How to Develop Cultural Diversity Programs Within Organizations in India

By SHRM India Content Team Jun 13, 2017

India boasts of a cultural diversity that is rarely seen elsewhere. With its myriad ethnic groups, religions, languages, regions, 28 States and 7 Union Territories, diversity is a way of life. Yet we do not acknowledge the complexities of society that diversity brings nor are we equipped to deal with the differences in individuals that surface in the form of beliefs, values, attitudes, and approaches to life in general and work in particular. Very often there is an "Us vs. Them" attitude that leads to the formation of cliques and language based groups which could possibly have an impact on performance at work.

An environment of exclusion and separation is not healthy for an organization. The HR department therefore plays a key role in creating awareness as well as facilitating collaboration amongst employees, by emphasizing on the business need to integrate. This process to integrate employees from diverse cultures can be enhanced by developing programs involving the key stakeholders such as the top management and the line managers, for the employees.

Business impact of cultural diversity

Cultural differences in themselves are not a deterrent to business success. However if the differences are not managed intelligently, the results could be disastrous. Cultural incompatibility can cause misunderstanding and conflict that can certainly derail projects or partnerships. Such incompatibility is a result of a lack of awareness about the differences between cultures and consequently communication between people from different cultures becomes a quagmire.

On the other hand, if managed sensitively and with the appropriate orientation a culturally diverse organization can leverage the differences to meet the requirements of their assignments. An organization can benefit from the cultural diversity in the following ways -

People from different cultures bring different skills and outlook on account of diverse upbringing, experience, values, beliefs and traditions.

Differences in personality traits (which may have resulted due to the culture an individual belongs to) can be matched better with various job requirements such as those with more extroverted personalities may tend to perform better in sales whereas those with higher thinking-related attributes might be good at research.

Diversity generates more creative and Innovative ideas. People from varied backgrounds promote divergent thinking resulting in hitherto undiscovered solutions.

Perspectives that are different give the organization an opportunity to venture into new areas and businesses.

Clients appreciate diversity on one hand, on the other they are at ease with executives they can relate to easily. Cultural diversity can be the basis of job postings provided they are beneficial to the company and are based on job requirement as well as an individual's performance, not prejudice.

Besides these, studies prove that cultural diverse organizations experience increased productivity and creativity, competency versatility, new process and solutions, better market knowledge, improved customer loyalty, better retention and recruitment rates. Even though most of the studies are based on international cultures, it is safe to assume that the same holds good for indigenous Indian cultures.

Step 1: A well designed and clearly articulated Diversity policy

The Diversity policy voices the philosophy of the management on the issue. It should state clearly that diversity is favoured and practice of the philosophy within the organization will be an important consideration for promotions to leadership positions. There should be clear instructions for reporting of biased or discriminatory behaviour. Penalties for such behaviour should be spelt out clearly with no room for doubt that unfair practices will not be tolerated in the organization. Continuous biased behaviour can lead to dismissal.

Step 2: Audit of the current situation of cultural diversity

Before one launches cultural interventions, it is useful to gauge the situation of the organization and its receptivity to diversity initiatives with the help of a company-wide audit. A cultural audit must be conducted across locations, departments and levels to get a comprehensive understanding of where the gaps are (in terms of the cultures, employee levels, specific offices and so on). Templates should be created for specific use of the organization as the audit needs to be conducted on a regular basis - preferable every year if not sooner. The templates must be modified to be more current with every administration. The information collected should cover at least the following fields -

Region of origin(state / north, south, east, west)

Number of employees from each region

Languages spoken and the size of the groups

Surveys to assess any cultural sensitivities to enable HR to keep track of requirements for change

Opinion about organizational policies, systems and processes and their sensitivity cultural requirements

Management consideration and acceptance of cultural requirements within limits.

These steps will enable the organization to assess diversity gaps and aid affirmative action to prevent skewed representations. Over and above these, the audit helps the organization to identify insensitive practices before they can become contentious and affect morale. For example serving vegetarian and non-vegetarian food at the same counter or ignoring certain religion based practices such as the observance of fasts. An audit is also a way to assess the comfort of employees in working with each other. The information obtained will enable the improvement of policies, systems and processes.

Step 3: Cultural competency assessments

Dealing with people from different backgrounds in a fair and egalitarian manner requires what is now called Cultural Intelligence (CI). This attribute can be trained provided individuals realize that there is a need for improvement. People who are high on CI find it easy to adapt to the behaviour of people from different backgrounds. The first step in CI is to assess the competence of people as a matter of routine.

This can be done by using an instrument like the intercultural development inventory (IDI), Cross-Cultural Adaptability Inventory (CCAI), Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) and the Survey on Intercultural (Relocation) Adaptability (SIA & SIRA). Such assessments must find a place in the performance record of individuals and be followed up on, by HR and the Supervisor for developmental activities.

