Beyond the mission statement: Increasing inclusion and diversity in the Asia Pacific region

A group of Asian business men and women gathered around a conference room table looking at a tablet

There’s no standard definition or one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to inclusion and diversity (I&D). Yet increasingly, companies are realizing that having a culture that’s both inclusive and diverse is no longer a “nice to have” but a key differentiator for attracting and keeping the talent they need to compete in today’s business environment. How it’s defined or what those strategies look like will vary, but what’s clear is that employees are coming to expect it, and employers who fail to take notice of the changing workforce around them will be at a disadvantage.

So, when it comes to advancing I&D in Asia Pacific, a region with more than 4.5 billion people — nearly half the world’s population — that has significant cultural differences among regions, how do we get there?

While there’s no simple or single solution, we’re starting to see inroads, some of which are happening on the legislative level. But the greater strides are occurring at the corporate level, thanks to some multinationals (MNCs) that are taking steps to advance inclusion and diversity within their own organizations and paving the way for other employers within the region.

Who’s leading the way?

We’ve noticed a few standouts, including Goldman Sachs, which has been working within the region to strengthen women’s pay equality, promote hiring those with disabilities by providing internal training and outreach, and sponsor Pride events in support of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.

Other organizations leading the way include HSBC, which launched its 2016 “Celebrate Pride, Celebrate Unity” campaign in late 2016 by painting its iconic lion statues outside of its Hong Kong headquarters in rainbow colors, and SB Frameworks Corp., a division of Japan-based MNC Softbank Interactive, which has been supporting efforts to hire those with disabilities since 2009. The company also promotes the hiring of people with special needs on a community level by regularly providing students of local special-needs schools with opportunities to visit its office.

Counter to culture

These may seem like “mission statement” actions in the U.S. or U.K., but taking these positions is a somewhat more ambitious move in Asia due to a higher level of cultural resistance. HSBC’s “rainbow lions,” for example, sparked protests among those calling for traditional family values in the region, where attitudes about women in the workforce and ethnic diversity are evolving.

While traditional culture may not be fully prepared for I&D initiatives, the increasing number of successful women in the workplace have led companies to pay more attention to gender equality, equal salary and diversified cultures.

Bar chart depicting the groups target for inclusion and diversity programs ranging from Gender (87%) to military veterans (20%) the lowest being other (8%)

 

Early legislative strides

Where it exists, regulation in Asia tends to be more reactive than proactive; for example, anti-discrimination laws exist for ethnicity, disability, gender and so on. But these are penalties on employers if someone is denied a job due to discriminatory practices — it doesn’t compel them to hire from diverse groups. A few exceptions include:

  • Thailand, which has a law requiring companies to hire one disabled individual for every 100 employees
  • Japan, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” initiative aims to put more women into the labor force in the hopes of increasing Japan’s growth potential
  • Singapore, which is making it easier for women to climb to managerial and leadership positions by increasing the number of quality, affordable childcare centers made possible by government programs

Where do we go from here?

Without much legislation, companies will need to work to further I&D in the region and reap the collective benefits on both the corporate and community level. To fully embrace inclusion and diversity apart from the mission statement, we recommend companies consider these six steps:

  1. Get buy-in from the top. We’ve found that the most successful I&D efforts all have strong management support and dedicated teams of people to execute initiatives.
  2. Move beyond gender to highlight ethnicity, age and race as focuses of I&D efforts.
  3. Play a role in creating I&D awareness by promoting the impact of diversified culture on business development and growth.
  4. Understand that talent acquisition and retention require open minds. For example, sensitivities to female or LGBT inclusion should be taken into account during senior executive selection. Steps should be taken to eliminate bias throughout the communication process.
  5. Use the power of community organization. Informal networks of companies must band together to share policies and best practices. And consider partnering with nongovernmental organizations such as Community Business that connect inclusion and diversity professionals through corporate events, and Out and Equal, the first global LGBT leadership organization for the financial industry, which now increasingly operates in Asia.
  6. Share your success. We advocate sharing successes and model programs within organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), which works to help companies meet challenges by strengthening cooperation among nations in the region.

A journey worth taking

For forward-thinking organizations considering expansion, acting on I&D is simply reflective of the environment in which they conduct business. Market labor forces tend to be diverse around gender, ethnicity, religion, beliefs, sexual preference, etc. Failure to recognize and address these differences through worker representation could potentially hinder the opportunities inherent in global expansion, including the ability to attract and keep key talent.

And as the “future of work” becomes more flexible and mobile, we expect that employment relationships will become more diversified and the traditional employment practices will adapt to become more inclusive toward racial, religious and LBGT differences in the workplace as well.

The good news is we’re starting to see some progress on I&D in Asia Pacific, but there’s still enormous potential for shifting a culture that is, in effect, a patchwork of several different cultures – into one that respects our inherent differences. Now that’s a journey worth taking.


 

Smilla Yuan headshotSmilla Yuan is Head of the Greater China region at Willis Towers Watson.

 

Chad O’Reilly headshotChad O’Reilly is member of the Asia I&D Council at Willis Towers Watson.

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