Since its foundation, ECT has promoted diversity. Our team is comprised of people from over 40 countries that work together in Munich, Germany. As the Deputy CEO of the company and a multinational myself, I stand for diversity. But doing so has not always been as easy as saying it. These are the lessons I have learned along the way.
Born into diversity
Forbach is a little northern commune right on the French border with Germany, with around 22,000 inhabitants. Being so close to the center of the German city of Saarbrücken, means that everyone in Forbach understands French and German (in the last 200 years, the town has changed nationalities eight times). During the last century, mining brought a lot of immigration, creating a community where French, Germans, Italians, Turks, Catholics and Muslims co-existed. Even if mining stopped completely in 2004, Forbach still remains as diverse a place as can be.
As a native forbachois, my mother tongue is French and I am a proud citizen of France. Naturally, I was raised listening to German as well, as my family moved to the smaller but closer-to-the-border Farébersviller when I was growing up. On the other hand, I come from Turkish parents, so my upbringing brought a different language, culture and traits to the mix. I am also a Muslim. I was born into diversity. And diversity seems to have continued in my family, as my kids have three mother tongues (German, French and Turkish).
I am a French-Turkish Muslim and I work as the Deputy CEO of ECT, an unlisted German public company based in Munich. I started working at ECT 19 years ago, originally planning to spend only five years here in order to get my first work experience, improve my German and my English (our company uses English as its business language); and then to move to Luxembourg, a place closer to Farébersviller, where both German and French are spoken. But then I started to become interested in all the opportunities ECT could offer me. Suddenly, I was doing a company-paid MBA. Then, something happened I never expected when I joined ECT: I was promoted to Deputy CEO.
ECT is not a run-of-the-mill company. As our CEO Marshall Kavesh stated in a previous blog post, diversity has always been a big part of our working culture. Whenever we have open positions, we value candidates for what they can bring to our company, including their religion, preferences, gender and country of origin. We provide free German and English lessons to all interested employees in order to help them adapt and take part in our business and our city. We see our different perspectives and upbringings as assets to our working culture and features. And we are constantly aware that our customs may differ from someone else’s, so we are inherently open-minded. Yet, even here, there are situations that remind us we still have work to do with regards to diversity.
Diversity in the lunchroom
Once, we decided to bring an alternative to the lunch menu. As part of the benefits of working for ECT, we have optional free meals at breakfast and lunch, as well as different beverages available any time for the team. We already had vegetarian and meat dishes prepared daily for us by two different catering companies, so we decided to try a new approach to make our Muslim employees feel more at home: halal catering instead of the existing meat option.
We tried this new halal service for two weeks and had employees share their feelings about it afterwards. The results were a reality check, even for a group like ours so used to cultural differences: non-Muslims didn’t like the halal choice even if taste was not the issue. It was about them losing an option just so others could gain one. It was about ECT “becoming a Muslim company” because we now only had halal meat at lunch. It was about us limiting the diversity of food for the sake of diversity.
We learned our lesson there. It was a mistake that, instead of choosing to go down the inclusive route and have halal meat as a third meal option at lunch, we decided to limit the available choices. Soon, this halal option will return to our lunch menu, but as a third choice.
Diversity brings friction
As I said previously, we hire by considering how candidates’ skills and personalities would fit in with our culture and how they could enrich our team. Over the years, we have gathered such a diverse team that we have colleagues coming from every continent in the world. But, even with that multicultural backdrop, occasionally we have found some reluctance from managers to hire people with certain backgrounds, even if they are the best choice for the position. Maybe they say their English is not good enough. Sometimes they have even altered the process to avoid hiring certain candidates.
We can see it: to ask a manager that might come from Turkey or from Bangladesh or Colombia, to screen candidates from, say, China, a land they might have never been to, with customs they might know nothing about, could be a huge culture shock. Diversity inherently brings friction. It’s our job as managers, directors and executives to transform that energy into something positive.
Of course, those two situations stand out in an otherwise nourishing multicultural collaborative environment, but they got me thinking: if we at ECT, used to working side by side regardless of our differences and cultures, have the occasional relapse into prejudice and misconception, what is to be expected of more conservative, non-multicultural companies?
That all said, I personally see a bright future. Not so long ago I read an interview with the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Ralph Brinkhaus, in which he gave an answer to the question of whether a Muslim could ever lead the party and become Germany’s chancellor by 2030. His response was clear: “Why not, if they are a good politician, and they represent our values and our political views?” Maybe in the future we will have a Muslim chancellor. After all, I know a German public company that has a Muslim Deputy CEO of Turkish descent, born and raised in France, Germany’s one-time Erbfeind (that’s ‘archenemy’, by the way).