Issues of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and lifestyle continue to dominate our political, social, and corporate conversations.
Most companies have detailed official staffing and employee policies against discrimination in any form. But how do firms realistically implement those policies? Global organizations operate in countries and within cultures where racial, gender, and religious discrimination, sexual harassment, bribery, and other behaviors are not uniformly viewed as undesirable, illegal, or even unethical.
The reality is that many companies still discreetly self-monitor when it comes to staffing their global operations. They understand that some cultures may be less welcoming to team members based on their gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and lifestyle; accordingly, these companies may not place select employees, regardless of talent and suitability of skills.
While unfortunate for both—the company and employee—these biases form the reality of how companies have to staff globally, especially when in many cases, discrimination is embedded into the local culture and will take years to evolve. From what we see, gender bias is more tolerated in staffing decisions than differences based on ethnicity and race, but all biases can become potential problems.
Externally, local discriminatory cultural biases can become an issue when the in-country enforcement changes. Often companies are operating in countries where the official policy is less transparent and not consistently enforced, leading to long-term tolerance of behaviors and practices—that is, “looking the other way.” But we’re increasingly operating in a world where the practices and rules are changing and unexpected enforcement of local discriminatory rules or laws can then lead to a host of legal problems for the employee and employer firm.
Inside the company, these cultural biases can subtly impact how people manage and interact with their colleagues. Firms may not fully take into account the impact of culture on their management and staffing practices until an issue develops, at which point it becomes more costly in terms of time, goodwill, and the actual cost of any litigation.
Proactive, cross-cultural learning focuses on enabling all employees to understand other cultures with the intent of respecting, interacting, and living with cultural differences. Managing expectations, improving interactions, and tangibly enhancing all employees’ abilities to do their jobs effectively can impact the bottom line.