On September 15, 2013 Nina Davuluri became the first woman of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America. Ms. Davuluri is, however, far more than just another pretty face. Born in Syracuse, New York, Ms. Davuluri graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science and intends to use the scholarship money that she won with the award to pursue a medical degree. She plans to use her title to encourage women and girls to pursue STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). As the winner of the Miss America pageant, Ms. Davuluri is emblematic of the continuously changing ethnic and racial makeup of this country, and a reminder that diversity is the norm. The ability of companies to thrive, grow and manage risk depends in part on their ability to navigate a diverse world.

Cultural competence entails an ability to understand, communicate with, and effectively interact with people of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. It has emerged as an important skill for companies to cultivate within their workforce. For example, managers are increasingly offered training in cross-cultural awareness, diversity and inclusion, and conflict management. These capabilities improve employee engagement, internal communication, and knowledge of and respect for diverse cultures, ethnicities, gender identifications, sexual orientations and religious beliefs. This, in turn, can reduce worker alienation, costly discrimination suits and unnecessary terminations, and create a more productive and harmonious workforce. A demonstrated sensitivity to diversity and inclusion from senior management can also attract diverse clients and create new business opportunities.

According to Myriam Siftar, President of MTM LinguaSoft, “Everyone understands the problems of communication caused by lack of a common language, but many are unaware of the communication problems that can be caused by culture. That’s because people don’t usually recognize the ways in which their culture affects their own attitudes and expectations. The reality is that individual assumptions, based on cultural differences, can be a major barrier to effective communication, even when you’re all ‘speaking English.’ Cultural competence training can help avoid costly failures of communication.”

From an organizational perspective, cultural competence may be associated with a company’s broader objectives pertaining to diversity and inclusion. The business case for diversity and inclusion is multifaceted. Anthony Gay, Associate General Counsel of Exelon, the parent company of Philadelphia’s PECO, notes that “from our perspective, we want to have a broad range of inputs to make the best decisions and take advantage of strategic business opportunities. Diversity and inclusion also presents the opportunity to fully engage and utilize 100% of the skills and talents of our workforce.”

Mr. Gay summarizes Exelon’s strategy with respect to workplace diversity and inclusion as emphasizing empowerment. “First, our goal is to make sure that everyone comes to work feeling that the company values them, their input and work product. Second, we want everyone to feel that we have created an environment where they are able to achieve to their fullest capability.” Exelon’s diverse workforce spans all cultures, ethnicities and religious beliefs, members of the LGBT community, veterans, and those with physical challenges. Mr. Gay observes that a focus on diversity and inclusion also provides companies with the opportunity to reflect the community that they serve.

As a Miss America contestant, Ms. Davuluri ran on the platform “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency.” She launched “Circles of Unity,” a social media campaign to promote multiculturalism and civil discourse shortly after being crowned. She overcame a racist backlash that erupted on social media after she was crowned, and by stepping into the spotlight as Miss America, has brought awareness to diversity as a significant imperative for our time.

To learn more about how cultural competence skills and diversity and inclusion policies may help your business manage legal risk, please contact Dina Leytes.

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