The Workplace: Profiting from Diversity

By Ivar Ekman

STOCKHOLM: Johan Talenti, a 43-year-old Swedish entrepreneur, says he does not see himself as a do-gooder or activist.

"You don't run a company for the sake of taking social responsibility," he said, sitting in the offices of Silentium, a fast-growing telemarketing company that he founded in 1998. "You do it to make money."

But he has also done something that he thinks many more business leaders should do: He has made a conscious effort to diversify his staff. And, he said, the results have contributed to Silentium's success.

This might not sound unusual, especially from an American perspective. In the United States, promoting workplace diversity has been part of business planning for years. Many big companies even have a chief diversity officer. But in Sweden, as in much of Europe, this has simply not been the case.

When Silentium first started, Talenti said he threw out applications from people with Middle Eastern names (most immigrants in Sweden come from countries like Iraq, Iran and Turkey), thinking that since the company's business was the spoken word - sales of banking services and insurance over the phone - an accented Swedish was a no-no.

But the company started showing the strains of quick growth, and recruitment became a problem.

When a new human resources manager suggested that in Sweden - a country where the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says more than 12 percent of the population is foreign-born, similar to the United States and Germany, and more than both France and Britain - an immigrant's accent was just one dialect among others, Talenti decided to throw the dice.

He has not looked back. By opening up to nonnatives, Silentium found a big pool of highly motivated workers, and quickly discovered that their accent was not a problem at all. Today, as many as 40 percent of the work force at some Silentium call centers have immigrant backgrounds.

"We don't measure it systematically, but the feeling among my managers is that the employees with immigrant backgrounds push harder," Talenti said.

Despite the fact that most immigrants to Sweden have comparatively high education levels, only 54 percent of immigrants are part of the work force, compared with 80 percent for native Swedes.

This, experts say, is a potential problem for society as well as the would-be workers, as a large resource goes untapped and as alienation may set in among the unemployed, especially in later generations. But it also may be a problem for Swedish companies, especially in these days of fierce global competition.

"Recruiting the best talent with the highest competence is more important than ever, and to be able to do so Swedish companies must look beyond ethnicity," said Farboud Rezania, a researcher at the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, himself with Iranian roots. "Those who manage to get new and old values and cultures to fit under the same roof are the ones who will win."

So far, Rezania said, Swedish companies have had limited success.

He points to what happened after the EU expansion in May 2004 as a warning signal. Sweden, Britain and Ireland were the only countries that did not enforce restriction of movement for migrant workers from the new EU entrants. While hundreds of thousands of Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians went to Britain and Ireland, only about 20,000 went to Sweden in the first two years.

Part of the explanation obviously lies in language; more people know English than Swedish, and thus have an easier time finding a job there.

But Rezania and other researchers also say that Sweden has an attitude problem, where an immigrant is always seen firstly as an immigrant.

The solution, they say, is partly in the hand of European governments which need to allow immigrants to move more quickly into the work force and provide better language training.

But it is also very much in the hands of employers. Like Silentium, many more must learn not only to see the hurdles, but also the opportunities; realizing that immigrants have particular skills, like language, and also often a very strong will to succeed.

Talenti said businesses must learn to adapt their organizations to deal with the challenges that come with a more diverse workplace. After opening up the recruitment process, Silentium then went on to allow some new immigrant hires to reach the management level of the company.

Talenti said he also realized that he had to communicate in a much more straightforward manner when talking to a work force with a diverse cultural background.

Rezania said he was encouraged by signs that big employers beyond fields like telemarketing and fast food are now aware of the issue and are looking to refine their organizations.

"Before, it was hard for both society and businesses to accept that you could be called Hassan and be a trained economist," he said. "But these things are beginning to change."

Source : International Herald Tribune

No comments: