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NO. 40 OCT 1, 2015
Diversity in the Workplace
A multicultural environment helps the UN thrive
 NO. 40 OCTOBER 1, 2015

 

Some UN staff members based in Nairobi, Kenya (COURTESY OF ZHANG RUI)

UN employees come from all over the world. Navigating work efficiently in such a culturally diversified team is by no means a great challenge for each of them. Zhang Rui from China, a program officer at the UN Environmental Program based in Nairobi, Kenya, authorized Beijing Review  to publish her thoughts on the issue. Edited excerpts of his article follow:

This year the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the UN. This September also marks my 10th year of working for the international institution. From the UN Secretariat Office in New York City to Montreal and Nairobi, my work deals with cultures and people from all over the world on a day-to-day basis. This probably makes my 10-year stint feel shorter than in any monocultural work environment to start with.

The UN is arguably the most culturally diverse and complex organization in the world. Respect for diversity is one of the three fundamental principles for everyone who works for the UN, along with professionalism and integrity. It frames the spirit of this international organization in an ideal light and is among the most valuable assets of the UN's work. Our diversity is also rooted by genuine respect for human rights, and the fundamental freedom and sovereign equality of member states.

From 1945 through today, the number of UN member states has grown from 51 to 193. The scope of the UN's work has also expanded from foundational security and human rights to economic, social, industrial and environmental dimensions, covering nearly every aspect that requires international cooperation and governance. More streams of cultures and professionals joining together make the UN culture richer and more diverse all the time.

Staff members of the UN are recruited globally with a consideration for the representation of all the UN member states. The allocation of staff quota among the member states also takes into account their contribution to the organization. So it is not a surprise to see more UN staff members from donor countries, such as the United States, Japan and Western Europe nations.

For the organization as a workplace, the respect for diversity in the UN is essentially practiced as cultural sensitivity and conformity. For example, the UN official holiday observations include the most important holidays for both Christian and Muslim communities--Christmas, Easter and Eid. The UN offices also respect and conform to their host countries' customs on national holidays. From time to time, the UN hosts different cultural festivals to present art, food, fashion, movies and more from different countries and to promote cultural exchange.

How does this diversity influence the behavior of people who are working in this environment?

First of all, the default setting of embracing cultural diversity has created strong cultural awareness. "Where are you from?" is the most commonly asked question in the UN. Employees meanwhile are very comfortable to show interest in and respect of others' cultural background and identity. By acknowledging such diversity, people are more willing to understand others in different cultural contexts. This, needless to say, has a positive effect on building constructive and forgiving workplace relationships.

The cultural diversity is often manifested as a personalized diversity in the UN. Each individual comes to the UN with his or her own cultural heritage. That cultural heritage then gets adapted along the course of an international career and as a result of the exposure to so many unique cultures. This reminds us that the cultural "code" in the UN work environment cannot be simply interpreted with a stereotyped view from any intercultural communication book.

This underscores the importance of effective communication between colleagues. In a multicultural environment, clarity is the basic guaranteed quality for effectiveness. While the art of communication may depend on the individual's language skills, clarity of purpose, plans and expectations is a must that cannot be compromised in any case.

Nonetheless, much has been misinterpreted or misunderstood due to existing cultural differences. For example, my Chinese or Asian colleagues often feel hesitant to say "no" to others or to draw a boundary as they need and should. This seems to leave a cultural imprint and reveals its vulnerability in front of other cultures. Apparently, some things still stick with us as we go from country to country.

The UN is a rather formal work place. Yet, by embracing all cultures around the world with open arms, the UN as an employer creates a space for diversity and inclusiveness at the same time. That space is essential for us to be ourselves, value our identity and respect others' backgrounds as well.

Copyedited by Mara Lee Durrell

Comments to liuyunyun@bjreview.com

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