There’s no standard definition or one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to inclusion and diversity (I&D). Yet increasingly, companies are realising that having a culture that’s both inclusive and diverse is no longer a “nice to have” but a key differentiator for attracting and keeping the talent they need to compete in today’s business environment.

How it’s defined or what those strategies look like will vary, but what’s clear is that employees are coming to expect it, and employers that fail to take notice of the changing workforce around them will be at a disadvantage.

So, when it comes to advancing I&D in Asia Pacific, a region with more than 4.5 billion people — nearly half the world’s population — which has significant cultural differences from country to country, how do we get there?

While there’s no simple or single solution, we’re starting to see in-roads, some of which are happening on the legislative level. But the greater strides are occurring at the corporate level, thanks to some multinationals (MNCs) that are taking steps to advance inclusion and diversity within their own organisations and paving the way for other employers within the region.

Who’s leading the way?

We’ve noticed a few stand-outs, including Goldman Sachs, which has been working globally and within the region to strengthen women’s pay equality, encourage hiring people with disabilities by providing internal training and outreach, and sponsor Pride events in support of the LGBT+ community.

Other organisations leading the way include HSBC, which launched its 2016 “Celebrate Pride, Celebrate Unity” campaign in late 2016 by painting its iconic lion statues outside of its Hong Kong headquarters in rainbow colours.

SB Frameworks Corp., a division of Japan-based MNC Softbank Interactive, meanwhile, has been supporting efforts to hire people with disabilities since 2009. The company also encourages hiring people with special needs at a community level, by regularly providing students of local special needs schools with opportunities to visit its office.

These may seem like “mission statement” actions in the US or UK, but taking these positions is more ambitious in Asia due to a higher level of cultural resistance. HSBC’s “rainbow lions”, for example, sparked protests from those calling for traditional family values in the region, where attitudes about women in the workforce and ethnic diversity are still evolving.

While traditional culture may not be fully prepared for I&D initiatives, the increasing number of successful women in the workplace have led companies to pay more attention to gender equality, equal pay and cultural diversity.

Early legislative strides

Where it exists, regulation in Asia tends to be more reactive than proactive. Anti-discrimination laws exist for ethnicity, disability, gender and so on. But these are penalties on employers if someone is denied a job due to discriminatory practices — it doesn’t compel them to hire from diverse groups. A few exceptions include:

• Thailand, which has a law requiring companies to hire one disabled individual for every 100 employees

• Japan, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “womenomics” initiative aims to put more women into the labour force in the hopes of increasing Japan’s growth potential

• Singapore, which is making it easier for women to climb to managerial and leadership positions by increasing the number of quality, affordable childcare centres made possible by government programmes

Where do we go from here?

Without much legislation, companies will need to work to further I&D in the region and reap the collective benefits on both the corporate and community level. To fully embrace inclusion and diversity apart from the mission statement, we recommend companies build a strong foundation by considering these six steps:

1. Get buy-in from the top. We’ve found that the most successful I&D efforts all have strong management support and dedicated teams of people to execute initiatives. Leadership support will help incorporate I&D messages into business communications and integrate I&D in all business activity, as opposed to approaching it as a separate initiative.

2. Develop a long-term I&D plan by establishing a few realistic, measurable and achievable objectives. Companies should then expand on those successes by determining what to build on, rather than trying to take on everything at once.

3. Promote the business case for I&D. Companies should increase awareness by regularly sharing the impact of a diversified culture on business development and growth.

4. Understand that talent acquisition and retention require open minds. For example, sensitivities to female or LGBT inclusion should be taken into account during senior executive selection. Steps should be taken to mitigate bias throughout the communication process. And companies must work to embed I&D principles into the talent or employee lifecycle: how they attract, select, hire, develop, promote, recognise and pay – their employees. They should use what we’ve learned from behavioural economics and “nudges” to steer people toward greater awareness, objectivity and ultimately what amounts to better decision-making on all fronts.

5. Use the power of community organisation. Informal networks of companies must band together to share policies and best practices. They should consider partnering with non-governmental organisations: such as Community Business, which connects inclusion and diversity professionals through corporate events; and Out and Equal, the first global LGBT leadership organisation for the financial industry, which now increasingly operates in Asia.

6. Share successes. Companies should tell stories to bring the benefits of successful I&D initiatives to life. We advocate sharing successes and model programs within organisations, like the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), which works to help companies meet challenges by strengthening cooperation among nations in the region.

A journey worth taking

For forward-thinking organisations considering expansion, acting on I&D is simply reflective of the environment in which they conduct business. Market labour forces tend to be diverse around gender, ethnicity, religion, beliefs, sexual preference, etc. Failure to recognise and address these differences through worker representation could potentially hinder the opportunities inherent in global expansion, including the ability to attract and keep key talent.

Research has shown that companies committed to diversity tend to outperform. For example, Fortune 5000 companies with a higher representation of women on their boards of directors have 53% greater returns on equity, and 42% greater returns on sales, according to research by Catalyst. The Center for Talent Innovation found organisations that rate highly for inclusion and diversity are 70% more likely to succeed in new markets.

The good news is we’re starting to see some progress on I&D in Asia Pacific, but there’s still enormous potential for shifting a culture that is, in effect, a patchwork of several different cultures – into one that respects our inherent differences. Now that’s a journey worth taking.