A workplace where talent can thrive

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2007, 12:00am

Forget globalisation - diversity is the buzzword of the corporate world. Creating a workplace that is inclusive of all, regardless of race, gender, religious or political beliefs, disabilities or sexual orientation, and where employees are promoted on merit alone, can boost competitiveness and productivity.

Many companies are waking up to the values such a workforce can provide. Leading multinationals started to implement diversity policies at the turn of the millennium and many now have diversity managers running departments dedicated to providing an inclusive workplace. And word is beginning to trickle down to smaller companies - albeit slowly - of the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce.

Experts will gather at the Workplace Diversity & Inclusion in Asia 2007 Conference to be held at the Cyberport Convention and Exhibition Centre today and tomorrow.

The forum is organised by Community Business, a non-profit organisation which provides training and advice to companies on corporate social responsibility.

The conference is a follow-up to an inaugural event held in 2005 and it should attract more than 200 participants. A study at the inaugural event identified three barriers to addressing workplace diversity in Asia (limited to Hong Kong, the mainland, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). These were discrimination on the basis of gender, race and age.

The theme for this year's conference is 'Moving Beyond the Rhetoric'.

Community Business founder and chief executive Shalini Mahtani said: 'Moving forward as a business community in Asia we have to go beyond talking about diversity and inclusion.

'If we want the best talent in this competitive global world, leadership must drive the diversity agenda to recruit, retain and develop people based on merit. It is a matter of survival.'

Key topics of discussion will be women in the workplace, Asian culture and generational issues, as well as the less discussed issue of disability in the workplace.

More than 40 diversity experts, business leaders, academics and representatives from non-governmental organisations around the world are confirmed to speak at the conference.

According to Community Business, diversity in Asia has moved forward significantly since the inaugural conference. Ms Mahtani said more companies saw diversity as a way to reduce risk, and big companies were going beyond the law and seeing diversity as a tool to attract and retain talent.

'More in Asia we are seeing companies apply diversity policies, hire full-time diversity staff which report directly to the chief executive, and have regional diversity councils which make decisions about how to integrate diversity into each country's operations,' Ms Mahtani said.

'Companies understand that there is a war for talent and want to ensure that they have access to the best talent.'

Tony Dickel, chief executive of recruitment firm MRI, said: 'We are experiencing companies demanding shortlists reflecting diverse talent. Customers are beginning to ask us to develop their diversity recruitment strategies and employer branding campaigns to attract and retain top talent, and inclusion is nearly always a part of these top down solutions ... It is clear that interest in the subject is picking up.'

However, the meaning of a diverse and inclusive workforce is often misinterpreted by companies in Asia. Lack of education or knowledge on the subject equals stigma and ignorance at a community level, which means there is much work to be done to raise awareness and build acceptance in all areas of society.

Diversity is about recognising, understanding and accepting differences in people. It means employing a range of people from different backgrounds; people with different political beliefs, different religions, gender, age and race. Inclusion is when a company accepts those differences and allows its employees to achieve their full potential.

Ms Mahtani said: 'A lot of Hong Kong companies think diversity is about equal opportunities.

'Our laws are relatively new and they are still limited. We are way behind in having laws in place and therefore we are way behind on the issue.'

Mr Dickel said recent research pointed to several barriers to diversity in Asia.

One study of more than 100 firms in the mainland suggested companies were struggling to retain professional and support staff, which was leading to payment of high salaries or recruitment costs, reduction in average tenure and the resultant rise in flexibility that companies are having to demonstrate to attract talent.

Another study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that 40 per cent of women working in private and international firms reported harassment.

Young managers in Greater China are reporting higher levels of burnout or opting to start their own business. And in Singapore, usually regarded as one of the most developed nations in the region, there is reportedly a rise in pregnancy discrimination cases.

Ms Mahtani said that while equal opportunity laws helped communities establish a position on certain issues, more needed to be done at community level to raise awareness.

She said commitment from leadership from the top level down was required to break down barriers to diversity and inclusion. She said once companies understood the issue was fundamental to attract talent and remain competitive, barriers would start to come down.

'The government is the biggest employer and it can send a very clear message by having a diverse and inclusive workforce,' she said.

Mr Dickel said diversity was being felt in all aspects of organisations, from attracting employees to developing diverse supply chains and tapping into new and emerging market opportunities.