Every country has its own legacy of hurt. Every place has its history of exclusion, its discrimination, its web of attitudes and systems that fuel and justify marginalization. Every country has dominant and subordinate groups and unhealthy power structures. As I began work on rolling out diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives globally for Sodexo (the food services and facilities management company), I learned that one of my most important tasks was uncovering and seeking to understand those legacies.
Identity — the way it shows up and even the ways we define it — can differ enormously from place to place. I learned that I needed to strike a balance between rolling out a global initiative with a universal vision while at the same time allowing enough flexibility for that vision to be contextualized and take root locally. By doing this, we were able to open space for effective insider-outsider partnerships — allowing outsiders like me and other leaders to play the role of catalyst, while relying on insider change agents and the local ecosystem to determine the best pressure points and rhythm for change.
To make organizations more diverse, inclusive, and equitable, we need to be willing to disrupt the status quo. Making our work local does not mean backing away from the difficult challenges, but it does require that we develop a global mindset, listen to local diversity champions, and constantly fine-tune our own self-awareness and intellectual curiosity. If we do those things, we will be better positioned to grasp the dynamics of a complex interconnected world and find ways to ensure that our efforts resonate locally and contribute to lasting change.
Power dynamics: a superficial attempt to be ‘local’
Natasha Winkler-Titus, President of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in South Africa, told me of an international mining company that set up mining operations in South Africa. They invested billions, negotiated with the local chief to operate in the area, and completed the first two phases of development. But they were forced to halt the project due to local protests about the placement of the mine, corruption by the chief, and the lack of economic and job opportunities trickling down to the community. Although they had done thorough research and mapping of natural resources, what they hadn’t realized was that the local chief was not acting in the best interests of the community. Without taking the time to listen to a broad variety of voices, they stumbled into a trap of reinforcing harmful power inequities. Perhaps they believed that they were respecting local customs by negotiating with the chief and did not probe further to get more well-rounded advice about how best to navigate the crosscurrents and history of the place. At its essence, the company’s approach was top-down: it imposed its overarching objective without taking time to unpack the local dynamics. Ultimately, the mining company tried to be local but failed because its attempt was too superficial.
For me, this story epitomizes the dilemma of localizing a global change strategy. How do we understand and respect local values and simultaneously push for change? To what extent do we adapt to each context? If our initiatives are purely locally driven, might that not perpetuate the unhealthy power dynamics that already exist, as it did in the mining example in South Africa? Is it better then to enact a more universal, centralized approach to inclusion change efforts? So, if an organization comes with a top-down DEI agenda — in the same way the mining company started without true local buy-in — don’t we risk those initiatives being at best ineffective, and at worst sabotaged? And what happens when a global organization’s values come into conflict with local ways of doing things, or even with local laws?
A transversal approach to global diversity management
Mustafa F. Özbilgin, a Turkish-born British sociologist and Professor of Organizational Behavior at Brunel Business School in London, talks about three different global diversity management approaches. The first is a universal approach that rolls out a centralized top-down policy across varying countries and contexts. The second is a local approach that is designed in-country and tailored to a specific context. The third is a blend of the two. Özbilgin calls this a transversal approach in which there is a global framework that shapes and guides the work, along with the flexibility and autonomy to adapt it locally.
A local, universal, or transversal approach?
I found the transversal approach was most suited to implementing a successful global change initiative. Although a universal approach seeks to save time and money by using commonly developed tools and strategies, organizations can struggle to get their initiatives embedded and embraced locally. For example, a global food and package delivery company encountered challenges when the company’s US-headquartered lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) employee resource group (ERG) asked that all employees around the globe be given a Pride rainbow badge to display in celebration and support of LGBTQ staff. This seemed like a powerful way to make allies visible and to create safety zones for employees who may not be open at work about their sexuality. But employees in Egypt balked. Same-sex relationships were illegal there. LGBTQ employees had learned to be discreet for their safety. No one wanted to carry the burden of a visible label that might endanger them.
In contrast, Subarna Malakar told me that when he led global DEI at Ahold Delhaize, they had a very local DEI strategy, in keeping with their overall segmented business model with 22 distinct local brands. Ahold Delhaize, a Dutch company, is one of the largest food retail groups with supermarkets and convenience stores that have local brand recognition —such as Albert Heijn in Europe, and Giant, Stop & Shop, and Food Lion in the US. Subarna said that to appeal to local consumers, the shops hired people who lived within a five-mile radius. They didn’t have global hiring targets; rather, needs were determined with a view toward reflecting the communities they served. The idea was that if the staff reflected the community, the shop would cater better to its customers. This meant that, for example, in a heavily Muslim neighborhood of Amsterdam, most employees were Muslim, and the shops sold halal food that appealed to the community.
This type of local approach is very appealing, but implementation can be inconsistent without broader accountability measures in place. If it is not a part of an overall global strategy, it may not benefit from tried-and-true interventions nor be enriched and stretched by cross-regional exchanges, best practice sharing, and networks.
A transversal approach customizes strategies to local environments while ensuring a consistent global brand and broader accountability. It is a delicate balancing act between not reinventing the wheel and, at the same time, avoiding the imposition of cookie-cutter tactics that risk replicating the very dynamics of cultural imperialism that DEI seeks to challenge. Imposing aspects of a dominant culture onto another less-powerful community is an easy trap to fall into. It takes more time and up-front investment, but ultimately a transversal approach benefits from being informed by best practices without imposing them and thus has the greatest potential for lasting success.