ONE of the most difficult challenges global organisations face when it comes to the D&I agenda is the tension between their desire to promote diversity and inclusion across their corporate structures and their ability to do so in countries where the rights of minorities may not be protected and social attitudes may be hostile.
In a fully connected world, it is very easy to see what companies choose to do or not to do in relation to D&I in different areas, and they are often criticised for limiting their actions and support in places where this is easier and more comfortable. They may in some instances shy away from being active in areas where they might encounter more backlash or opposition from both the public (and clients) and from local authorities and governments.
So the question is: can (and must) companies with a global presence do more to develop a truly global and consistently strong approach to D&I?
In order to attempt an answer, it is important to first understand what the current approaches are. One of the most visible examples of different approaches to supporting equality and inclusion relates to the area of LGBT+ rights, which is now one of the most well developed, visible and resourced areas of D&I work globally.
A report from the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging at the New York University School of Law has analysed what some of the biggest global corporations, including EY, Microsoft and Dow Chemical, are doing to advance LGBT+ rights in anti-LGBT+ countries. The paper usefully outlines a three-tier model that reflects how companies choose to behave in relation to D&I promotion:
1) “When in Rome”: this tier describes the decision not to challenge the status quo. So, if a country is not supportive of LGBT+ rights, the company will not do anything to promote or support LGBT+ inclusion. This means that a particular office may not be covered by policies (e.g. anti-discrimination policies) that may be implemented in other locations where the company is present.
2) “Embassy”: most global companies today choose to at least ensure that their workplaces are supportive of diversity and inclusion, although the wider society outside of the office may not be. In this case companies implement policies protecting individuals against discrimination and expect everyone working for them to respect such policies, which reflect the company’s principles and values. However, the organisation chooses not to promote their D&I initiatives more publicly in the host country.
3) “Advocate”: this is the highest level of support according to this model. As an advocate, the organisation actively champions diversity, equality and inclusion both internally (i.e. within their offices) and externally, participating in the public debate around minority rights and advocating for change in legislation and social attitudes within the host country.
Fully understanding what the law of a host country actually prohibits is a crucial step towards enhancing the level of engagement and support for D&I initiatives in locations where attitudes may be hostile. This level of understanding allows an organisation to do as much as possible within the confines of the law.
For example, in most countries that have anti-LGBT+ legislation, what is a criminal offence is the sexual act between people of the same sex – not the promotion of a debate on LGBT+ inclusion as such. This means that in these countries companies can engage more visibly in the D&I debate without breaking the law.
So, coming back to our initial question on whether more can be done, my answer is definitely yes.
Looking at the model above, I believe that simply accepting a “when in Rome” approach is not enough. Organisations should be able to provide a safe environment for their employees and take a zero-tolerance approach towards discriminations of any kind within their workplaces, anywhere.
I would also argue that most organisations should be able to do something beyond what is described as the “Embassy” approach and to do so they can be guided by one simple golden rule:
When developing D&I initiatives in different areas of the world always meaningfully engage with your local employees before introducing any externally facing action. Ask them what the best way to approach certain D&I issues might be, what repercussions employees might experience outside of work, and whether they would be at risk in any way.
Your people are your biggest asset and collectively they will be able to steer you in the right direction. In addition, the simple act of launching a consultation exercise in a particular location will already send a strong signal to your employees about how much the company values and intends to promote and support D&I globally.