Diversity can work well for many different companies

Diversity can work well for many different companies

While discrimination exists, firms say having a multinational workforce is beneficial

Charlie Taylor

Facing down differences: employers with diverse teams believe it gives them a competitive edge. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Facing down differences: employers with diverse teams believe it gives them a competitive edge. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

 

We might like to think of ourselves as a tolerant race but there’s evidence to suggest that Irish people may not be as welcoming as they would like to believe, particularly when it comes to the workplace.

Studies have shown that discrimination is alive and well in the labour market with immigrants suffering multiple disadvantages compared with Irish nationals, including higher unemployment rates and lower wages.

A report published earlier this month by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) has revealed for the first time just how immigrants fared during Ireland’s economic crisis.

Using data from 16,000 households surveyed by the Central Statistics Office in 2004 and in 2010, the research focused on the experience of discrimination individuals experienced when both looking for employment and while in the workplace.

The study found that during both the boom and recession, those who hail from outside of the country reported higher rates of discrimination than Irish people.

Perhaps not surprisingly, ethnicity was a major factor, with black Africans and non-whites from the newer EU member states experiencing harsher treatment than individuals from other backgrounds. The research showed that the proportion of black Africans reporting workplace discrimination rose from 11.6 per cent in 2004 to a massive 28.5 per cent in 2010, some six times the level reported by white Irish workers.

According to the ESRI, migrants who arrived in Ireland during the recession were more likely to report experiencing discrimination when looking for work than those who had arrived during the boom.

It wasn’t all bad news though. The study revealed that discrimination did not increase significantly in the context of the recession. However, visibly different ethnic groups such as black Africans and non-white EU minorities continued to report very high experiences of mistreatment, leading the authors of the study to conclude that these groups remained vulnerable in the Irish labour market.

The research clearly indicates that progress is still needed in terms of creating equal opportunities for everybody. What it doesn’t show is just how much workplaces benefit from having teams made up of people coming from diverse backgrounds. Employers with such teams believe it gives them a competitive edge.

Diverse workforces The catering services, facilities and property management company Aramark, which employs about 5,000 people in Ireland, is one such company. HR director Caroline Costigan says the firm believes it is important to have a workforce which reflects the marketplace it serves and that it is keen to develop a workplace culture that values differences.

“Diversity allows for different perspectives and different ways of understanding and in turn drives innovation. We support the notion that diverse workforces bring greater performance, greater opportunities for growth and a better understanding of our clients and customers,” she says.

Microsoft Ireland is also a large employer with staff that hail from around the world. The company employs 1,200 people across four divisions in Ireland and it has employees from 50 different nationalities here.

Microsoft’s HR director Clodagh Logue says having a diverse workforce helps the company to stay innovative.

“As a technology company the focus is always on tomorrow, on innovation and new discovery, and collaborating with people from a wide range of backgrounds helps maintain a focus on new thinking and ensures that received wisdom is challenged at every opportunity,” she says.

Logue admits that communication issues can be a problem but stresses that staff at every level work to try to understand each other.

“We are fortunate to have a multinational workforce that thrives on difference. Our company culture is built on principles of expression and mutual co-operation as well as respect. We have found that team members celebrate each others’ differences and are always keen to learn more about their peers’ cultural backgrounds with a review to respect diverse traditions and preferences,” she says.

Benefits Lidl, which employs more than 4,000 people across Ireland, comprising some 22 nationalities, is also keen to stress the benefits accrued from employing people from diverse backgrounds.

 

“Colleagues have a genuine interest in the backgrounds of others and, in gleaning information on these, they are of course learning. This ultimately means our employees not only understand and respect the backgrounds and beliefs of those that work with them but also that they are better placed to deal with the diverse nature of our customer base,” says Paul Martin, head of HR at Lidl Ireland.

“Also, employees from different backgrounds bring their own unique cultural experience to the situations they face in their daily tasks and interaction with customers, and this broader perspective of viewpoints tends to be positive.”

Martin is the first to admit that managing a workforce of people from many different backgrounds can be challenging. However, he doesn’t believe this should be a barrier to taking on staff from other cultures.

“Internal communication can of course be challenging for any large company, and of course this is further challenged when you have language and cultural barriers,” he says.

“In Lidl, because simplicity in procedures and processes is one of our core operating objectives, we generally overcome this obstacle through training our employees in different formats that appeal to different learning styles while attempting to use uncomplicated language.

“Given the multicultural nature of our customer base it naturally follows that language barriers can often be overcome on the shop floor when we have employees that are able to interact with the customer in their own language.”

Backgrounds With some 100,000 employees, the Health Service Executive (HSE) is the State’s largest employer. According to Tess O’Donovan, assistant national director of HR with the organisation, it is not just companies that gain from having a diverse workforce.

“There was a time when there were very limited numbers coming from different cultures to work in the Irish health sector. At one stage it would have mainly been doctors and this then expanded over time to include nurses. It now encompasses staff at every pay grade, from the person who greets you at reception to the doctor who diagnoses you,” she says.

“We are essentially a microcosm of what’s taken place at a wider level in society and I would say the health service is all the better for the participation of people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

As with other organisations, there have been incidents where staff have experienced discrimination, either from other colleagues or from service users, but O’Donovan stresses that such episodes are rare and are swiftly addressed.

“We have a dignity at work policy which is very clear on what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and obviously in the past we’ve done training on discrimination and harassment but thankfully it has rarely been something we’ve needed to be concerned with,” O’Donovan says.

“Obviously, a key issue for the health service is that staff must have a proficiency in the English language and it is this more than anything else that can cause concern.

“Any issues with language are spotted early on before someone starts working with the HSE though, so they can be addressed ahead of time. And anyway, as someone who is living and working in west Cork where we talk at an almighty pace and with a strong accent, it’s worth noting that it’s as often a problem of Irish people making themselves understood as it is someone from outside of Ireland struggling to communicate.”

 

Previously published in The Irish Times.

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