It is not uncommon to hear people questioning the idea of workforce diversity – whether that relates to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
When I talk to people, read articles in the internet or watch news or YouTube videos, I stumble across multiple comments, which question the whole movement around the topic of diverse and multicultural teams. Many of those comments are the sign of prejudice, others a sign of curiosity, fear or uncertainty.
Comments that you can hear and read are along the lines of:
- “The foreigners will simply not understand the local business reality. We will need to waste time to explain it all to them, we will still need someone local to do certain parts of the job.”
- “Why do we actually need to be so diverse? It sounds like it will make the decision making process longer with so many different points of view to consider!”
- “They will have so many questions about obvious things – they should have prepared and arrive all ready to work here. I would have done that for sure if I was to work abroad. And now we have to spend so much time to accommodate all their needs…”
The themes and concerns that are common for such comments are: wasting time and resources, foreigners (aka “them”) not being able to understand the local business culture, very high expectations towards non-locals coming over for business or a shorter project abroad. Let’s look at those in more detail.
Wasting time and resources
It is true that bringing in employees who are used to a different cultural context will likely require a significant input from our side. Be it a financial input for covering travel costs or shipping or a time commitment of your team to help the overseas colleagues adapt.
It can be phrased as y o u r commitment, y o u r waste. However, I’d like to encourage you to think about it as y o u r development and y o u r learning journey. In fact, when you are explaining how certain things work here to your overseas colleague who has never been to your country, this is also an opportunity for you to learn what is important and obvious for you (and how it might not be for other people). Asking probing questions, learning about the other perspective, sharing your knowledge and experience – all these things help you build trust and connection which in turn lead to a faster adaptation of the expat colleague to the new workplace and rules.
Adaptation always takes time, but a lot depends on how you approach this. Your openness and will to speak to people from other cultures may have a lot of advantages. To name one – it can show you different perspectives on life and approaching various challenges, which you can then use in problem solving for your personal or professional life.
Understanding the local culture
I also accept and understand the managers’ concerns around international assignees not being able to fully understand the local culture or do certain parts of the job (eg. requiring fluency in the local language or certain business etiquette with clients). It is a valid concern. However, like with many things in life, where there is a negative, there is also always a positive to balance it.
When you think about it, you might notice that the new team member who was brought up in a completely different place with different values and lifestyle, has a lot of new interesting ideas to contribute to your project. Although they might not always be the ones who lead key negotiations with a client, they might be a great addition to the team for the strategic and conceptual work. At the same time, your native colleagues can practice their intercultural skills too!
Maybe at the beginning some ideas might seem too unsuitable for a given cultural context, or too conservative. But with time, as you let the person learn and help them along the way, they will understand more and more about the local culture and rules, which in turn will give you a wider skill set of your team!
Many companies have quite high expectations of their international assignees. They are supposed to get on a flight, arrive and get straight to work continuing their highest standards performance.
The thing is, there are so many factors influencing a move abroad that for me it’s almost impossible to expect this from people who have just flown 10,000 miles, packed up their lives in 3 suitcases and agreed to start a new life in a completely different location.
It’s also easy to say that ‘I would have done this or that’ or ‘I would have adjusted quicker’ if you haven’t yourself been in a similar situation (or forgot what it was like). Although there are many similarities, every move is different and triggers different emotional response. Each time you’re leaving something else behind and you are starting something completely new. A move from Spain to Germany might not necessarily be easier than a move from Spain to Japan just because the two countries are closer to each other and potentially have more cultural commonalities.
For some reason, the expectations are not as high towards new local employees. Although for them, there are also so many new things they need to learn. Less so on the cultural background of a country, but more on the company culture and rules. Both routes can be equally challenging for people.
It’s all about perception and attitude
The key thing here when addressing such questions is to acknowledge that nowadays it’s less our choice to live and work in a multicultural environment, but rather just a reality that we need to accept.
There are so many people for whom it’s very hard to answer the question ‘Where are you from’ as they have been moving so much in their lives and have been growing up in multiple locations.
There are so many people that are in cross-cultural relationships and are influenced by multiple cultures and customs.
There are so many international companies who move their employees between locations to provide global exposure and exchange of expertise.
And yes, indeed we can oppose to it, negate “them foreigners” and completely disregard the needs of expats or refugees in our environment (such attitude usually works both ways though #thatslife). We can say that it’s “them” who need to adjust, we didn’t ask for “them” to come here.
But we can also try to think of ways to use this to our advantage, whether in personal life or business. We can build new ways of co-operating effectively and learning from each other. We can make the effort to understand different cultures and people’s origins. We can use the expertise of various people to bring new ideas and technologies to our culture. I think we should, do you?