Cultural Diversity – July 30, 2007

Embracing Cultural Diversity

Issue 32

I got a letter the other day from the Hon Kevin Andrews MP – Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. He was writing to say he was DELIGHTED to advise that my application for Australian citizenship had been approved. This came as no surprise; I had passed the entry test at the department of immigration the week before with flying colours. The short quiz one is required to pass to become a citizen of Australia paled in comparison to the horrendous mound of paperwork that had to be produced to become a permanent resident!

Please do not get the wrong impression, there were others taking the test the same day who were not finding it effortless. Those that do not have a command of written English found the essay questions very challenging; defining the terms ‘fair dinkum’ and ‘bloody oath’ and outlining the appropriate times to use them. The dexterity section required participants chug a scooner of beer while simultaneously turning over an entire barbeque grill of snags, which you might think is easy, but in some cultures ambidexterity is not common.

A woman taking the test the same day as me spilled her beer before she even got the barbeque tongs in her hand. Unfortunately, the rules are very strict. It was sad to think she would not achieve her dream; on the other hand, we simply cannot have citizens of Australia spilling our precious commodities. I am fortunate to have come from a country that has similar customs and beliefs, spending my teen years chugging warm Budweiser in the back of a pick up truck prepared me well.

Unless I do something really wrong or fall upon unfortunate circumstances like Mohamed Haneef – the Indian doctor from Brisbane, I am here for good. Of course Haneef can remain in the country now that all terrorist charges against him have been dropped; however, I suspect that now even applying for a rental card at Video EZ will be quite an ordeal for him.

Luckily Americans and Australians are quite similar: both thought the war in Iraq was a good idea, but thought the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t, both have an insatiable desire for reality TV. Naturally, there are some differences. Driving on the opposite side of the road, eating differently and fortunately for me there is a difference in approach to the topic of immigration and multiculturalism. While Bush has been working to keep foreigners out, Howard has boosted the rate of legal immigration to Australia – and one of those immigrants is yours truly.

One good thing for Geyer is that my being around will not warrant any changes to the work environment, which is not the case for many businesses that hire immigrants, and this can become a point of confusion. Knowing where to draw the line when it comes to acknowledging diversity is a challenge for many organizations. The reality is, we should and do, openly welcome people from other cultures into our work environments, but often do not want the baggage that comes with embracing their culture; whether that is celebrating different holidays, allowing native clothing to be worn, or participating in religious rituals unlike our own. Despite the fact that Australia is increasingly culturally diverse in terms of participants, our business culture continues to follow the predominant Australian culture.

According to the psychologist and IHR consultant Leonie Elphinstone the Australian business culture can be defined as relatively flat, egalitarian, time focused – sequential – monochromic. She says there is a focus on outcomes rather than harmony and that in Australian business communication is direct and of low context. Elphinstone goes on to explain that workplace cultures are influenced by industry area, size and ownership (Australian or International). 

Conducting a workshop with one of our clients a few weeks ago we were exposed to the often violent reaction many organizations have to suggestions that the work environment be amended to reflect the diversity of the people that work there. Like many, this organization was quite eager to point out that diversity is a major driver for their business, but when it came to providing prayer rooms, allowing employees to wear a head scarf, or installing squat toilets they wanted nothing to do with it. They said ‘this is Australia after all’.

After all it is Australia, and what that means today is that we are comprised of 216 different nationalities and speak 134 different languages. Only 60% of Sydneysiders were born in this country, in Melbourne that jumps to 64%. 36% of Australians speak another language and 7.5% speak a language other than English at home. In the workplace, the percentage of workers born overseas is 25% and 15% come from non – English speaking backgrounds. The inhabitants of the group of people I sit with in Sydney are a good example of this. I was born in the USA, Ji Wei in Malaysia, Neil in Wales and only Sally and Sean were born in Australia.

As you might expect, the biggest gaps in culture come as a result of different religious beliefs, so perhaps it is fortunate that in Australia 18.7% claim to have no religion. It is interesting to note that in Melbourne 20% say they have no religion, but only 14% of those residing in Sydney claim no religion – and this is the city referred to as Sin City? The source I got this from claims this is due to the fact that ¾ of all Lebanese Australians live in Sydney, and Lebanese are devout. It is also due to  the high percentage of Lebanese Australians in Sydney, that the percentage of those that believe in Islam is 4%.    

