A worldly workforce

Multicultural staff are a boon to companies expanding overseas. Why aren’t Canadian firms catching on?

Paul Beamish hired Gigi Wong because of her answer to a simple question: how would she react if a Chinese businessman belched after his meal? It was a difference in cultural etiquette he’d observed hosting Asian clients and wanted to know how a prospective employee would handle the situation. A Canadian-born job candidate said she’d politely tell the person to stop, but Wong had the correct response. “I would ignore it,” she said. “It’s a sign they are enjoying themselves.”

Thirteen years later she’s still the associate director of Asian management at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business. Beamish, director of the Asian Management Institute, was looking for someone to help set up an Ivey School of Business branch in Hong Kong, and a colleague recommended Wong, who had been working at the university registrar’s office for 10 years previously, and before that in Hong Kong as a high school teacher. He needed someone with cultural sensitivity, who could help develop teaching materials for the region, host Asian businesspeople and anticipate challenges that would arise. Wong was the perfect fit—entrepreneurial and culturally savvy.

Beamish says when it comes to expanding internationally, companies often need only look as far as their own staff to find someone with the cultural expertise. “These people are often already in an organization and should be the next incremental hire,” he says. “Too many Canadian companies are so risk-averse they don’t notice.”

According to the representatives of 833 Canadian companies surveyed by Maclean’s and Canadian Business as part of the Business Without Borders initiative, 87 per cent strongly or somewhat agree that their organization has a multicultural workforce, but only 38 per cent feel that companies generally take advantage of it to do business abroad. Among those employed in a multicultural workplace, just 63 per cent felt their own company was leveraging that advantage to conduct business internationally.

Some corporations, such as RBC Financial Group, have built diversity into their hiring processes. Their reasons are self-serving; it gives them a leg up in certain markets. Still, many Canadian firms aren’t recognizing this advantage and leaving immigrant employees in low-level positions where their multicultural knowledge goes unused.

Stephen Siu, assistant director of public relations for the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in Toronto, says that in the past 10 years, 30 per cent of Hong Kong immigrants have returned there for better job opportunities. “They were underpaid or the job they found [in Canada] was not on par with previous employment,” says Siu. “If young immigrants return to Hong Kong after graduating, within five years they can rise to a senior position.”

Corporate Canada’s risk-averse nature could be to blame. Alex Alagappan, half of Toronto-based strategic consulting company Rmagine, which focuses on helping companies enter Middle Eastern and Indian markets, says Canadian companies don’t take advantage of their multicultural staff for the same reason they continue to do 80 per cent of their international business with the U.S. “We’re comfortable dealing with Americans,” he says. “The status quo is a comfortable place to be in, and that’s the single biggest barrier we need to overcome.” Indian-born Alagappan says this means that although Canadian companies have the talent on staff to help them expand internationally, these people aren’t promoted to the proper positions.

Joan Vogelesang, CEO of Montreal-based animation software company Toon Boom, says five of the seven members of her executive team are first-generation immigrants. She’s sympathetic to the challenges new immigrants face, having been born in England and raised in the Caribbean, and thinks Canadian companies need to look past immediate differences like imperfect English and cultural customs when hiring.

With clients in 120 countries, Vogelesang says the 20 languages spoken on staff have proven invaluable when doing business internationally. “Our Spanish-speaking employees are worth their weight in gold,” she says over the phone from Colombia. “Two of our staff members speak Japanese. You can hardly do business in Japan if you don’t speak it.” She estimates business has increased by 10 per cent in markets where employees born in those countries are in charge—a fact she attributes to putting the client at ease and a deeper level of communication.

Wong, who speaks Cantonese and three other Chinese dialects, says Asian clients feel more comfortable when they can speak and write in their own language, and she is able to capture the nuances. “I can understand when someone says ‘thank you’ whether they meant a sincere thank you or ‘no thanks,’ ” she says, “and can hazard a guess whether a silence means no.” Wong works with publishers to distribute collections of business cases put together by Ivey that M.B.A. programs use as teaching material, and since she started, Ivey has developed 90 books specifically for the Asian market. In January, Wong signed a memorandum with 190 Chinese schools to develop business cases about Chinese companies to distribute around the world.

The most common way companies leverage their multicultural staff is using language skills, cited by 66 per cent of respondents to our survey, followed by knowledge of local customs, maintaining contacts and customers, and understanding the local political environment. Ashif Mawji, CEO of Upside Software in Edmonton, says this has been his experience. When Upside was thrust into the international market after scoring a contract with Hewlett-Packard—which operates in 90 countries—in its second year of business, Mawji had to hire new staff. He says it was easy to find first-generation immigrants with experience in different markets and the right qualifications in Edmonton.

The Kenyan-born Mawji says 50 per cent of his current staff were born outside of Canada, a fact visually represented by a 12-by-six-foot map near the office kitchen where employees mark their birthplace with a push pin. He says most companies probably don’t use their multicultural staff because they forget about the asset. “That’s why the map’s by the kitchen,” Mawji says. “That way we always remember who we have when going into a new area.”

Before sending someone to do business in another country, Mawji circulates a questionnaire about the region to any staff members born there. Upside has clients in approximately 150 countries, and it’s been advantageous in knowing what to expect. For example, before going to Sweden, a Swedish staff member described how the business culture is laid back and private. If the sales team went in with a typically aggressive North American style, they’d be perceived as boastful or off-putting.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of using employees’ multicultural knowledge is not in the tangible skills, but the sense of loyalty that builds for the company. “It gives them a huge sense of pride and motivates them to perform,” says Alagappan. “He or she goes back to their native country with a badge of honour being part of a management team setting up an office there.”

Wong says for the first 10 years she spent working at Western she was busy trying to absorb Canadian practices and was never asked about customs in Hong Kong. Now she feels like she’s contributing something back to her birthplace by distributing teaching materials worldwide about how to do business in China. “I’m not just doing a business transaction,” she says. “It actually means something for China and me as a Chinese person.”

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