Global Diversity and Inclusion and the Perils of Ignoring Local Norms

Edward Kopko, 
CEO and Publisher,
Bold Business

When enterprises go global, diversity is inevitable. The simple act of engaging in commerce beyond the borders of one’s own country will expose a company to a wide range of people who might not share the same social values and beliefs. That’s just the nature of global business.

My first exposure to broadly defined diversity awareness came early in my business career when I became a chairman and CEO through an acquisition of an international company at the young age of 32. During my next 23 years as CEO, I oversaw several thousand employees across over 40 countries from which my company operated. Through my travels and interactions, I came to appreciate the many aspects of diversity. The global world is a wonder to behold. This diverse set of employees influenced my management approach and style and helped me grow as a leader.

It also taught me about unconscious bias that challenges the work of efficient teams. I personally faced such bias initially as many employees had difficulty accepting such a young CEO running a large organization, particularly one that did not hire them. Making matters more complicated were the cultural nuances that often added a wrinkle to the managerial equation, turning straightforward diversity and inclusion notions on their heads.

But ultimately, the diversity I was exposed to by helming a global enterprise was soon followed by the inclusion necessary for success. And it came with an important lesson: diversity and inclusion are great and worth aspiring to, but it is perilous to ignore local norms and values.

The Diversity Wheel

The term “diversity” usually conjures up notions of specific protected classes, like those mandated by government regulation, and they often include classifications based on gender, religion, race, and sexual orientation, among others.

However, true diversity involves much more, and to get a better grasp of the scope, one must consider “The Diversity Wheel”.

The Diversity Wheel was first introduced in Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener’s 1990 book, Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource. Today it has evolved to be a very encompassing tool to help understand how different and diverse we all are. The wheel evolution I like best is depicted above. It depicts five different layers of diversity. The layers are personality, internal, external, organizational and era. There are 28 different dimensions across the 5 layers. Each of the 28 dimensions has numerous possibilities.

For example, according to the United Nations, there are 195 countries of national origin. There are many gradations of age and generation, think baby boomers, millennials and gen z. Gender now is no longer just a 2 choice set. Every person can be (and usually is) many different combinations of some of the 28 dimensions. It is what makes many of us unique yet also similar. We can share some dimensions but mathematically it is virtually impossible to share all. We are all diverse and unique!

Diversity Is Much More Than the Seven Internal Dimensions

Today, in the United States, much focus is on the seven internal dimensions of diversity: age, race, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, national origin, and physical/mental ability. The U.S. has gotten particularly aggressive with attempting to ensure that companies have diversity across these dimensions with regulations and laws that force them to comply with some regulatoror legislator-imposed diversity metric. For example, in September of 2018, the State of California enacted a law mandating that each publicly held company with a headquarters in the state must have at least one female on its board of directors. In addition, by 2021, every corporate board in the state that has six or more directors must have at least three female directors.

Even the National Football League has gotten in on the “mandated diversity” action. In 2003, the organization established the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to include ethnic minorities in the interviewing process for head coaching and senior operation jobs.

While the U.S. has seven dimensions deemed worthy of mandated protections, the U.K. has nine, with the Equality Act of 2010 adding pregnancy and marital status to the list.

But why do we have laws about gender, race, ethnicity and the like when we might be excluding other traits listed in the Diversity Wheel? How do we pick which class is more important than the other? Everybody has a different facet of diversity–why is one person’s particular facet of diversity more important than another person’s particular facet of diversity?

I learned very quickly that diversity is much more than just gender, race, age, sexual orientation, nationality, ethnicity and physical/mental ability. If I wanted to be an effective leader, I had to learn to be open to diversity across all dimensions. I also learned one dimension should not be valued more than another.

Across my company, we had employees who came from very different belief systems, religiously as well as culturally. I learned that I could not universally apply my U.S.-learned values and systems of understanding for my interactions with all employees across the world. They were different in many different ways and my leadership style had to adapt. One-size-fits-all leadership would simply not work.

For example, in India, our office layouts needed to be done with an understanding of our employees’ religious and cultural beliefs. Why? Because regardless of whatever religious harming policies may mandate, there were still deep-rooted, ingrained attitudes that caused friction between employees. Any managerial plan had to take this into account.

We even planned a prayer room in our Hyderabad facility, which was a practice that was spreading among other companies in the country as well.

There were other examples, as well

In some of our Asian offices, employees would not express a different opinion directly to a senior manager. They would nod acceptance regardless of if they thought the idea or plan presented was good or bad. This particular cultural foible had to be taken into consideration whenever necessary feedback was considered a foregone conclusion, as it certainly wasn’t a foregone conclusion!

