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Facing up to cultural diversity through communication

Tuesday 14 July, 2020
by Jodi O'Callaghan, Executive Officer, The Banking and Financial Services Oath

The workplaces we return to will not be the ones we left. There will be strict policies on desk use, the maximum number of people in meeting rooms and common areas, and limited outings for coffee and lunch breaks. But I’m optimistic there are some things that will be strengthened within organisations – and this includes the focus on cultural diversity when it comes to organisational communication. There are some learnings too from the communications we've seen between the government and multi-cultural communities during the current health crisis.

Parallel to the global pandemic is the Black Lives Matter campaign and it is placing a spotlight on racial inequality around the globe. In our homes, our schools, neighbourhoods and broader community, discussions, debates and self-reflection are forcing us to take stock of the role we play in advocating for equality. Can we live with ourselves by simply offering to ‘not be racist’ or is there a moral obligation to take a proactive step and be ‘anti-racist’? Are organisations promoting equality within, by connecting it to their purpose, values and principles and the cultural values of their employees?

Large organisations have both the resources and the need to go even further, and for professional communicators within those organisations, this means carrying out in-depth qualitative research on your audience and using that information in the strategic planning and execution of organisational communications. For leaders, it means ensuring an understanding from the top down and bottom up that cultural diversity is an organisational value, using opportunities and communications tools to share the stories of all employees from all backgrounds so that cultural diversity is not only tolerated, but nurtured and used as an educational tool.

For the financial services industry, The Banking and Financial Services Oath (The BFSO) is one such tool. And the tenet of ‘I will help create a more just society’ is the one I value the most. It brings to mind the simple but powerful words of Martin Luther King Junior:

“Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

The BFSO acts as a tool for self-reflection when faced with a tough decision – in other words - an ethical dilemma. Every time you find yourself sitting with an uncomfortable decision, you are ‘doing’ ethics.

Australia is a melting pot of cultural diversity. An organisational setting is no exception to this. Values are at the core of both cultures – the societal culture an individual lives in and the organisational culture an individual works in. At this time with so many of us working from home and leadership teams managing a disparate workforce, how do organisations ensure the message is getting through to a culturally diverse employee base? At a time when channels are limited, and face-to-face in-person delivery of the message is not currently an option - what are the ethics when it comes to cultural diversity and organisational communication?

Social entrepreneur, Violet Roumeliotis, is CEO of Settlement Services International (SSI), which supports more than 37,600 people (including new arrivals) each year. She says she is disappointed when the argument is put that we live in an ‘economy’.

 “We actually live in a society not an economy – and the economy seems to drive everything”.

“When Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg say ‘just go home’, how do you unpick the lack of welcome and the lack of respect?”

Roumeliotis says the Government has also failed to engage multicultural communities in virus-control efforts and there has been a lack of diversity in government messaging about the virus.

For example, April has important holy days for several religions – Christians, Jews and Muslims. Yet Australians were asked to "Stay home for Easter", rather than Passover or Ramadan.

When virus control relies so heavily on the co-operation of the public, it can be dangerous to ignore whole communities in the communications.  “That's why there's so many people who feel ‘this doesn't represent me’,” says Roumeliotis.

The lack of clear communication for culturally diverse communities has been highlighted in the second wave of Covid-19 cases that Victoria is currently experiencing. Health authorities faced the challenge of communicating with those in the community who do not speak English as a first language and explaining clearly to them why additional measures are essential in stopping the spread of the virus.

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton last week said: ‘We know that there are some migrant communities, recent migrants or culturally and linguistically diverse communities, who are overrepresented now with some of our new cases […] It’s our obligation as government to reach those people. It’s not their fault if we’re not going in with appropriate engagement.’

When it comes to organisational cultures, Hofstede’s renowned 2001 study looked at more than 80,000 IBM employees in 40 countries and identified four dimensions that he labelled:

  1. individualism vs. collectivism (how much members of the organisation define themselves apart from others),
  2. masculinity vs. femininity (the value placed on traditionally male or female values),
  3. small vs. large power-distance (how comfortable members of the organisation are with the various distribution of power), and
  4. weak vs. strong uncertainty avoidance (how anxious members of the organisation are with the unknown, and consequently how they cope with that).

Usually, organisations are a blend of all of these dimensions. For leaders and professional communicators, it is important to keep in mind, employees won’t be seeing things through the communicator’s worldview; they will interpret the message through their own worldview – a worldview comprising their cultural identity, values and essentially the total sum of all their experiences.

As the world moves in to a phase in which employees are demanding more transparent business processes, leaders need to ensure communication strategy is part of the organisations overall business strategy, to engage employees and customers from all cultural backgrounds.

For organisations that truly value their people, there will undoubtedly be an inextricable link between employee engagement, productivity and how the organisation performs during the current health and economic crisis. Through their communication, leaders must demonstrate the value they place on the social capital (relationships), and the cultural capital (education and knowledge) within a culturally diverse organisation. Ultimately, this makes for a healthy, functional and productive eco-system.  

Thursday the 16th of July marks four months of working from home for me – and likely a similar time frame for many of you. As we begin to emerge in to a new world where we have the opportunity to embrace new norms, and reconnect with people in our workplace we may have previously taken for granted, I’m hopeful that the consideration of cultural diversity in organisational communication is one area that leaders will start to see the value in, and engage their professional communicators accordingly.


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The Oath

  • Trust is the foundation of my profession.
  • I will serve all interests in good faith.
  • I will compete with honour.
  • I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint.
  • I will help create a sustainable future.
  • I will help create a more just society.
  • I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same.
  • I will accept responsibility for my actions.
  • In these and all other matters;
    My word is my bond.