An important part of the fabric of Singapore, diversity helps us thrive and retain our spot as a major player in the global business landscape. Recently, there has been much debate on political and social forums about the veracity of the claim that a diverse workforce helps businesses and the economy thrive. Singapore has witnessed a growing distaste for the many real and assumed implications associated with racial and nationality-based diversity. Some of these anxieties were amplified because of the unique stresses of the global pandemic, but that alone does not explain their stridency.
Some have called for the burden of proof to fall on companies looking to employ foreigners, that they are training and developing local employees to ensure a level playing field for all — even as MOM registered an all-time high of 92,100 job vacancies in June this year.
Should diversity still be a goal?
In this scenario, is workplace diversity still a goal that every company should strive for? The business case for establishing a truly diverse workforce grows more compelling each year. The impact of a diverse workforce on the bottom lines of businesses, as proven by multiple studies, makes the answer a no-brainer.
Singapore is at a fork in the road: we can close ourselves and lean toward protectionism for the short-term comfort or we can make intelligent choices to continue to stay on top in the global new normal.
Several workplace actions can turn the foreign talent issue into an opportunity as opposed to a zero-sum game. It is better that we guide ourselves with proven best practices instead of relying on blunt tools, such as quotas and restrictions.
Re-examine workforce decisions
To ensure equal opportunity and create a level playing field, businesses need to examine their talent assessment and decision-making process. Line managers making key talent decisions based on how they “feel” cannot be the best way. The decisions need to be backed by behavioural evidence and performance data. Training line managers to overcome their own cognitive biases has been proven to enhance objectivity in talent decisions. Hiring and promotion decisions, too, should be made by creating, reviewing, or even resetting competency frameworks to ensure that the knowledge, skills, abilities, or others (KSAO) of the job are right for both current and future performance.
Leverage the global talent pool
Businesses that hire the best people for the job regardless of gender or ethnicity will also benefit from having the top talent in their workforce. The talent war is raging, made fiercer by the escalated rate of digitalisation that has made remote work the norm. Now, anyone from anywhere can work for a company that is based in Singapore.
To hire and retain top talent, businesses need to create an environment that enables them to perform at their best. One way to do this is to equip employees with the skills and platforms to collaborate effectively, thus inculcating a culture of collaboration through differences. A recent example from our work with multinational companies in Singapore is the structuring of regional talent development programmes. This included pre-programme assessments of individual attributes and biases intended to increase awareness for change, where necessary. In-programme training on cultural biases and empathy, cross-team learning projects, coaching and mentoring, and a top-down approach to an inclusive organisation culture should all form integral parts of such talent development programmes.
Companies must also coach the local population working in MNCs to be more open to foreign assignments. This would hone their skills further, thus making themselves and the Singapore workforce attractive and competitive in the global arena.
Promote social equity
Workplaces can fall into the trap of mirroring the sociocultural dynamics of their geographic location. A diverse workforce fosters innovation in ways that homogeneous environments rarely can. But this cannot be left to chance. Businesses must actively promote and nurture social equity via private-public partnerships to address structural unemployment and narrow existing wage gaps. This includes creating skills upgrade programmes for displaced workers and sharing productivity gains from digitalisation with employees. There are several examples of upskilling programmes by Singapore-based employers, while young start-ups can provide the blueprint for wider employee ownership programmes or other forms of value-sharing.
For the transfer of high-demand skills from foreign to local talent or achieving any diversity goal, workforce policies and practices need to be intentional, and outcomes tracked. In Singapore, we see a need for this, especially in financial institutions and technology companies, both of which are facing intense talent competition globally.
A systematic approach
The objective way forward is for companies to have a diversity strategy with policies that boost inclusion, a roadmap for implementing them, and a plan to measure progress over time.
This kind of systematic approach is becoming more common in other regions where diversity and inclusion are seen as a business imperative rather than optional. For example, in 2020, the US SEC made disclosures on human capital management a requirement for listed companies. The recent recommendation by the SGX RegCo on board diversity disclosure is also a step in the right direction for Singapore, albeit only at the board level.
Arriving at the right ratio
Companies in Singapore must apply the same structured approach to retain our diversity advantage.
A survey report by the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF) has found that six in ten companies incorporate diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI) as a factor of their hiring and promotion. But seven in ten have yet to introduce workplace DEI policies. The proliferation of workforce data and analytical tools allows us to do just that. The availability of data and analytical tools enables us to forecast the flow over time so that we can course-correct to achieve our diversity goals. For example, if companies want to achieve a certain local to foreign composition ratio, advanced data and analytics can model the hiring, development, promotion, and attrition rates to guide critical decisions.
Finally, even companies that have yet to institute basic programmes and anti-discrimination policies can unlock significant value when leadership commits to successful change. The most successful programmes will be ones that are outcome-focused, with specific targets, for which business leaders must remain accountable.