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How to engage people of diverse ethnicities in today’s global economy: Part 1

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In today's global economy, engaging people of diverse ethnicities can be a huge challenge. Author and trainer, Ogo Ogbata, shares some helpful insights and strategies in this interesting article.

Socio-cultural differences can cause conflict in the workplace - leading to bullying and withdrawal, frequent short-term absence as well as reduced productivity. How can business managers and training professionals make the most of in-house talent and creativity in today's challenging economy?

"More women (and men) of non-English origin can attain their full potential in the workplace if their individuality is acknowledged and celebrated."

Ayo's stomach was filled with excitement as she completed the attendance register in the plush hotel lobby. It was her first day at work – although she could hardly refer to a full day's training induction as 'work'. This was really a chance to find out more about the top-notch firm that she was going to spend several years of her life at, meet other privileged colleagues and fire up her motivation. It was hard to believe that after two years of unemployment, 50 CV revisions, 122 job applications and a dozen nerve-wrecking interviews, she had finally joined the glorious ranks of the gainfully employed. Ayo smiled as she entered the training room and took her place in the vacant front row. Already the tutor, a tall blonde, was wiping the smart board having placed pristine handouts on the table spaces.

"So," the lady soon turned around with a smile, "we're going to introduce ourselves. I’m Sue, your trainer today. Is anyone brave enough to go next?"

"Hello, I'm Ayo." The newcomer rose swiftly to her feet, "I'm the new IT officer and very excited to be here."

"That's quite an interesting name." Sue said. "Aye-yo is it?"

"Ah-yore." Ayo said.

"Aye-yore?" Sue said.

"Ahh-yore." Ayo said.

"Can we call you A.Y?" Sue grimaced, "it would certainly make life easier for me."

Ayo sank to her seat feeling somewhat deflated. Her name was only three letters long (Oluwademilade-Ayo being the full version!). How much shorter did it have to be before others could use it? Would colleagues shy away from referring to her by name? Would she be teased for being different? Throughout the session, Ayo did her best to engage with Sue and the rest of the group but by tea-time realised that in order to progress at the new company, she would be required to 'entirely imitate' the dominant culture – leaving most of the qualities and experiences that made her unique well-hidden in the shadows.  

A rich reservoir of culture

More women (and men) of non-English origin can attain their full potential in the workplace if their individuality is acknowledged and celebrated. Training sessions are not just an opportunity for firms to present their mission, vision and values on flashy PowerPoint slides but rather a chance to acquaint with both old and new employees on a personal level. There is a rich reservoir of culture, values, life experiences and practical skills that companies are leaving untapped when they fail to have an adequate dialogue with staff on a cultural level. For instance, in the UK 'time is money' and the pace of business tends to be faster and sometimes more impersonal. Employees from a different part of the world can introduce the balance in timing required for building longer lasting relationships with customers.

"By engaging employees on a personal and cultural level, employers can give them the confidence to shine."

Growing up in Nigeria, I was always amazed (and sometimes exhausted) by how much time my parents spent negotiating for the best deals during household shopping expeditions. They spent a long time chatting with traders, sometimes haggling for ten minutes or longer. Whilst the same approach could potentially rub a lot of sellers the wrong way in the UK, many buyers no longer want to be rushed into a sales transaction in today's challenging economy. Is it possible that the more 'romantic' selling approach utilised in other parts of the world can win reluctant buyers like these? Language skills are also becoming very vital. Whilst English (which ironically evolved from a fusion of diverse dialects) is still one of the most widely spoken native languages, it still ranks third after Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. There are millions of business prospects, ripe for the picking, who speak little or no English and as the economic climate forces many companies to carry their wares into new territories, foreign language is becoming a hot commodity. Rather than hiring translators and the like, companies can use their existing human resources to build authentic relationships when needed. Most importantly, creativity (the fuel for innovation) is enhanced when people contribute different ways of seeing the world and solving problems.

It is worth pointing out that not all 'difference' is good. As we all have to sift through carefully for the positive values and attributes that will enhance our personal and professional lives, employers also have to engage the sort of 'difference' that can boost the bottom line. However, the journey of 'productivity via diversity' always begins with mutual respect. For instance, rather than seeking to abbreviate Ayo's name, the trainer could simply have said, "Thanks so much for introducing yourself to us. I am obviously struggling with the correct pronunciation of your name but will endeavour to get it right by the end of the session. Where are you from? Please share something unique about your culture with us..." Genuine cultural communication cannot exist when the culture of the other party is belittled or ignored. By engaging employees on a personal and cultural level, employers can give them the confidence to shine.

Ogo Ogbata provides training, coaching and consulting services via her company Creativity and Sense Limited. Author of the business book 'Creativity and Sense: Discover Purpose, Inspire Your Team and Turn Passion into Prosperity!' she is passionate about helping professionals and organisations to make the most of their creativity and overall potential. Find out more about her and her work at: www.ogoogbata.com and www.creativityandsense.com

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