Why cultural diversity in the workplace is vital

Cultural Diversity in the Workplace is imperative for an inclusive and democratic South Africa

Make Heritage Day a part of your everyday corporate culture

ON September 24, South Africa celebrates Heritage Day. It is a wonderful day to take stock and celebrate our nationhood through our differences. But, how much of our heritage is actually welcome at the office?

Sadly, acknowledging heritage is limited to staff playing dress up and taking plates of eats to work one day a year. But it takes more than a bite of Mopani worm and a traditional dance to understand Venda culture.

How implicit bias hurts the corporate sector

In fact, most times heritage is seen as an impediment to company culture. Unless you belong to the same class, creed and, yes, colour. It has happened to me, and I have seen it happen to incredible candidates. One was a CA; she was brilliant. She had won awards in her profession; she had passed her master’s with flying colours. This candidate had overseen the successful turnaround of several failing companies.

I knew she would be a wonderful fit, but then she arrived in a Burqa (a scarf covering her head as befitted her devout faith) to her interview. Afterwards I got a call asking why I had not warned the board beforehand. The candidate did not get the job, because the board could not see what I could. They were not prepared to look beyond the veil.

Once, I was gifted some really beautiful Kente cloth from Ghana. I fell so in love with it, that I had a lovely, fitted dress made. Which I duly paired with my usual tailored black blazer. I was shocked when I went to a client and was asked, directly, if I was still able to do the assignment.

“Are you going back to your roots?” she asked.

I asked her what she meant. My dress had obviously offended her sensitivities about what was acceptable in the workplace. I had to explain to her that I had had the dress made to the same patterns as my other dresses. Moreover, I was in love with the fabric and the colours. Finally, that it had nothing to do with my culture.

Challenging the status quo

Cultural practices can and do clash with corporate cultures. These days you can wear an isiphandla, the bangle made from the skin of an animal slaughtered in your honour, in most company environments. The same isn’t true for people who wish to publicly follow ancestral belief systems or people who choose traditional healing options over conventional medicine. But it is a mistake to think that the only heritage that is accepted and encouraged in companies is the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) variant.

The dominant culture or heritage in a company invariably reflects the dominant culture of its leadership. I have been in boardrooms, where I have grievously offended directors by addressing them directly. As opposed to the honorifics that their seniority would have demanded in a village setting. Ultimately compounded by not meekly waiting my turn to speak in terms of my age. Instead, I openly took part in the debate due to the expertise I bring to the table.

The reality in our country with its fractured past and tortured present is that heritage can be weaponised. It is used as another tool to exclude staff from the C-suite. The ‘culture’ can be religion, customs, diet, anything that is ‘other’ than the norm.

Embracing our cultural diversity and freedom of expression

The truth is that in far too many environments, the whole person that you are is not welcome at work. Instead, the company only wants the part of you that brings the revenue, toes the line, and does not disturb the status quo. The prevailing attitude is that your heritage is something that you can return home to at the end of the day, but certainly not take it to work because it disturbs the order of things.

Nelson Mandela famously said: “It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.”

Far too many C-suites do not cherish the freedom of expression and belonging which democracy gave us. It is sad that many business leaders are unaware that they are doing this.

How to create a more inclusive company culture

The challenge this Heritage Day is to make every day a Heritage Day; a day in which we can bring the full us to the table and exercise the rights we have not to be discriminated against because of our gender; our race, our class, our creed our colour and, even our beliefs.

  • – If we are good enough to be picked for the effect we can have on the bottom line, we are good enough to wear our isiphandlas, speak our languages, ditch the ties and the pencil skirts.
  • – Make every day a Mopani Worm day – or a Braai Day, it does not matter, just make sure your workplace has space for every employee and every part of that employee. That is what being a South African is all about actually. Diverse people unite, or as the /Xam motto beneath our coat of arms tells us: !ke e: /xarra //ke
  • – Make a difference this September 24, not just for one day, but for every day. Teach people about who you are and learn who they are – and together create a culture of respecting everyone’s heritage in the process.

Lucia Mabasa is managing director of pinpoint one human resources, a proudly South African Black women owned executive search firm providing critical c-suite, specialist and critical skills solutions across industries and professional disciplines, in South Africa and across Africa.

Visit www.pinpointone.co.za to find out more.

lucia mabasa
lucia mabasa - managing director of pinpoint one human resources