Everyone from directors to team members can help to create an inclusive organisation

The discussion was hosted by Marcus Wallenberg Professor Rebecca Piekkari. Visiting speakers, Kristina Sweet, CEO of The Shortcut and Sami Itani, CEO of Adecco Finland and President of Finnish Athletics Federation, both work to create a more inclusive culture in the business world.

There are many forms of diversity in our society, whether it be based on gender, ethnicity, ability or educational background, which should be reflected in organisations from start-ups to multinational corporations or NGOs to academia.

Still, the speakers’ personal experiences show that there are patterns and policies that support the homogeneity of organisations.

The responsibility to overcome these patterns is shared. While the business owners and managers are responsible for creating policies that support diverse recruitments, it is the middle-management and team members that actually make a person feel included in the community, the speakers said.

The lively discussion raised great questions by the audience. To continue the discussion we interviewed our speakers of the questions left unanswered from the webinar.

How should diversity and inclusivity be acknowledged in terms of language? Should Finnish employees be expected to work in English? 

Kristina Sweet: “Of course Finnish and Swedish are the official languages, but not all jobs that claim to require Finnish actually need it for the work itself. And if you are considering hiring someone who does not speak Finnish, why not invest in their language development?”

Sami Itani: “If even one individual doesn’t speak Finnish well enough to communicate, then a meeting should be held in the lingua franca. In general, the language seldom becomes a true issue if the culture is inclusive and safe.”

Does gender make it even more difficult for foreign women to gain leadership positions?

Sweet: “I believe the overall challenges for educated foreigners are quite consistent across genders. I would love to see the data of studies on the number of foreign women in leadership positions in Finnish companies.”

Piekkari: “We do have some encouraging examples of Finnish companies being led by foreign female leaders such as Sanoma, Stora Enso or Bayer Nordic, although still few in numbers.”

How can organisations be more accessible and inclusive to people with physical disabilities?

Piekkari: “Managers should approach the issue of accessibility by embracing the idea that if a person in a wheelchair can access the premises, the building is also accessible to people with e.g. small children moving with a pram. Contemporary building technology has an equalizing effect in terms of the availability of electrical tables, LED lights, elevators and escalators.”

Sweet: “I think the best way is to walk the talk. Hire someone, invest in learning how to navigate around their disabilities, educate the team. There is no better way to support real diversity than by reflecting that in your team.”

What are the best practices for an organisation to spread the word about the importance of inclusion? 

Piekkari: “Managers can lead by example. Diversity and inclusion work should be assigned as an area of responsibility to a top manager with status as well as be integrated into hiring processes. In addition, advances in diversity and inclusion need to be measured as part of the organisation’s planning cycle.”

Itani: “The more we have people from diverse backgrounds sharing their stories, and possible obstacles that are not visible to others, the better the organisation can begin to understand the necessity of an inclusive culture. What differentiates the genuinely inclusive organisations from the rest is the small things in the mundane everyday action that create the company culture.”

How can the local employees help the inclusion of international staff?

Itani: “I believe that the implicit and emotional connectivity – informally executed most commonly – helps a lot. The first months are the most pivotal ones. We should also take into account the Finns who return back home after several years abroad who might be experiencing the so-called reverse cultural shock.”

Piekkari: “It is worth remembering that making international professionals feel included in the organisation is a collective responsibility. It might be good to recruit more than one international professional in order to justify the changes in organisational practices, systems and norms.”

Sweet: “Simple gestures like inviting your new colleague for lunch or post work drinks. You can also ask to help navigate the culture or language challenges. I believe that kindness and empathy are the starting point.”

The next KAUTE talks x Aalto University webinar on sustainable reconstruction will be on March 25.


3 views on enhancing diversity in organisations – are we biased, lazy or are the barriers structural?

How are diversity and inclusion considered in organisations in Finland today?

Piekkari: “In Finland, diversity is often discussed as a matter of equal opportunities between genders rather than a broader question of individual differences. However, a number of progressive Finnish organizations have realized that diversity is not likely to ensure success unless the organization has an inclusive environment. Overall, diversity is much more easily achieved than inclusion.”

Itani: “​The firms in Finland are slowly but steadily progressing in these matters. However, they are becoming more polarized in this. As a result, gaps in both performance and employee engagement are growing within industries. Multinational organizations are the frontrunners in diversity and inclusion, but even among them there are differences. While some have thoroughly implemented D&I into their strategy, others still perceive it as a social responsibility effort, which is a fairly conservative way to approach D&I.”

Sweet: “My experience is that comfort generally wins over diversity and inclusivity. Firms are talking about the issue, but the actions continue to lag behind. For the most part, large multinational companies, startups and early stage growth companies are still most likely to hire diverse candidates. Large companies are used to having many nationalities, may already have English as a working language and can leverage the skills in different markets. Many startups have younger teams and are by nature more global and open and therefore hire more based on skills and less on fear. And frankly, foreigners are generally paid less in Finland than their domestic equivalents which creates opportunities for startups to get higher skills for lower costs.”

What are the main barriers that prevent inclusion and diversity in organisations?

Piekkari: “Recent research shows that recruitment practices favour Finnish job applicants over foreign ones. A foreign applicant, who has equal qualifications to the Finnish applicant, is discriminated against based on a foreign-sounding name. At the same time, a sole individual, who is different from others at the workplace, may struggle and not fit in.”

Itani: “​I believe that the implicit and unidentified biases regarding minorities and their abilities are still the main issue. For instance, most men in Chairman or CEO roles would sincerely prefer to hire more women into leadership roles. But, this tends not to happen due to the so-called X factor: the similarity and, hence, assumed safety that can make the male candidates seem more appealing. Another thing is outsourced recruitment and headhunting, as many headhunters still don’t recognize these biases. Therefore safe and conservative candidates tend to proceed to the final interview stages.”

Sweet: “I think we need to consider the perceived risk for companies. Labour laws are strict here: there is not much leeway for easily replacing employees which means that recruiters take fewer risks. Even with a 6 months probationary period the cost to hire-fire-rehire is too big. I believe this heavy process creates a smaller risk profile. I also see that language continues to be the main issue. Although most Finns speak English exceptionally well, it is more comfortable, faster, precise to work in your native tongue.”

Tell us an example of the benefits of a more diverse and inclusive organisational culture.

Piekkari: “Universities are creative organizations where bright minds meet. Excellence in teaching and research is easier to achieve when individual students and professors, regardless of their background, are valued and respected for who they are. Thus, an inclusive organizational culture contributes to well-being within the entire community.”

Itani: ​”Diverse organizations perform better in business. This empirical fact is seldom even challenged anymore. Also, I believe that in terms of social performance and collegial wellbeing diverse teams tend to reward the employees more. However, a common problem for otherwise well-run businesses is that diversity isn’t managed strategically. Just placing a group of diverse people into the same team doesn’t bring much good necessarily. Similarly, company culture needs to be managed systematically. In an environment with courage and psychological safety the diversity benefits can be fully tapped.”

Sweet: “Of course there are studies showing the benefits to revenue and growth that diverse teams bring. But in addition, I think diversity, when managed well, can bring empathy, compassion, creativity, and retention. Varying perspectives can drive better design, user experience, create customer loyalty. There is also the larger societal benefit of reflecting the environment within which you operate.”

What should we next focus on in enhancing diversity in our society?

Piekkari: “The digitalized workplace can make it more difficult to foster diversity and inclusion. It is easy to exclude minority representatives, when they are ‘out of sight, out of mind’ due to the effects of the on-going pandemic. The role of team leaders in daily organizational life becomes particularly important.”

Itani: “On a societal level we need even aggressive structural reforms to boost up the process. For instance at Finnish Athletics Federation we’ve introduced quotas into boards and leadership positions, since just a sincere will of having more diverse decision-maker groups didn’t bring much results. All the three sectors – the public, the private and the NGOs – need to make them.”

Sweet: “I think we need to be honest about the challenges. I firmly believe that a good portion of the disparity in diversity is due to the comfort zone, but comfort is not an excuse. There are also systemic biases that continue to exist in leadership, in laws, and in society at large. Pretending that we are a gender equal country or that we have no racism, is not going to move us forward. Secondly, eating the elephant in one bite will not work. We need to take one small problem that we believe we can change and iterate until we get there. And thirdly, while I welcome all initiatives to bring foreigners into this great country, I believe in parallel we need more programs to get foreigners that are here to work too.”

To hear more about fostering diversity in organisations, join us for the KAUTE talks x Aalto University webinar on 2 Feb at 9.00-10.30 am. Sign up here by 31 Jan!

The event is in English.

KAUTE talks x Aalto University: Diversity and inclusion in organisations

Finnish society is becoming more diverse. Our companies operate in a global market, and our universities are increasingly internationalising both their faculties and student bodies. The most innovative and disruptive ideas tend to originate from interdisciplinary and diverse teams.

However, many bottlenecks still remain in fostering diversity and inclusion. Gender roles continue to guide young people’s choices, and a non-Finnish name may slow down career advancement.

How do multinational corporations plan and implement practices of diversity and inclusion? How can startups and NGOs from different walks of life enhance diversity and inclusion in the societies that they are embedded in?

Join us for an inspiring morning with our speakers from both academia and the business community:

  • Rebecca Piekkari, Marcus Wallenberg Professor of International Business, Aalto University
  • Sami Itani, CEO, Adecco Finland
  • Kristina Sweet, CEO, The Shortcut

Sign up to the event by Sunday 31 January through this link (opens in a new tab).

Webcasting link will be added on this page closer to the event.

KAUTE talks x Aalto University is a new webinar series bringing together representatives from the industry and academia, to discuss and learn about world-shaping phenomena of our time through focused and thought-provoking presentations. 

The webinar series is part of the official program of the Year of Research-Based Knowledge 2021. The Year of Research-Based Knowledge is a joint initiative organised by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Academy of Finland and the Federation of Finnish Learned Societies. Its aim is to make research-based knowledge even more visible and accessible, and to intensify the collaboration between organisations working with research-based knowledge.