Managing (linguistic) diversity in MNCs

Overview of the key insights in our HRMJ paper and reflections from behind the scenes

In October 2021 Anne-Wil already announced our latest paper, promising a more extensive write-up later. So here it is! I'll give you not just an overview of the key insights from our paper, but also a look behind the scenes, discussing the trials and tribulations of crafting a conceptual paper.

Ciuk, S.; Śliwa M; Harzing, A.W. (2023) Implementing the EDI agenda in multinational companies: A framework for the management of (linguistic) diversityHuman Resource Management Journal, vol 33, no. 4, pp. 868-888. Available online... Publisher's version (free access) - Related blog post


Few would now challenge the importance of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) agenda. However, both academic and practitioner reports indicate that despite the declared commitment, multinational companies still struggle to effectively implement their EDI initiatives. Therefore, we asked ourselves a question: how can we help MNCs foster inclusion? To what extent can we use global diversity management in these efforts?

The available literature has already provided an impressive array of recommendations. What we quickly noticed was that there was considerable scope to benefit from pulling together ideas from diverse disciplines. Such an integration stood a much better change of not only advancing our conceptual thinking about EDI but could also help us develop a practical framework that could be of benefit to practitioners.

Two steps to enable change

Our starting premise was that in order to fully embed inclusion in organisational structures and practice, we first need to think differently about diversity and differences so that we can then act differently. Not only is it important to view diversity as a positive force, but it is also crucial to look critically at how we approach differences. Viewing differences in simple binary terms such as “white” and “non-white” can inadvertently entrench perceptions and perpetuate images of foreignness and distance. It can mask variety, for example in relation to neurodiversity, and the changing, fluid nature of categories, as the case of gender clearly illustrates.

Therefore, we argue that we need to approach differences in a nuanced way. We need to start by challenging simple, dualistic thinking about differences, common in everyday thinking, and instead embrace their fluidity.  This is a steppingstone for initiating a change in practice. Acting differently requires a holistic approach focused on both members of the dominant and non-dominant groups which promotes collective reciprocal efforts. We see reciprocity, when consistently implemented, as a foundational principle enabling a change in action. The figure below summarises how these two steps move us from organisational exclusion to organisational inclusion.

Illustration: working towards linguistic inclusion

Shall we discuss an example to better understand the suggested framework? Let’s consider linguistic inclusion. It can provide a great illustration of our points. Linguistic diversity is a surprisingly often overlooked dimension of diversity, despite the prevalence of language-based discrimination. It is well-documented that individuals and groups often get unfairly treated because of the language they speak, the features of their speech (e.g. fluency, vocabulary range, intonation) and accent (e.g. foreign sounding, regional).

Studies have consistently demonstrated that linguistic clues can serve as a basis for value judgements about non-language related qualities, such as people’s professional competence, trustworthiness or even intelligence. It is thus not difficult to imagine how serious the consequences of language-based discrimination can be for individuals, groups and organisations as a whole.

Step one: changing how we think about language diversity

Let’s now consider again our framework. Linguistic diversity is frequently viewed as a problem largely attributed to non-standard language users and as a barrier to be overcome. Language differences are often framed in binary terms as linked to native-non-native language users. The latter are typically presumed to be superior and used as a benchmark for language competence which tends to be viewed is narrow, generic terms. Attention is focused on addressing the ‘deficiency’ of the non-dominant group members who are required to adjust to the dominant group. How would a shift towards linguistic inclusion look like if we were to apply our framework? Here are our suggestions (summarised in the Figure below):

  • The first step would be to move away from viewing language diversity as a barrier and to approach it as a positive. Here, language differences would be viewed as a resource that organisations could leverage.
  • Binary distinctions between “native” and “non-native” speakers would stop underpinning our thinking about language differences. Instead, we would work with the premise that language competences are fluid. As linguists often emphasize, depending on context (e.g. the topic of a conversation, the task at hand) one can be simultaneously communicatively competent and incompetent.
  • Fostering linguistic inclusion also entails challenging the implicit assumption of linguistic superiority of standard language users who may inadvertently perpetuate challenges in intercultural communication, for example by using idiomatic language and inability to adjust to others.
  • Finally, instead of focusing on abstract language competences in a single language, an inclusive approach recognises that every person’s language profile is unique and can often span over more than one language. Here, the ability to draw on multiple, often varied, linguistic resources from different languages, which is described in applied linguistics as pluri-lingual competence - gains in value and prominence as it helps to achieve communicative goals. 

Step two: promoting reciprocity to achieve linguistic inclusion

Let’s now consider the required changes in behaviours.

  • The second step in our model applied to linguistic diversity entails the embedding of positive attitudes towards language differences and openness to non-standard language use. This is crucial as our attitudes not only influence our judgements of others but also affect our understanding. They are therefore fundamental for effective communication.
  • In this context, all staff are required to adjust their communicative behaviour to others. Linguistic accommodation is seen as a two-way process.
  • In order to facilitate these reciprocal efforts, organisations need to consider and support the communicative competences of all of their staff, regardless of their linguistic background.

We recognise that our generic framework needs to be adjusted to contexts if it is to help organisations implement their EDI agendas.  As we have argued in our paper, achieving inclusion requires changes in both how we think and how we act in relation to diversity.

Some reflections from behind the scenes

A few colleagues have asked us how we have developed our ideas for this paper. The short answer to this question is: iteratively and through very many discussions, reflections and refinements. There was certainly a healthy dose of trials and errors, high hopes and bitter disappointments along the way before our thinking had finally crystallised and our paper had found its home.

When we first started discussing the possibility of collaborating on a joint publication, we had a very different paper in mind. At that time, Sylwia and Martyna had just completed a substantial research project on linguistic diversity in multinational enterprises. The data was rich and highly promising in terms of possibilities for theorising. As qualitative researchers, we were keen to follow the data as a platform for developing our conceptual ideas.

This is when we joined forces with Anne-Wil who shared our research interests and, just as we had suspected, also our work ethic. As it also turns out, Anne-Wil and Martyna also know a lot of great cafes in London, an asset which we put to great use. Bill's in Baker Street provided a vibrant setting for our first meeting, while V&A café witnessed our first major break-through, all accompanied by lovely lunches or teas. 

The more we discussed and challenged each other, the more we expanded and revised our original ideas. It became clear to us that what we were in fact working on was not a typical manuscript: our passion for the topic has driven us towards a position paper. Our data became an illustration of our argument rather than its source. Deciding on the right outlet for our paper and the most conducive form for our arguments we agreed, with a heavy heart, to make a decisive choice to drop our findings and focus purely on the articulation of our conceptual ideas. As it turns out, that was a very good decision, although at the time it felt risky and somewhat drastic.

The Human Resource Management Journal looked like a very suitable outlet for our work. It was very interested in conceptual work but also had a strong focus on the relevance for practice. This not only gave us space to fully unpack our ideas but it also encouraged us to think seriously about the accessibility of our ideas to a wider audience. Working with the editor and a set of committed reviewers pushed us further, even when we thought that our argument was water-tight. Working so intensively on this paper with two other highly committed colleagues, who turned into friends, made this experience so much more rewarding.

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