Managing cultural diversity is good for business

New Zealand is an increasingly multicultural society. This is becoming more evident with highly visible demographic changes in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and other centres around the country, an increasingly mobile international workforce and Statistics New Zealand’s projected population growth figures for 2026.

The shape and make up of New Zealand’s labour force is changing.  Statistics New Zealand’s projections indicate that by 2026 Maori, Asian and Pacific people will comprise some 42 per cent of New Zealand’s population.  Added to this will be migrants from many different parts of the world attracted to New Zealand to help address the shortage of highly qualified and skilled people in a variety of sectors such as the research, IT and other high tech industries. Our already diverse multicultural workforce will become even more diverse.

For a number of New Zealand industries having staff in project teams from overseas markets where they are doing business is an obvious benefit cultural diversity offers New Zealand companies. These include industries in the agriculture, tourism and international student education sectors to mention only three. Increasingly New Zealand’s export focus is on developing new export markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Having staff with an ability to operate in New Zealand and the business context of other countries, particularly if they speak the ‘host’ country’s language or have strong ‘in-country’ connections, will help make it easier for New Zealand companies to do business in overseas markets. It is a pragmatic and smart business decision.

But what are the benefits that workplace diversity offers businesses closer to home? How do New Zealand businesses prepare, draw-out, develop and leverage the talent of their staff particularly with a multicultural team? Is it a smart and pragmatic business decision for them?

These challenges are now taking on a sharper focus given our population projections, increasing diversity and global competition for skilled labour.

There is a growing body of research which shows that diversity in the workplace, particularly when it is well managed benefits businesses and organisations.  These benefits include reduced absenteeism, improved staff recruitment and retention, improved creativity, innovation and problem solving, and improved marketing, communications and business outcomes.  It can also enhance a company’s reputation as a ‘good employer.’

How best to leverage staff talent – feeling valued and understood

As with any organisation, business or team aiming to maximise its potential, a key part of being able to leverage the talent in a diverse multicultural team, is proactive, forward looking leadership and management commitment.

In simple terms, leading by example, and ensuring that the appropriate support and staff development processes are in place.  Leadership sets the strategy, the direction and demonstrates the level of commitment.

In our experience with teams and organisations, most people want to feel valued and understood by their colleagues, customers and management, irrespective of where they come from.  One of the keys for any business to help make this happen is to put in place mechanisms that foster a positive working environment and to develop the skills and knowledge of their people.  This is in turn contributes to positive outcomes for the business.

Other key contributing factors include leadership commitment, workplace culture, diversity training and communication, and measurement and accountability.  Having reasonably high proportions of diversity i.e. representation and visibility at all levels of an organisation also contributes to having successful diverse multicultural teams.

Diversity training at all levels of a business helps to give people greater cultural awareness, to learn cross-communications skills to help them to interact and better understand their workmates and clients.  It can help increase productivity by focussing on recognising and valuing difference, and seeking complementarity of skills and aptitude within a culturally diverse team.

A good case study example of this approach involved an insurance company which drew on the diversity of its workforce to better meet the needs of its diverse customer base. They did this by being aware of, celebrating and leveraging the particular experiences and strengths of individuals, improving team dynamics, challenging people to think creatively, share information and building a sense of community among their diverse workforce.

Learning to manage and leverage the talent diversity offers businesses is pragmatic, smart and good for business.


 Useful research websites include: EEO Trust, Victoria University Centre for Applied Cross-Cultural Research

 Diversity and Equality Review, EEO Trust June 2008

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