5 ways to capitalise on cultural diversity

Capitalising on an increasingly globalised workforce will lead to better functionality across all areas of the business, writes Leonie Tillman

Australia is in a unique position, drawing recruitment interest from around the world due to its lifestyle, relatively stable economy and career opportunities. With its ageing population, low rates of population growth and immigration imperative, the landscape is changing, and those who adapt will set themselves up for a future that is ready to capitalise on the increasingly globalised workforce.

More than 23 per cent of Australia’s workforce is born overseas with 13 per cent being born in non-English speaking countries, and if we look more broadly again, we see over 30 per cent of the population either born or having a parent born overseas. Currently, however, there are many indications that Australia is not capitalising on its cultural diversity as much as it could, meaning employers are not taking full advantage of the breadth of direct and indirect skills available to them. This large proportion of the workforce not only have the technical skills for success but also the unique exposure to cultures, languages and sections of society that allow access to new markets and ideas.

There are five ways to maximise the benefits from this changing pool of talent.

1. Capitalise on culture. Diversity Council Australia (DCA) published its paper Capitalising on Culture: A Study of the Cultural Origins of ASX 200 Business Leaders in October 2013. Director Nareen Young says that “a culturally diverse and capable leadership team can provide enormous benefits for organisations, such as the benefit to boost local market share, enter international markets, create strategic alliances, maximise innovation and meet critical talent shortages.”

2. Identify current shortcomings. A shortcut to embracing an effective and diverse team is to understand the mistakes of the past. The recent DCA paper shows that “culturally diverse” people are underrepresented in directorial roles whether we include or exclude north-west European cultural origins. Asian representation is particularly poor – especially considering the particular importance of Japan, South Korea and China as trading partners – with 1.9 per cent of executives and 4.15 per cent of directors having Asian cultural backgrounds, versus 9.6 per cent of the general community. 

3. Value the hidden skills of multiple language users. Those from non-English speaking backgrounds are often identified as lacking in communication skills. While local language skills might still need to be polished, there are also less obvious benefits that are often overlooked. Psychologists say that speaking two or more languages improves cognitive processes – more specifically, it heightens the ability for problem solving, multi-tasking, focusing and decision making, and they even have the likelihood for higher resilience. Rather than simply elevating the English skills of your overseas-born staff members, try leveraging their skills for a company-wide approach to stronger communication.

4. Evaluate the ability for good communication. Good communication is a difficult goal to achieve between speakers of the same language let alone different languages. Good communicators go beyond simply having a good command of grammar and vocabulary. They also possess an acute sense of how to successfully socialise, disagree, interrupt, build rapport and inject humour appropriately. Staff members who have an easily identifiable grammar weakness might have a less obvious strength in building rapport with colleagues and clients.

5. Develop a holistic approach. Even though one-off cross-cultural seminars and targeted language training can eliminate immediate problem areas, building a holistic foundation for communication means all staff members benefit on a deeper level by regularly reflecting on the importance of:

  • identifying different communication styles
  • learning specific vocabulary around adaptability and cultural sensitivity
  • building in a culture of sociability and idea-sharing
  • engendering inclusivity
  • refining cross-cultural communication competency (CCCC).

CCCC is not only beneficial for international dealings but is equally important for successful daily interactions. From recruitment to retention and promotion, incorporating values around strengthening communication competency builds in better functionality across all areas of the business.

Leonie Tillman is director of E4B|English for Business, specialising in English language skills and corporate communication competency.