The coronavirus crisis has gripped the world like no other recent crisis ever has. Some speculate that it’s a once-in-a-century pandemic. Almost every nation is working feverishly to curb the spread of this virus through countless measures carried out with a wide range of stringency (or leniency, depending on which part of the world you live in).
When China was battling the emergent cases of COVID-19, most countries in the Western World never imagined it would spread like wildfire over the coming months and rapidly evolve into the global crisis it is today. China was expected to somehow contain the virus. And while they fought it alone, the entire world looked on. It was seen as China’s problem. But, when the situation got out of hand and the virus started affecting Western nations, these countries were no longer spectators, but rather active participants in curbing the virus. Many countries are now pumping billions into funds to find a vaccine and to save their crashing economies. The situation has rapidly gone out of control and turned into a global nightmare, leaving many without employment and individuals grieving the tragic loss of loved ones while living with the searing pain of not being able to preside over their funerals. As if that’s not enough, every nation is likely to experience a deep economic recession of cataclysmic proportions that is believed to be profound and stretching over multiple years.
As I struggle to grapple with the enormity of the situation at hand and the hopelessness that it has reached, I cannot help but realize how similar the current situation is to another unrelated, yet related concept of workplace inclusion of racial minorities. Let me elaborate. No, I am not talking about how COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities that those from BAME backgrounds are experiencing (neither am I denying that fact). I believe this unprecedented crisis has brought to mind another ugly reality that is seldom addressed among corporates within Europe. This is the reality that, despite diversity and inclusion being undeniably hot topics in Europe today, it is easy to miss the fact that most European corporates predominantly focus on raising awareness to include women, those with different sexual orientations and those with handicaps, while leaving out inclusion of employees with racial diversity.
Research indicates that the few European corporates which do engage in inclusion of a multiracial workforce do so by adapting either of these two dominant approaches: multiculturalism and colorblindness. With the multiculturalism approach, each culture (particularly that of the minority) is celebrated, which makes the majority members feel excluded and view the minority as the “other.” With the colorblindness approach, everyone is seen as equal and the organizations claim not to focus on the cultural background of the individual for perks and promotions. The approach often results in minority employees feeling excluded. They are now hit with a double whammy of struggling to be just like their majority counterparts in how they interact, compete, communicate, etc., while also trying to retain their uniqueness. cultural identities. When minorities are faced with this reality, they suffer higher levels of stress and even compromised health overtime.
Let me illustrate this with a simple dining example. Imagine you have never eaten with Western utensils (you grew up eating using your right hand), and you are invited to a business dinner with some Western colleagues. Before you can even worry about the business side of things, you first try to fit in by eating with a fork, knife, and spoon. If you have never done this, you may not even know how to properly use the utensils. The rules involving how to grip them, which utensil is used for which course of the meal, and what to do with them when you pause between bites are likely foreign to you. Do you wave your sauce-slathered utensils in the air while making a point? Do you jab at the meat on your plate with your knife while desperately trying to contain it within your plate so the dining occupant across the table is not taken aback by the unannounced meat missile? These dining skills are learned over time. While your Western colleagues effortlessly maneuver their utensils with precision and finish their meals, you are found staring at yours with utter dismay while your growling stomach charges you to just use your hand like you have always known. Or, even if you do try this new skill, it takes time to get it right and you will inevitably end up expending more energy than the others. This can quickly turn into a high-stress situation, especially when you are working within the constraints of an imminent deadline. Does it surprise you then, that those from racial minorities often suffer from stress-related health issues over time?
Sadly, inclusion of racial diversity has become more of a taboo/touchy topic within corporate Europe, since many get vehemently defensive about it. The issue is almost immediately dismissed with statements such as “We are all equal!” “We are not racist,” “Our organization welcomes everyone,” and, “We have so many nationalities working for us! That should show you how racially aware we are.” Unfortunately, survey results don’t support these statements. Racial minorities are often sidelined for promotions. They are forced to “fit in” with the majority or are “singled out” for being different. Their voices are silenced during team discussions because when teams work under intense pressures, differing opinions and perspectives are seen as threats.
