Posted: 19 May 2017 15 min. read

Cultural Diversity in Business: A critical reflection on the ideology of tolerance

In today’s globalised marketplace, employees are more mobile than ever and organisations are becoming increasingly multicultural. This presents an enormous opportunity – if effectively managed. Which begs the question: how can organisations turn potential conflict into enhanced corporate reputation and market performance?

This question was recently explored by Dr J. Felix Lozano and Teresa Escrish (Spanish Institute of Management of Innovation and Knowledge). They examined the theoretical differences between the concepts of “tolerance” and “respect”, arguing that a person can tolerate something, but that does not mean that they accept or understand what is tolerated. In contrast to the passivity of tolerance, they posit that respect is an active process of understanding and learning about others. Critically, they argue that the benefits of a multi-cultural workplace can only be achieved through intercultural respect.


The aim of the paper is twofold; (1) to present a critical reflection on the ideology of tolerance, and (2) to propose an ideology of respect for dealing with cultural diversity.


The authors reviewed historical and modern writers of moral philosophy (including German philosopher Kant, 1785) to understand ideologies, or sets of beliefs, about the dimensions of cultural “tolerance” and “respect”. Their paper provides a theoretical, and critical reflection on:

  1. The concept of Ideology and Cultural Diversity
  2. Tolerance: perspectives and implications
  3. Culture of respect: far beyond tolerance
  4. The ideology of respect and managerial practice
  5. Respect ideology in action

Having engaged in a discussion on the key philosophical concepts, in particular the difference between tolerance and respect and a number of different approaches to diversity management, the authors propose a culture of respect as a key milestone for managing cultural diversity.

This proposal is based on three main findings: (1) the philosophical distinction between tolerance and respect; (2) the difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism; and, (3) the varying models that have been tested for integration.

This section provides an overview of these findings – and the 3 stages of attention to cultural diversity (indifference, tolerance and respect) are outlined in figure 1.

(1) The philosophical distinction between tolerance and respect

The author categorically distinguish between tolerance and respect. Their argument is that respect is a more active and inclusive concept and exceeds the more passive state of tolerance. The authors refer to Kant’s theory that ‘respect’ requires rationality and that both recognition of differences and dialogue to understand difference are essential elements.

The ideology of tolerance is argued to be ‘allowing to do’, whereas respect represents a genuine interest in understanding those who are different and an openness to other people’s objectives and goals. In summary, respect is not indifference or neutrality but a positive attitude to others, it implies an active recognition of differences, involving rational reflection on cultural differences and the limits of acceptability, and finally respect implies a critical attitude towards one’s own culture.

(2) The difference between multiculturalism and interculturalism

Reviewing the literature, the authors found that the difference between tolerance and respect has also been expressed in two different responses to cultural diversity. The first and most widespread has been the multiculturalism approach (Kymlicka 1995), which is based on a traditional concept of tolerance and is intended to achieve coexistence between different groups. The second is interculturalism, which aspires for more positive interactions and creative life together, passing from mere coexistence (like passengers on a train) to positive inter-action (Bartolome´ and Cabrera 2003).

(3) The varying models that have been tested for integration

Lozano and Escrich outline three models that have special relevance for the idea of a ‘respectful company.’  All three models (Cox and Blake 1991: Cox 1993, 2001; Thomas and Ely 1996; Ortlieb and Sieben 2013) propose a way to increase cultural diversity in organisations in which leadership and learning are key processes.  They argue that good leadership is necessary but not sufficient to manage diversity, as the entire structure of the organisation must be designed to consider diversity as opportunity for innovation.


The authors suggest a number of initiatives, practices and recommendations that will help to create an organisational culture of intercultural respect:

Sensitising and training all employees in cultural diversity

Introducing the topic of cultural diversity through periodic training could be a good way to ensure that employees are aware of the benefits of culturally diverse teams, and the active integration of intercultural teams in business.

Creating forums for dialogue and encounters with different cultures

Providing a place and time for exchanging visions, ideas and beliefs may not only increase understanding of other cultures, but may also strengthen links between employees. This should involve more than the creation of a neutral space where conflict may be resolved, it should provide the opportunity for a learning experience.

Creating spaces for meditation and prayer

Taking employee’s religious practices into account can be an important step in managing cultural diversity, as it provides a private space for employees to carry out their religious obligations, and serves to raise awareness among other employees – making it clear that respect and recognition of beliefs are important for the organisation.

Planning the work calendar, taking into account the festivities of other cultures

Ensuring that cultural holy days are acknowledged will serve to show respect for employees and their beliefs, and provide a way to proactively manage leave days.

Addressing clothing habits and specific food requirements (eg in the company canteen and at events)

In most cases, this will require very little effort and have a significant benefit for those who are impacted.

Regulating the presence of religious symbols in shared spaces

Regulating religious symbols can be difficult, and guidelines should be developed to avoid conflict and offence. Such guidelines should specify two criteria:

  1. Not permitting cultural expressions that represent an explicit offence or incitement to violence and discrimination; and
  2. Not limiting freedom of expression of beliefs or ideologies which do not attack people’s dignity.

For further information read J. F., Lozano and T. Escrich (2016) Cultural Diversity in Business: A Critical Reflection on the Ideology of Tolerance Journal of Business Ethics (published online 16 March 2016).

This blog was originally authored by Cat Pinfold.

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