This posted on the LinkedIn group site, “Creating Results From Cultural Diversity”. The question, from Leah Smiley, was: “What are the differences between diversity practices in the US and Europe?”

Hello Leah,

I’m curious to see what responses you get here. I can give my perspective, but there are two caveats: 1) it is difficult to generalize about “Europe” in terms of societal trends and business practices, and 2) it is difficult to make a direct comparison between countries in Europe and the US. Dramatic differences in historical population and societal development make it clearly a case of apples and oranges.

Having said that, however, I can make a few statements about the Netherlands, the country in Europe that I am most familiar with. As in the US (or because of the US, depending on who you talk to), all economies in Europe are suffering in varying degrees because of the economic crisis. Because diversity policy is not firmly anchored and reinforced in government or business policy, many companies have simply ignored their diversity practices the past couple of years, arguing that their “priorities are elsewhere” and “it’s a question of survival”. The fact that the companies even have this choice says a lot about the state of diversity policy in this country.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Netherlands is comparable to the US in the late 1950’s in terms of awareness of the importance of a culture that encourages diversity. The Dutch constitution is clear when it comes to equal rights, but there are very few laws in place that enable diversity policy to the individual level. Most companies that do have a constructive diversity policy are the same ones that are busy with sustainability and CSR: it’s the morally right thing to do and it bolsters their image. Not because there is a legal imperative that compels them to do so.

The media reflects a society that is overwhelmingly white, and there are no charismatic leaders amongst minority communities. In fact, most minority communities are strangely silent when it comes to fighting for their equal rights.There is not a strong private litigation culture in the Netherlands and there are very few who take action if they feel they’ve been discriminated against. In fact, there is an active public service campaign that is currently running on Dutch TV that explains to people what discrimination is and what to do if you feel you’ve been discriminated against (even though it’s in Dutch, the pictures say a lot: This campaign seems to me to be clearly targeted towards those being discriminated against, rather than those doing the discriminating.

It will be interesting to watch developments in the coming months. The right wing politician Geert Wilders of the PVV party has gained significant ground by blaming minorities for the current problems in the Netherlands. Only now, after months of negotiating to form a new government, have any of the potential coalition partners said that the policies that the PVV espouses are anathematic. And then not necessarily because of the rights of minorities themselves, but more how it would look to trading partners of the Netherlands, most obviously Germany. In other words: there was an economic rationale rather than a moral or societal rationale.

And this is the key to promoting positive approaches to diversity in the Netherlands, in my opinion (and that’s why I do what I do): prove diversity as the wise economic choice. Increases in innovation, creativity, added value and increased access to diverse labor and consumer markets; decreases in personnel turnover and employee health issues. These are the drivers the Dutch understand. Don’t tell them it’s the right thing to do; tell them how it effects their bottom line.