How Organisations Across Asia Approach DE&I

As many firms focus on delivering their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals in more concrete ways, it has become increasingly evident that DE&I is not just an altruistic endeavour to improve society. It has clear commercial and economic impact.

As businesses across Asia pursue bigger diversity, equity and inclusion agendas, awareness of regional nuances of DE&I goals is essential, particularly for multinational organisations.

As many firms focus on delivering their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) goals in more concrete ways, it has become increasingly evident that DE&I is not just an altruistic endeavour to improve society. It has clear commercial and economic impact.

Indeed, more than eight out of 10 organisations in Asia rate DE&I as very or extremely important in their efforts to future proof their workforce and 83% are planning to create metrics and goals. That’s according to our seventh global HR pulse survey, conducted in April 2021, with more than 500 respondents across the Asia-Pacific region. Further, 83% of firms plan to re-evaluate their DE&I programs to build agility and workforce resilience, while 71% are asking or considering asking their employees for input on their DE&I initiatives. The urgency to act is irrefutable.

Increasing regulations around this topic have prompted firms to revise their DE&I programs and efforts, from addressing pay gaps to increasing diversity in gender, age and race. Such initiatives are commonplace in North America. However, many local employers in Asia have addressed DE&I by sidestepping some of the tangible identifiers used in North America and focusing on what’s beneath the surface — the reality that we all think differently.

Diversity of thought should not diminish or undermine the impact of being visibly different, which has defined huge parts of societies, experiences and lives. But focusing more attention on this concept can potentially serve as a differentiator for organisations across Asia to realise the benefits of truly fostering and empowering an inclusive workforce.

How firms view diversity and what their end goal is can vary by country. Driving diversity agendas is challenging, especially in a region that covers approximately 50 countries with various religions and forms of government, not to mention nearly 2,500 different languages and dialects.

This challenge is compounded by the wide variety of firms and regulatory standards present in the region. The spectrum ranges from:

  • Multinational companies that apply a diversity lens are more often associated with the North American perspective
  • Regional/local companies that recognise the importance of developing a diverse range of employees’ skills and capabilities — particularly since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
  • Local companies and small- to medium-sized enterprises that may perceive diversity as a consideration for larger firms only, and not relevant to their day-to-day activities

These different company profiles are faced with their own set of challenges when executing DE&I goals in Asia. For example, how should multinational companies think about DE&I when they have global headquarters mandating more explicit and targeted diversity goals than is typical for Asia? Contrastingly, how should small, local companies that don’t readily consider DE&I in their agendas start making moves in this direction? These are complex questions that require thoughtful planning. What may be considered a differentiator in a U.S. head office, for example, will likely be seen differently in Asia. That’s why we recommend that businesses use a regional lens to their DE&I approach — from how diversity and inclusion data is captured to the overall strategy.


Achieving more diverse perspectives in the workforce

Tangible identifiers serve as a proxy for diversity and come in varying forms, such as gender, disability, ethnicity and nationality. While certain companies, industries or regions might focus on gender parity, for instance, others might turn to ethnicity or culture. However, all are really striving for different input, contributions, beliefs, skills and capabilities to prevent groupthink and bring new ideas to the organisation to create lasting impact.

An analysis from The University of Nottingham Ningbo China found consistent evidence that points to the importance of deep-level diversity. This is defined as unobservable attributes, such as personality, values and attitudes, all of which positively influence innovation. Put simply, diverse perspectives add organisational value. Managers who focus less on surface-level characteristics, and instead embrace team members with the behavioural strengths needed to fill development gaps of the wider team, will likely drive the greatest levels of innovation.

Yet, this does not undermine the importance of having a visibly diverse team. It’s crucial to acknowledge both and understand how diverse mindsets and diverse demographics work together. For example, businesses that survey employees on their level of engagement and perception of the employer brand usually score higher if the workforce views itself as fair, diverse and inclusive. Further, cultivating a team of unique backgrounds can elicit diversity of thought through its indirect effect on group dynamics, ultimately sparking curiosity and new conversations. We should also note that a focus on physical traits provides visible proof of a firm’s progress towards broad and inclusive mindsets.