The question to consider is how much tolerance are we prepared to accept when it comes to embracing diversity? Beginning with dress, what ethnic and religious styles are appropriate in the work place, when is it acceptable to wear a sarees and kameez, dreadlocks, braids, and a turban to work?  According to Chandra Prasad, from the IMDiversity Career Center,many professionals are unwilling – and in some cases, due to religious and cultural beliefs, unable – to comply with the standard corporate dress code.

There are many reasons why people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace. It may be to maintain the culture of their homeland, or simply a way to express cultural pride. Some do it to be trendy, or as a means to educate others about their home and customs. All of these generally produce positive outcomes and do make the work place more interesting. On the other hand, when people wear culturally specific styles in the workplace it plays into our tendency to assume, or jump to conclusions. Prasad says a very common assumption made when one wears culturally specific styles is that they don’t speak English. 

Rosa Anabela Tavares is a family practice physician who is mixed Haitian and Angolan; she lives in New York and wears wraps on her head and sarongs to work. Apparently in the past she wore dreadlocks, which caused people to assume she was “radical, liberal and not approachable. Tavares says “In my capacity as a physician and role model, [my own style] is a strong signal to my patients and colleagues about being open and not being afraid not to be mainstream.” Tavares believes that people should wear the fashions with pride: “As a minority, you run the risk [of being labeled] regardless, so you might as well do it while embracing something you care about.”

A critical factor in this discussion is where you work, we have a great deal of latitude in our dress, it is almost expected that designers wear clothing that is out of the ordinary. Internet and high tech companies tend to be more lenient than law firms and some retail stores. Very traditional companies may regard cultural styles as substandard, so it is important that employees pay attention to what is happening around them and check with their employer if they wish to deviate. My son Harry was recently given a warning at work for not shaving, his employer Hoyts explained that facial hair was acceptable; however, the scruffy growth Harry was sporting could not be considered a beard. You cannot have a scruffy teen scooping out popcorn at the Harry Potter opening and uphold the brand.

Wearing different cultural styles may also bring unwanted attention to the employee, which may be positive or negative depending on the circumstances. There is the story I read of Mary, an Indian reference librarian, who believes that wearing a saree works to her advantage. She explains, “On the street when I wait for the bus, in the grocery store, and at functions on campus, students will stop by and say, ‘Do you remember me? You helped me with my research last semester.’ It makes me feel good about being recognized and acknowledged for my services in a vast, impersonal campus.”

Dealing with an employee wearing a turban to work is quite minor compared with other more challenging aspects of cultures that might be manifested in the physical environment. I mentioned earlier the suggestion of installing squat toilets in an Australian headquarters nearly made it necessary to get a defibulator for our client. After his violent reaction we didn’t have the fighting spirit to tell him about our other client just a bit further down the road that has had to repeatedly replace the toilet seats in their fitout due to employees standing on top of them.

Last year when working with Ngai Tahu our brief called for special areas and requirements for food preparation and greeting customs. This had an impact on the physical environment and amount of space required for the fitout. Given the purpose of Ngai Tahu it seemed natural and appropriate, but how would we have reacted if it was something less mainstream or from a culture more foreign to us than the Maori? How would we react if this was an insurance company with a large number of Maori employees?

As we enter a new chapter in the war for talent, the question of what is Australian and what is not will be on everyone’s mind. The labor pool we tap from will be increasingly diverse and as organizations we will all need to decide just how far we will go to make others feel welcome. Alternatively, those of us who are new entrants may just need to learn to adapt to the culture that has accepted us and get on with our work.






Exploring Culturally Specific Styles in the Workplace

by C Prasad


Cultural Diversity in the Australian Workplace

Leonie Elphinstone

Presented in May 2005 at Griffith University


Immigration the Defining Difference

By Duncan Currie

The Sydney Morning Herald

July 12, 2007


Two Cultures, Changing Dreams

By Deidre Macken

The Australian Financial Review

June 28, 2007-07-27


Demographics: The Population Hourglass

By Andrew Zolli

Fast Company

Issue 103 March 2006


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