On the other hand, when corporates do address inclusion of racially diverse employees, the onus is often on employees belonging to minority groups to figure out inclusion by themselves in the workplace. We often come across defensive statements from Western, majority employees such as, “I am white. Racism is not about me. I don’t have an issue with it. It is for those people over there.” Seldom do companies consider introducing majority allies for their racial minority colleagues. Often, majority colleagues aren’t overly concerned about what happens to their colored counterparts for it is not “their issue”. Eventually, minority employees are left to deal with stress-related health problems and either stop performing well or become depressed or less vocal and have to leave the company. Their ‘exit’ from multinational corporates may not look drastic at first glance. However, in the long run, these corporates become unpopular among minority communities. Word travels fast about the unhealthy, unequal company cultures. As a consequence, these corporates have lesser applicants from minorities, and, with time, they have more and more white, dominant employees, and eventually run the danger of becoming a homogenous organization with only likeminded colleagues.
“Now, what is wrong with that?” you may wonder. According to recent research done by Harvard, companies that have homogenous teams cannot survive for more than six years in the current global competitive market. What may look like a tiny crack in an iceberg, as evidenced by the gradual and slow exit of overstressed, underutilized, and dissatisfied minorities, may actually lead to the ultimate doom of an entire organization!
As much as the current COVID-19 situation and the inclusion of racial minorities are two distinctly different challenges, I believe they are similar in this aspect: both beg attention to small, seemingly harmless incidents. In both, the Western world has been quick to turn a blind eye or has at least been insufficient in effectively containing the situation. I can only imagine what the world would look like now if the Western world had taken the first few COVID-19 cases in China seriously, immediately put stringent measures in place within their own countries, and set aside differences in order to work together and send aide to China. I often hear this phrase among corporates in The Netherlands, “Together we can make it.” It is a great phrase, particularly in the current times, and one that is touted by many leaders worldwide. Together. WE (not I!). Can make it. It is a deep phrase. It calls for solidarity, for unity, and for relinquishing individualism. It calls for embracing collaboration and espousing unity despite differences. I believe this approach does not merely hold true for the current situation with COVID-19, but also for organizations with racially diverse workforces.
How can corporates in the West be racially inclusive? It begins with being empathetic. Show concern, real concern. Put yourself into the shoes of those from racial minorities. Work in concert with the individuals of a minority group for a solution. This is a corporate responsibility. Actively employ allies among the majority in the company to work together with the minorities. Make sure that minorities are not just represented within teams but also in the top management. Provide them with equal opportunities for growth. Give them opportunities to be heard. And how can organizations go about all these measures? By working on increasing the cultural intelligence of every individual within the organization and the cultural intelligence of the organization as a whole. A person with high cultural intelligence is empathetic to those different from themselves. They can actively and readily collaborate with those different from them. They are naturally inclusive. Individuals with high levels of cultural intelligence are excellent risk takers and make great leaders and team members. In our highly competitive world, cultural intelligence is evidently a must-have skill.
Over the past weeks, much has been said about emerging from this crisis with a “new normal” and pivoting businesses to survive. The COVID-19 predicament ought to impress upon organizations to pivot themselves by investing in one of the most critical, must-have skills to thrive in the rapidly changing and competitive global environment: cultural intelligence. Organizations need to wake up to the “new normal” of including the lesser-heard voices of minorities and remembering that we are all in this together. What affects one, always affects another – an undeniable fact in our current interconnected and interdependent world.
In the words of the legendary Paul McCartney, “Together we can make it happen. Together we can make it stick.”
(This article was written by Helga Evelyn Samuel and it originally appeared on Cultural Intelligence's blog on 19th May 2020. Here is the link for it:
I thoroughly enjoy writing and would like to use this space to write on a wide range of topics pertaining to cross-culture and international business. These blog posts will range from anecdotal personal encounters to latest cross-cultural business issues on the news, personal musings et al.