Innovation, the lifeblood of keeping organisations relevant and competitive, requires diversity of thought rather than a machine mindset. We are starting to see Asian countries focus their efforts on this method. The Global Innovation Index 2021 recently found that Singapore, China, Hong Kong and India, which are a melting pot of workforce cultures and backgrounds, have all accelerated their innovation and post-pandemic economic growth. We believe that embracing this viewpoint, alongside managing and mitigating historic inequity, presents an opportunity to progress and pioneer a new way of addressing DE&I.

Further, as countries and organisations continue to grapple with talent supply amid rising employee turnover, hiring from diverse sources can help fuel growth in most maturing economies. This approach will not only optimise people spend but also build more resilience within the workforce. Broadening pools of job candidates to include a multitude of experiences, backgrounds and skillsets will turn diverse capabilities and thoughts into impactful action. Value propositions will be customer-centric, resonate with the business and deliver value to a wide range of clients, ensuring that business outcomes are aligned to customer perspectives.

Figure 1 below demonstrates the diversity spectrum. We can see the historical focus on tangible traits as tactical attempts to diversify the workforce. The post-pandemic shift has increased the emphasis on skills more aligned to mindset. For example, balancing the need for hard technical skills, like programming or digital marketing, while also recognising that agility, resilience and learnability will provide a more flexible and sustainable workforce in the future.

At the same time, we believe embracing diversity of thought will naturally lead companies to a more demographically diverse workforce. An inclusive culture fosters an environment where everyone can bring the best version of themselves to work. This means that talent from all backgrounds and experiences will excel, ultimately attracting more diverse talent for the future.

Figure 1: The Diversity Spectrum

No Diversity Tangible Diversity Efforts Diversity of Thought
  • Lower performance
  • Lower ESG
  • Governance risk
  • Low employee brand
  • Positive momentum/recognising the benefit of change
  • Need to manage analytics vs. action
  • Short-term vs. long-term adjustments
  • Positive discrimination, exclusivity vs. inclusivity
  • Potentially seen as reactive
  • Drive physical diversity, but agnostic of diversity
  • Build balance and engage all
  • Develop agility and resilience
  • Become entrenched in people strategy

Source: Aon


Leadership tools and solutions for mastering a diverse mindset

Assessing your roles to ensure you have inclusive leadership directly supports diverse hiring practices. This goes beyond confirming job candidates with diverse traits, like ethnicity and gender, are applying and getting considered, though that is still important. It’s also about equipping leaders with tools to ensure they know the right questions to ask to secure job candidates with the skills and personality traits that will offer diverse perspectives and innovation.

A diverse workforce without an inclusive leader is less effective than a team with no variation. Inclusive leaders — those who are collaborative, flexible and emotionally intelligent — can harness the benefits of a diverse workforce by facilitating an inclusive culture. Even with innovative talent in place, it is up to the manager to create an environment that allows it to flourish. This is where the hard work lies. It’s important that all colleagues of a diverse workgroup are consistently supported and shown their value through meaningful rewards and career development that will ultimately build and sustain diversity across all levels of the organisation.

Using robust personality questionnaires and other talent assessments removes the pitfalls of human bias that can creep into leadership pipelines. Actively assessing whether leaders demonstrate and cultivate desired behaviours is much more effective than relying on perception. Firms can then use these leaders to help foster a growth mindset. Applying the same robust assessments across the workforce enables firms to build a holistic understanding of their talent and potential. Ultimately, this will serve as the foundation of a strong future business — one that can move forward with confidence and purpose.


Next steps

There is tremendous momentum and business opportunity across Asia, with its high growth and large consumer bases. Companies that position themselves as leaders and develop inclusive workforce environments where diverse perspectives are valued are better able to own their potential and success. While an increased focus on DE&I presents many business challenges, it also opens the door to a multitude of opportunities. Asia can pioneer a different way of tackling the issue.

Diversity should reflect an employee’s skills, experiences and upbringing, which will shape what they bring to the table. It’s about looking ahead at the skills you need and capturing differing opinions and imaginations to invite open conversation and entrepreneurship. Asia has the opportunity to become a leader in diversity by broadening the definition of diversity beyond visible markers and the traditional approaches taken to-date. If done successfully, the upside will be substantial.

If you have questions and want to speak with one of our experts, please contact us.

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