Step 4: Conducting cross-cultural events

Instead of trying to merge cultures, the better approach would be to promote an appreciation of different cultures with events designed to showcase the strengths of various cultures. This helps the employees to understand that all cultures though different define human behaviour. There should be a culture day where people from different states or ethnic groups could dress in their traditional costumes, and have potluck parties with food from all the cultural groups. This is a way of showing unity in diversity and is very popular in the United States.

In India however, the importance of fostering interactions amongst indigenous cultures is often not underscored in organisations. Some of the divides that are often seen to persist across organisations are the divide between rural-urban, traditional modern, north-south, and state based differences and cliques to name a few. Employees often unconsciously gravitate towards people with similar backgrounds. The most obvious are the language based groups. While inflammatory incidents are rare they are not unknown. Professional favours maybe sought on the basis of these culture based friendships and this is not an ideal situation for organizations. Management can foster cultural awareness and tolerance by introducing specific activities such as

Celebrating different festivals makes employees aware of the rich cultural heritage of India that is made up of contributions from various groups.

Many organizations have cuisines from different states in their cafeteria.

A cultural day can be organized where in people render performances from their culture -dances, plays and songs. Anecdotes or interesting facts/words can be shared on the intranet or a notice board. For example there can be a "word of the week" or story of the week with contributions from a different ethnic group each week.

A perfect example of such an event can be seen in International schools which has students from all over the world. The students showcase their cultures with various art forms. Organizations can follow a similar course with local cultures being showcased.

The same objective can be achieved by having a sports day, a "bring your child" to work day or a green environment day - topics which help people cross cultural barriers to collaborate on other common interests or life situations. Such activity should be closely supervised by HR to prevent the creation of any factionalism which can always emerge in group activities of any sort.

The trend in organizations these days is to create antiseptic work cultures where differences are ignored and there is an attempt to create a one size fits all themes. This however is not the correct approach since cultural diversity promotes better business results because it brings in different thought processes, approaches to create solutions and better client management, especially given that client bases are becoming more diverse.

Step 5: Support groups

Employees should be encouraged to form support groups which could help new recruits to get oriented to the organization. They should provide them with organizational information, tips about recreational activities, restaurants and other local facilities or attractions. People who feel isolated can seek the help of these groups to get to know others in the organization. A buddy system can be created for the same purpose. Nevertheless, it must be ensured that these support groups are diverse and not focused on any one cultural group. This would defeat the purpose of fostering multiculturalism.

Step 6: Activity clubs

Hobby clubs are great levelling agents. People get together because of common interests and not common background. The organization should allow for hobby activities on the premises during off times and even budget a small amount of funds for this purpose. Examples of such clubs are sports, film, book, voluntary work and so on

Step 7: Counselling

HR should have onsite counsellors available who can help individuals who are causing trouble by following divisive practices. For an employee of the organization there are some requirements that need to be adhered to and diversity is one of them. Individuals who do not understand the expectations of the organizations or are behaving contrary to them must be identified and counselled about appropriate behaviour. Counsellors should be trained personnel from different backgrounds. Besides steering those in trouble with colleagues and management, they should also serve as guides who help the new entrant navigate the organization in the initial weeks.

No matter what the activity, the accent should be on dispelling differences based on backgrounds and promoting cohesiveness. Any activity that is based on fanatic beliefs that introduces factionalism in the organization should be discouraged and even banned in the interests of all employees and the organization itself. The mandatory requirement for any of these activities should be that is allows membership of any employee regardless of cultural background. The organization should maintain professionalism at all times by emphasizing the focus on performance and work ethics. Interpersonal conflict of any sort will make employees shun the organization as they anticipate danger to themselves and their work.

Step 8: Creating company policies that promote cross cultural sensitivity

Companies are largely responsible for how cultural diversity is managed. Appropriate policies and communication from the management ensure that this factor becomes a stre ngth. In order to create unity in diversity, organizations should have certain policies in place to promote cultural understanding. Management should underline the need to collaborate effectively for business success.

Some examples of organizational initiatives -

Insist on the use of a single common language to reduce obvious disparities and feelings of segregation. In India it is fairly common to see large groups socializing together in the cafeteria. Loud conversation in a certain language and laughter can cause alienation of other groups and discomfort for minority groups. It can even give rise to power plays between groups all of which are harmful to collaboration and business progress.

Emphasize the need for written communication to avoid context related factors from interfering in accurate understanding of verbally transmitted information. When important work related information is in writing, chances of misleading or inaccurate messages are minimal.

Job rotation of executives is another tool in the arsenal of an organization to foster cultural awareness and sensitivity. Job postings away from one's native region enhance the capabilities of managers who get to experience a different customer profile, market, and requirements. It makes the manager multifaceted. Needless to say sound cultural training should precede any such transfers. This makes a manager well rounded and more prepared to take up leadership roles in the future. It also helps to increase the emotional quotient of the employees. Job rotations among functional disciplines are common and so are international relocations. Conscious cultural relocation is yet to be the focus of organizations in India.

India had a rich and varied heritage. It is time we dipped into the learning of the past and used it to enhance our development in the future. Our culture and traditions are what the average person understands. They can make good tools to increase collaboration and performance.


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