I also learned very quickly that some of my sport analogies were simply not understandable to many of my employees. How could someone who never watched a football game understand that we are in the “red zone” or “it is time for a run up the middle?”

Any business that operates in other countries will inevitably become steeped in a culture that is foreign to the one it originates in, and that means a whole spectrum of diversity far more complex than the seven internal dimensions of the Diversity Wheel.

It also means that any regulatory mandates demanding diversity within the narrow definition of it are ignoring the bigger picture: there’s more to diversity than just those seven dimensions.

The Problem With Regulatory Mandates

How did we come to say that the seven internal dimensions are so important? Clearly, when it comes to global enterprises, they’re not the most important.

The truth is, everyone is diverse in different ways, ways that extend beyond the seven dimensions, and we should allow for diversity and inclusion to evolve based on a particular country’s own beliefs and values. While businesses in the U.S. may fall under the scope of various regulatory mandates that create protected classes and enforce diversity, it would be folly to apply that same prism of U.S. values to countries where such civil rights haven’t even been granted.

For example, in Poland, national attitudes toward the LGBTQ community make adherence to an inclusion policy involving sexual preference a tough prospect. Should a business that operates in that country blindly and rigidly stick to such a diversity and inclusion initiative?

And what of Saudi Arabia, where only very recently were women granted permission to drive a car, but the prevailing attitudes still keep them out of the workforce? Any business doggedly trying to enforce a diversity and inclusion policy based on gender would have a tough time finding success.

While someone with U.S.-based sensibilities might find the attitudes in these particular countries abhorrent, the real issue for businesses isn’t the local cultural norms and values. No, the real issue is the regulatory mandate that ignores these local attitudes.

Imagine having a business in Russia, Egypt or Iran, where LGBT tolerance is low, and trying to impose LGBT mandates that ignore those deep-rooted cultural values. How successful could a business be in trying to impose U.S.-based moralist attitudes on such places where those views simply aren’t shared?

What about promoting gender-based diversity and inclusion initiatives in countries that historically don’t share the same gender-equality views as the western half of the hemisphere? Such initiatives in global businesses set up in countries like Pakistan, Morocco and Jordan would likely be doomed from the start!

I came to the conclusion that trying to set mandates for diversity without taking into account the “lay of the land” just wasn’t a smart thing to do. In fact, for the sake of business success, it was actually quite perilous!

Local Values as a Guide to Diversity and Inclusion

A regulatory initiative born from a U.S.-based sense of gender equality or desire to combat ageism (or anything else viewed as impeding diversity and inclusion) can be a noble thing. But when applied beyond U.S. borders, local values can make such a unilateral application problematic–and even detrimental to the success of the business.

When it comes to global business, local idiosyncrasies need to play a role in shaping and setting diversity and inclusion targets. After all, why do you have to write laws that say this particular trait or aspect of diversity trumps that one? Should we have a law that says we should have a mixture of people with tattoos? You have to apply some common sense to this concept. It can’t just be some regulatory entity imposing restrictions and guidelines with neither a care nor grasp of what values and beliefs are in play in the business’ host country.

From my global perspective, I’m all for diversity and inclusion, but I’m not for mandates. I believe diversity and inclusion should be applied in a local way. With my time spent in offices far from U.S. soil, I learned that my values don’t necessarily always apply. Therefore, when you’re global, your diversity and inclusion should be local.

A one-size-fits-all mindset and unwavering moralistic attitudes simply do not work in a global company. Rules, norms and issues are different in various countries. For any measure of long-term success–whether it be for diversity and inclusion initiatives, or even just plain old business success itself–there’s no other way.


Edward Kopko served as chairman and CEO of Butler International for 23 years, overseeing a wide array of worldwide offices and sophisticated assignments. While there, he witnessed firsthand the importance of diversity and inclusion for longterm business success, and managed a global workforce that encompassed a multitude of diversity dimensions, ultimately supervising the integration of employees with extremely disparate backgrounds. In addition, he was the CEO and publisher of Chief Executive Magazine, a publication geared towards providing insight for and on C-level executives. His articles have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes and numerous other media outlets. He currently helms the Bold Business Group, a multifaceted media, technology and business solutions company that operates on an international level, with offices in New York City, St. Petersburg, FL, Raleigh, NC, the Philippines and Costa Rica. He is a graduate from Columbia University with a Master’s degree in Economics. Ed is a firm believer in the notion that no true measure of business accomplishment on a global scale is possible without diversity, and that once inclusion enters into the equation, success will follow.