How to Start a Global Diversity Initiative

January 10, 2014 2:31 pm

By Barbara Frankel

10 Steps to Start a Global Diversity InitiativeYou are the chief diversity officer or a key staff member in a diversity department based in the United States. Your senior management understands that much of your opportunity for business growth lies outside of the U.S., as do talent and supply-chain sources. You are instructed to start a global diversity initiative and you have no idea what to do first.

Here’s a step-by-step guide for what to do, based on DiversityInc’s four years of extensive global diversity research. Our most recent research survey covered 46 countries and had 203 corporate submissions. We are starting a new survey, with more in-depth best practices globally, and welcome sponsors.

1. Assess What You Have

Before you begin any global diversity initiative, you need to find out what efforts at inclusivity have begun in your non-U.S. offices. Send a quick survey to HR at each operation and ask the following questions:

  • Have there been any recruitment or leadership-development efforts aimed at women or any other underrepresented groups?
  • Is there anyone assigned to work on issues of inclusion? (The term “diversity” is not widely used outside of the United States.)
  • Is there any interest from local management?
  • Has anyone tried to start a resource group?

As you approach employees in other countries, it is extremely important that you not espouse a “the U.S. is superior” attitude. Although diversity-and-inclusion efforts and metrics in the United States have been in existence longer than in most other countries, selling it as a “do it our way” U.S.-based initiative is guaranteed to alienate constituents and thwart your efforts.

2. Study What Values Are Communicated From the Top

In organizations where the CEO and senior leadership clearly communicate that they are inclusive of ALL groups, the messaging is felt in every corner of the world. Companies like Sodexo (No. 1), PricewaterhouseCoopers (No. 2), EY (No. 4 in the DiversityInc Top 50), Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation (No. 6) and AT&T (No. 13) all have strong and visible leaders who demonstrate that discrimination or lack of inclusivity won’t be allowed.

When strongly stated (and upheld) values emanate from the top—and managers are held accountable for their actions—organizations are much more likely to be inclusive in every way. As an example, in our research we looked at LGBT equality, often the most difficult to implement. We found that multinationals with strong executive diversity councils that were clear about their inherent values of inclusion were three times more likely to have LGBT benefits or to include LGBT issues in training than those that did not—in all regions of the world.

3. Recognize That One Size Does NOT Fit All

This is the most important step of all—what works well in one part of the world, including the United States, may not translate at all in another country. Everything you do in the D&I space—words, initiatives, metrics, gaining support from leaders and employees—has to be filtered through LOCAL cultural competence. Find a trusted person on staff in each country in which you want to start a local D&I initiative and run everything by him or her. If you are planning to launch a significant initiative, such as starting a resource group, make sure local people are leading the effort.

4. Assess Your Resources and Include Local-Country Staff

This is clearly related to Step 3 but goes a little further. In each country in which you want to start a D&I initiative, look at local staff (HR, communications, recruitment) for allies. You probably don’t have any D&I staff but you can put together a support network to help you. They can do much of your legwork and be your eyes and ears at the local facilities.

5. Get Buy-In From Local-Country Leadership

In our global-diversity survey, we ask companies for their greatest challenge. More than half (especially in Asia) mention getting the support of local-country leadership. “The top management does not understand the business value—they see this merely as a do-good type of thing” one company told us.

The most effective way to get top leadership buy-in is to document the business value—how having a workforce and leadership that is representative of the population leads to better decision-making/innovative solutions/client-customer relationships and, therefore, market share.

6. Keep Sensitivity to Local Culture Top of Mind

As a diversity-management expert trained in the United States, you are inclusive of all groups. That may not be the case globally and, while our personal desire may be to take people to task, understand that inclusive corporations can effect change but they first need to understand the culture. For example, Sodexo wanted to encourage more women in India to pursue management positions but understood that culturally they were responsible for their own homes and the homes of their mothers-in-law. So they invited the families in, including the mothers-in-law, and showed them how valuable the women were at work. The result? Families, including the mothers-in-law, decided the women could ease off on some of their domestic responsibilities.

7. Focus on One Thing At a Time, Usually Gender First

In most countries, disparities based on race, ethnicity, caste and class are not measured or openly discussed. Gender is a more common differential. Increasingly, in some countries, such as Brazil, China and France, government mandates are causing companies to hire people with disabilities or face a fine.

So what do you start with? Of course it depends on the greatest need, but it’s best to begin with something most people get and with which you can have some immediate wins.

8. Set Up Metrics to Assess Success

It’s important to be able to document your success so you can get more resources and continue to make D&I progress. With gender metrics, the most common way to assess progress is to measure the percentage of women in the workforce, in management and in senior management (usually defined as the top three levels). Other common global metrics are age of workforce (with most companies in Asia having younger workforces and most companies in Europe having older workforces) used to determine effective strategies, such as setting up a resource group (affinity group) to attract and retain younger workers.

9. Constantly Measure What You Do vs. Other Companies in Same Region

It’s not enough to understand your own company’s in-country metrics. You need to see what other multinational and local companies that compete for the same talent pool are doing. Participating in our survey gives you the opportunity to benchmark against others in the same country or region. You can also see in some countries if there are government surveys that assess D&I progress in the workforce.

10. Be Aware of How Global Diversity Constantly Evolves

In our four years of studying global diversity, we’ve learned that as world economics and political situations change, so does the increasing need for D&I on a global scale. But the evolution rate is different in each region and country. For instance, the idea of supplier diversity (hiring vendors from underrepresented groups to connect with the community and gain innovative ideas) is common in the United States and the United Kingdom, but it is just catching on in most of the rest of the world.

We’d like to get your feedback on the global-diversity issues of most interest to you. Please contact if you have questions or concerns or would like to participate in our next global survey, which will be out this fall.