June 28, 2023 – “Diversity, equity, and inclusion is far more than just a catchphrase as both the concept and its goals are vital to good business practice and ultimately an organization’s bottom line,” said Alexander de Freitas, Signium partner Greater China, co-leader global technology practice, in a recent report. However, Mr. De Freitas notes that even while global policies and programs may be designed to create opportunities for fairness and equality in business, the actual playing field can be very different in certain countries or regions where tradition or other social practices hinder local execution of global policy.
“Some aspects of western thinking may be easily implemented in various regions, but attempting to force a western outlook on other localities may become a cautionary tale,” he said. And while it may be easy for western companies to attempt to influence their operations based in other countries with policies and programs that work in the U.S. or Europe, it is easier said than done.
“Implementing any big change must begin with respect for a country’s culture and in a country the size of China some cultural aspects are regional, which further adds to complications and sensitivities,” said Mr. de Freitas. “So, business leaders operating outside of their home base must be prepared to understand and take cognizance of differences.”
Flexibility and Guidance Drive Transformation
Some of the practices highlighted in DEI make sense to implement in Asia and many other countries, but leaders would do best to take advice on what will work and what is unlikely to. Flexibility is key, says the Signium report “China is home to a very homogenous population, the vast majority of who are Han Chinese,” Mr. De Freitas said. “This equates to a variety of cultural differences even within each of the various provinces. From an executive search perspective, we understand the kind of culture our clients want to instill in their China operations, and feel that our role includes sharing our knowledge of regions and consumers built on actually operating here.”
Related: What It Takes to Lead on DEI in 2023
While many companies are receptive to learning from Signium’s experience, some would prefer to replicate their own market. “We’re fortunate to have clients we’ve worked with for many years, so we understand their requirements and in what areas of the business they can be flexible,” said Mr. de Freitas. “What we can assist with is where a company’s headquarters are in, say, Shanghai, but they have satellite sales offices 2,000 kilometers away. Creating the same diversity, equity, and inclusion in the satellite office will depend on the influence and supervision the head office has on remote offices.”
The Age-Old Challenge for Business Leadership
Current challenges for C-suites in China center around the preconceptions of local companies about suitability for specific roles in relation to age, gender, and general background, the Signium report says. “One area we see is what would be considered ‘ageism’ by overall DEI standards is where it is often perceived that a candidate over the age of 45 may not be ‘agile’ enough for the position,” says Mr. De Freitas. “This can lead to a disconnect between the age the client wants the candidate to be vs. the years of experience they require them to have.”
How DEI is Impacting How We Recruit and Retain Talent
Until recent years, executive recruiters would often speak about sourcing candidates who seem to be a good “culture fit” for an organization. The idea behind it was that potential hires who were aligned with the look and feel of the existing culture would easily assimilate into it, and would require less time to ramp up and be productive. There was also, perhaps, an underlying feeling that candidates who were a good “culture fit” for an organization would be less prone to “rock the boat,” suiting the needs of upper management. Looking back, those notions seem antiquated because recruiting strategies based around them resulted in hiring people who looked, spoke, and acted like their soon-to-be colleagues, according to Candace Nortey, managing director of DEI at Slone Partners.
Mr. De Freitas also notes, however, that there are areas that are undergoing change just as they’re changing globally and one of these is age. “It was recently announced that the Chinese population growth is in decline, while the ageing population is rising due to the advances China has made in alleviating poverty and focusing on healthcare,” he said. “This means a far smaller pool of young candidates from which to choose, so companies will need to figure out how to engage – or re-engage – the older workforce. China will likely face the same issues we see in the West, in terms of pensions running out before life does. Retirement age is already being raised in companies and government workforces, and we are seeing a push towards hiring people once considered ‘too old’ for certain posts.”
Overall, Mr. De Freitas reiterates what many business leaders cite when rising to the challenges presented by DEI. “Change is never an easy thing to implement or undergo, but many changes will occur organically, as is happening with ageism,” he said. “And, in our dealings with various companies, we see efforts to grow the share of women in the workforce, where female representation is a priority and training is being undertaken by firms looking to create a pipeline for women from entry-level positions to managerial posts. The path to diversity, equity, and inclusion path must be maintained and expanded, for today’s actions to have any impact on tomorrow’s successes.”
Signium has 38 offices in 30 countries serving clients in the Americas, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific regions. The firm delivers talent acquisition and management solutions for global companies across industry sectors, including consumer goods, financial services, technology, industrial, life sciences, and professional services.
Related: Navigating the Road to Diversity
Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media