International HR Administration: In the 21st Century, Workforce Diversity Goes Beyond Race, Gender

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By Lien Hoang

Oct. 17–The corporate photo that shows a rainbow of staff may have become a cliché, but if businesses want real diversity, they'll have to consider “non-visible” factors in hiring and adapt to the changing identities of modern employees, according to experts in managing global workforces.

Lisa Johnson, global practice leader at Crown World Mobility's Consulting Services, divides diversity into two types: visible and non-visible. The more traditional traits can be seen, meaning that companies look for personnel in different categories of race, age, gender, geography and disability, but to achieve true diversity they should also look for such non-visible traits as variety in family structures, religions and sexual orientation.

“There are all different ways to define the non-visible aspect of diversity,” Johnson told the Asia-Pacific Global Mobility Summit in Singapore Oct. 14, adding that her surveys of human resource professionals have shown that this less conventional approach has become more common in recent years.

‘Fundamental Shift in Family Dynamics’

Others speakers addressing the summit noted that the model of the nuclear family is in many ways outdated and that companies should adjust their policies to reflect this change. The impact family relationships have on corporate hiring decisions is changing for several reasons, including higher rates of divorce and gay marriage and the more frequent entrance of companies into developing countries where three-generation households are the norm.

“I think what we're seeing is a fundamental shift in family dynamics,” said Helen Roberts, head of performance, reward and benefits products at Standard Chartered Bank.

Businesses sometimes face challenges (for example) in assigning gay employees to foreign countries, where homosexuality may be illegal, Roberts said. When host countries don't officially recognize an employee's same-sex partner, companies struggle to fulfill contractual requirements to provide visas, health care and other benefits to the partner.

Extended Family

Another example of what experts called “21st-century” challenges to managing human capital is divorce. As more couples split up, employees may have children from several marriages in different cities. Some companies respond to this by adding an allowance to the relocation package so that parents can fly home more often or bring children with them.

Companies must take into account other categories of dependents—such as employees' elderly parents—when calculating salary and benefits. This is particularly the case when corporations bring in talent from foreign countries where people tend to have a closer network of extended family.

Employers “actually will lift the whole family and send them on assignment if that's necessary to get that person into the right place,” said Janine Barnes, EY's associate director of mobility, who conducted the HR research with Johnson. “And you know, sometimes they're going to, again, some challenging locations, so having their whole family, the extended family to help with the children really helps.”

‘Culture Change’

While issues such as family situations may not seem the most intuitive way to gauge a company's diversity, speakers argued that they add another perspective to the office.

In a joint presentation, Barnes and Johnson said that diversity in recruitment is just the first step.

“It's the inclusion part that is the strategy that makes it work,” according to Johnson.

Companies need to give coaching and mentoring to so-called “minorities” to take advantage of their diverse outlooks, which add value to the business, speakers said, adding that employers need to make hires feel valued, bring into the conversation people less likely to speak up and conduct diversity training to combat “unconscious bias.”

“The culture change is hugely important,” Barnes said. “You can have the best processes, policies and guidelines in the world, but if you don't drive it down into the business, then it's just a piece of paper. No point in hanging it on the wall.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lien Hoang in Singapore at correspondents@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rick Vollmar at rvollmar@bna.com