Diversity management promotes valuing employees as individuals and using their unique strengths and capabilities to support business performance. International work often introduces employees to a wider range of cultures, backgrounds and values, and managers must be ready to harness the diversity of their workforce effectively for the benefit of their organisation.

This factsheet explores the importance of inclusion and diversity management in an international context. It covers the challenges of managing a diverse workforce and offers practical guidelines on the questions managers can ask when facing ethical dilemmas, as well as guidance on creating ethical guidelines to encourage appropriate behaviours. It introduces some of the fundamentals of effective diversity management and, finally, takes a closer look at the issue of women in international management.

CIPD defines diversity as valuing everyone as an individual. Our Executive briefing Diversity: stacking up the evidence identified three types of diversity:

  • social category diversity – the differences in demographic characteristics such as age and race
  • informational diversity – the differences in background such as education and knowledge
  • value diversity – the differences in personality and attitudes.

Diversity (often referred to as diversity and inclusion management) has increased in prominence in organisations and focuses upon approaches and intervention aiming to accommodate their workers’ demographic and personal differences in order to maximizing the contribution of staff to organizational goals. Diversity and inclusion approaches in organisations are typically therefore concerned with the social category factors. However, as this CIPD research shows, this has broader implications.

Each employee brings to their workplace their own world view, experiences and relationships, and the impact is amplified in the context of international working. Carrying out international assignments exposes employees to a huge variety of diverse issues and cultures. While the extent of the diversity will differ, a key skill required of international managers is to harness that diversity and to make it work effectively for the organisation.

See our factsheet on workplace diversity for more on diversity issues generally

Although there are definite benefits to be gained from operating with a diverse workforce (increased creativity and innovation, for example), difficulties can also arise in connection with working relationships and the way in which work is done. This is why organisations need to focus on ways of valuing and managing difference to help to deliver the advantages.


Prejudice occurs when a stereotypical view of a people is held. It might be that all people of a particular race are aggressive, or that all people of a particular religion are lazy. Stereotypical views are often held by a group of people and can be passed from person to person without challenge. As a result, negative perceptions of the group in question develop, which results in a prejudicial attitude.

Managing in an international setting demands consideration of the legal, cultural and demographic frameworks within which the organisation is operating. Although discrimination legislation is relatively well developed in many European countries, this is not the case everywhere. Approaches to taking account of diversity and tackling unfair discrimination and human rights not only vary but may be non-existent as positive formal public policy issues or organisation-level interventions. So it’s important for employees working globally to understand that western approaches to employment or business practices will not necessarily work elsewhere. Helping employees working globally to understand local contexts, circumstances and ways of behaving, while still attempting to promote progressive practices, is therefore an important part in developing appropriate business strategies on diversity.


Even if the laws of the country where the international manager is operating are different to those in the UK, ensuring compliance with a basic human rights framework is a useful starting point. The United Nations recognised Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see Useful contacts), contains thirty fundamental international human rights. Ones that are of particular relevance to people management include:

  • the right to freedom of physical movement
  • the right to a fair trial
  • non-discriminatory treatment
  • physical security
  • freedom of speech and association
  • a minimum level of education
  • political participation
  • freedom to work in fair and safe conditions
  • the right to earn a decent standard of living.

International managers should be aware that in many contexts where discrimination occurs, it’s subtle, covert and may unintentionally lead to the exclusion of non-dominant groups on the basis of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Indeed the leadership pool within organisations often reflects a lack of diversity, making it harder to identify a range of suitable and inspiring mentors and role models.

Practical guidelines

In 2009 the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published an index of diversity readiness1 to rank 47 countries (topped by Sweden). Such rankings may not always been seen as robust or up to date, but provide additional data for an international manager or HR leader.

Another practical approach is provided by Donaldson2 who suggested that managers should ask themselves a series of questions when facing ethical dilemmas in the management of people in international contexts.

  • The overarching question is: why is the practice of concern acceptable? Is it because of the host country’s relative level of development or is it because of reasons unrelated to economic development?
  • If it’s due to the relative level of development, would the manager’s home country have accepted the practice when it was at a similar level of development?
    • If the answer to this question is yes, then the practice should be acceptable.
  • However, if the home country would not have accepted the practice when at a similar level of development, further questions need to be asked:
    • Is it possible to carry out business in the host country whilst accepting the practice of concern?
    • Is the practice a violation of a fundamental human right?
  • If it’s not possible to carry out business, or it is a breach of fundamental human rights, Donaldson argues that the manager should challenge and not follow local practice.

Clearly, international managers need to take care in such situations and should consult with senior management in the home country, due to the potential risk to business interests

Ethical guidelines

If there are issues within the organisation, one solution is for the organisation to draw up clear ethical guidelines to be applied by all employees, regardless of the country where they are based. Even if these values are not supported by local legislation, an organisation can still state how it wants its employees to behave. In drawing up ethical guidelines it’s important to consider:

  • The reasons for the guidelines - is the purpose to insist on compliance to specific standards, or is the purpose to introduce a set of values with the aim of achieving a consistency of purpose?

  • The values of the organisation - these must form the basis for the guidelines.

  • Those affected by the guidelines - if the guidelines are being drawn up at head office it is important that managers and employees in countries where the organisation operates are consulted. This will ensure that their views are incorporated, but also make the ownership of the guidelines more likely.

  • The way in which the guidelines are written - it’s important that the words used express the guidelines clearly, and can be translated into different cultures.

  • Training for local managers in understanding the guidelines - providing guidelines as a written document without discussion or education is unlikely to have any significant or positive impact.

