Embracing workforce diversity provides both material and intangible benefits, says Michelle Fenech Seguna.

In recent years, workplace cultural diversity has increased – what were the contributing factors to this?

The modern workforce is made up of people of different genders, generations, educational backgrounds, ethnicity, religions, and nationalities. Today, this diverse composition is widespread in local workplaces as well. Economic globalisation has been the main driving force pushing cultural diversity in the workplace.

Over the past recent years employers in Malta have been facing a severe lack of labour supply. Employers are in constant, fierce competition to attract and retain talent. The shortage in local labour supply has pushed the drive towards foreign labour. Figures from JobsPlus show that 27 per cent of the current labour workforce in Malta is composed of foreigners, the largest cohort of foreign workers Malta has ever had. JobsPlus estimates that the number of foreign workers in Malta will hit 70,000 by year 2020.

What challenges as well as opportunities does such diversity bring to the workplace?

Such widespread cultural diversity offers both opportunities and challenges to organisations. One of the advantages is innovation – where everyone in a company is from the same background, they are likely to have similar thoughts and ideas. In order to remain competitive, companies need new ideas and concepts. A heterogeneous workforce promotes creativity, bringing fresh perspectives for dealing with problem solving and possibly new insights that can enable innovation, giving the organisation a competitive edge.

Michelle Fenech Seguna. Photo: Rene RossignaudMichelle Fenech Seguna. Photo: Rene Rossignaud

Interestingly, job seekers today are aware of the importance of a diverse workforce and want to be part of a company that will value and appreciate their difference. A typical question that I get nowadays from my interviewees is how diverse our workforce is in terms of nationalities – the younger workforce, particularly Gen Ys and Millennials consider working alongside multiple nationalities as an attractive opportunity.

Growth is another advantage. Companies that embrace a diversified workforce, position themselves stronger in terms of building relationships with people from different cultures. Diverse employees can advise the companies about the best strategies to use to gain new customer bases. Employees who speak different languages and are aware of the cultural norms of international markets, which can be vital to a company’s growth. At The Westin Dragonara Resort, we take the opportunity to gain further insights and build stronger relationships with people from different cultures by building on the knowledge and networks that our own associates bring.

Looking at the challenges, these include language and communication barriers, typical in companies with a diverse workforce. At times employees and managers face difficulties in getting their message across, leading to miscommunication and productivity loss. Communication barriers can also hinder growth opportunities, leaving some employees in a lower position.

Conflict occurs when prejudice, lack of respect, and racism are allowed to embitter a workplace. Intolerant attitudes can turn into animosity and open conflict if companies do not take prompt corrective action to show that any type of discrimination is not tolerated.

Figures from JobsPlus show that 27 per cent of the current labour workforce in Malta is composed of foreigners

At times employees from different cultural backgrounds find it difficult to adapt to the culture of their new working place. They might be misunderstood by others which could lead to negative outcomes and conflicting working styles across teams. A question which frequently arises is whether new recruits should adapt to the norms, communication and style of their work environment or whether efforts should be made by the company to allow the integration of new styles and practices.

What added value do other cultures bring to the employer?

Embracing workforce diversity provides both material and intangible benefits. A diverse workforce enables team members to appreciate the differences in others because of the positive contribution that different people bring. Where co-workers are open to learning from each other, they appreciate that diversity enables them to function better as a team.

In addition, a commitment to diversity demonstrates that a company values fairness and equality. These characteristics have a positive effect on its reputation with clients and other stakeholders. A company that openly recruits the best candidates for a job, irrespective of which group they are in, gains customer loyalty and a good reputation.

How should an HR department handle racism at the workplace?

Human resources functions are encouraged to promote and apply an anti-harassment policy, which reinforces the culture of zero-tolerance towards harassment of any kind, be it racism or anything else. Nevertheless, promoting a culture of unity is not the sole responsibility of HR department. Alongside HR, senior leaders at the company play a crucial role in also promoting and applying the values of respect and unity amongst employees. Furthermore, when any conflicting situations arise, timely and appropriate intervention is crucial. If antagonism is left to fester it creates an unhealthy work environment.

In which ways does your HR department encourage inclusivity?

The Westin Dragonara Resort, which is managed by Marriott International values the differences of its associates as a strategic business priority. Marriott International is recognised as having one of the most diverse and inclusive workforces. In fact, Marriott has been recently named one of the World’s Best Multinational Workplaces by Great Place to Work, the world’s largest annual study of workplace excellence.

Marriott International has invested in several learning and development programs to assist all associates in understanding their role in creating an inclusive environment, making others feel welcomed and valued, and operating with a global mind-set. An array of tools are available at Marriott to further assist our associates to work well together to support a more efficient and productive workplace environment. These tools and resources include online training programmes such as Harassment Prevention in the Global Workplace which equip our associates with knowledge on this subject.

Marriott’s respect for all campaign is dedicated to creating a culture of inclusion. Every associate is committed to uphold the TakeCare values by treating associates, guests, and business partners with respect and dignity. Senior leaders are also encouraged to come up with various activities and events that promote culture diversity and inclusion among the workforce.

Michelle Fenech Seguna is director of human resources at the Westin Dragonara Resort, Malta and is vice president of the Foundation for Human Resources Development (FHRD).

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