to a business.

In conclusion

Multiple voices, perspectives, and personalities can be uncomfortable as it gets people out of their comfort zone – but that’s precisely where one needs creative staff to be. Only by bouncing ideas off one another does one encourage out-of-the-box thinking. Diversity can breed healthy competition, stretching a team in a positive way to achieve their best. As an article in the Harvard Business Review argues, the challenges of working in a diverse team are one of the reasons why diverse teams perform better: “working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.”