  • Emphasising the common features - whilst diversity is about valuing differences many of the difficulties that we are considering in this section come due to the extent of the differences between cultures and people. It might be appropriate to emphasise that there are also a number of similarities between different cultures, as a basis for addressing the areas of concern.

Although there are difficulties that can occur from managing a diverse workforce, when managed effectively diversity can be hugely beneficial to the organisation. A diverse workforce brings with it a significant range of experiences and knowledge which can mean that innovative and creative ideas can be produced from the pooling of this diversity.

When managing a diverse team, the international manager should be aiming to make full use of the diversity. In doing this the manager needs to ensure that the team members feel secure in sharing their views and ideas. In a diverse group individuals can be both unused to and uncomfortable about speaking up in front of others. The reasons for this may be varied, for example, a reluctance to speak if their views are not held by their superiors or colleagues, or it is seen as culturally disrespectful to disagree.

An international manager should take into account localised cultural issues about ways of working in order to develop their teams and ways of doing business, and identify where the fault lines may occur that could impact on successful outcomes. Members of diverse teams are likely to have split loyalties and affinities with each other. For example, if a work group consists of individuals from three different religions it is possible that three sub-groups will occur within that group as the members of the different religions have a group to which they already belong, and with which they will already feel comfortable. Likewise if there is a dominant group of individuals in a team they will have a greater influence on team decisions, and relevant issues may be overlooked as a result.

In trying to develop good team working and project management in connection with international assignments, it is important that managers are alert to cultural issues that can influence working relationships and develop ways to overcoming potential drawbacks and build team confidence and mutual respect.

In the UK FTSE 100 companies, there has been an increase in the number of women in board level positions in the last five years. However, given that women make up around half of the workforce they continue to be less-well represented at senior levels in organisations than men and this is particularly true when for managers sent on international placements by UK organisations – the majority of such managers are male, making international talent gender skewed.

Various reasons are given for the low numbers of female international managers:

  • Women do not want to be international managers. However, this isn't substantiated by attitudes amongst recent female graduates in the UK who show a similar level of interest in international assignments to male graduates and the visibility of female role models is likely to increase this level of interest.

  • Organisations refuse to send women abroad. It’s certainly true that there’s some reluctance to send women on placements to certain countries. This is particularly the case when the country is one where local women are not expected to work, and are certainly not expected to have authority over men.

  • A belief that women managers will be ineffective in certain countries, because of the attitude to women in that country. This reason leads on from the last, that there are some countries where it would be seen as inappropriate to have a female manager. In many countries local women and women from other countries are viewed as two separate groups, and treated very differently. Whilst there might be some cultures where women managers are not accepted, this problem is probably not as widespread as commonly thought.

  • The perception that it's more difficult for women to move to work abroad than men when they are in a relationship. ‘Dual career couples’ as this group of employees is often termed are of concern to those placing employees on international assignments. Relocating to a new location is always disruptive for the employee’s family, and increasingly so if the partner has to change job or give up work. But it’s important to remember that the ‘dual career couple’ problem is just as much a problem when men move abroad.

In selecting talent for international assignments, organisations need to consider:

  • Policies, processes and practices – which should be designed to be bias-free and transparent to guard against customs and practices that can be unjustifiably excluding, for example depending solely on the personal recommendation of someone returning from an international assignment about a suitable replacement. People are more likely to recommend someone like themselves from their personal network of contacts which may not be diverse. Clear and objective job-related criteria should be drawn up to inform selection decisions. See our International resourcing and selection factsheet.

  • Training for those involved in placing individuals in international assignments - people making decisions about international placements need to be trained to understand how unfair bias can occur, the effects of stereotyping and how to avoid them.

  • Support for dual career couples - organisations need to take into account issues for dual career couples, avoid stereotyping about men and women in these circumstances and offer support for the domestic aspects of international assignments to make them equally accessible to both men and women.

  1. SOCIETY FOR HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT. Global Diversity Readiness Index
  2. DONALDSON, T (1996) Values in tension: Ethics away from home. Harvard Business Review. September-October, pp48-62.


Universal Declaration of Human Rights


BREWSTER, C., HOULDSWORTH, E., SPARROW, P. and VERNON, G. (2016) International human resource management. 4th ed. London: Charted Institute of Personnel and Development. Chapter 15: Managing diversity in international forms of working.

KLARSFELD, A. (2010) International handbook on diversity management at work: country perspectives on diversity and equal treatment. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

OZBILGIN, M.F., TATLI, A. and JONSEN, K. (2015) Global diversity management: an evidence-based approach. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

RENNIE, A. and McGEE, R. (2012) International human resource management. CIPD Toolkit. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

SOCIETY FOR HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT and ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT (2009) Global diversity and inclusion: perceptions, practices and attitudes. Alexandria, VA: SHRM.

Visit the CIPD Store to see all our priced publications currently in print.


GHEMAWAT, P. (2011) The cosmopolitan corporation. Harvard Business Review. Vol 89, No 5, May. pp92-99.

KUMRA, S. and VINNICOMBE, S. (2010) Impressing for success: a gendered analysis of a key social capital accumulation strategy. Gender, Work and Organization. Vol. 17 No. 5 September. pp521-546.

NISHII, L.H. and OZBILGIN, M.F. (2007) Global diversity management: towards a conceptual framework. International Journal of Human Resource Management. Vol 18, No 11, November. pp1883-1894.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Dr Liz Houldsworth, one of the co-authors of the 4th edition of CIPD’s textbook International human resource management.

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