Cisco's planning chief tells Kate Hilpern how technology can be used to unite an international team

The majority of organisations, when quizzed about diversity, speak first and foremost about the need to get a greater mix of people through the door. But Cisco Systems - one of Silicon Valley's biggest employers - claims its workforce is already varied. Their focus is ensuring that everyone has a place at the table.

"We have a diverse organisation already, but it's making sure that everyone who works for us feels able to be their true selves. Only when someone feels like that are they likely to be able to fully contribute with their best ideas," explains Nikki Walker, director, strategy and planning, emerging markets, who adds that Cisco is equally committed to ensuring that everyone's contributions are valued.

Much of the company's work around achieving this involves a cultural focus, explains Walker. "We are an American company with an American culture, but as we move into emerging markets, with all their different cultures, we need to make sure we embrace every one of these. For example, southern Europeans are often very passionate and might get up and start shouting at a meeting, whereas other cultures might be more restrained. Another example is that in countries like Saudi Arabia, there is a danger that the women - who have veils over their faces - may be ignored. We need to make sure that everyone is heard, regardless of their cultural differences."

Walker adds that flexibility is also key in Cisco's strive towards diversity. After all, different types of people require different things out of their working day - the ability to pick the kids up from school, for instance, or the opportunity to work from home. "We provide everyone with the tools to work from wherever they happen to be - at home or anywhere else. In fact, we expect people to do this," says Walker. "We don't have a flexibility policy simply because everyone does it - well, 80 to 90 per cent of people."

As a supplier of networking equipment and network management for the internet, it should come as no surprise that technology plays a major part in Cisco's diversity efforts. Walker provides an example. "Our product Telepresence takes videoconferencing to the next level. The sound travels as if you're in the same room and it's like looking at someone next to you.

She points to a Cisco employee who works part-time in Northern Ireland. "She reports to a global team and rather than having to go to America for regular meetings - which may not suit a part-time post - she uses Telepresence. We have another woman who is Malaysian who works in our UK HR team. Her mum suddenly got really ill and she had to go back to Malaysia but she didn't have to leave Cisco because we suggested she could work from there using Telepresence. Then there's an executive administrator to one of our vice presidents who decided she'd like to move to a different area of the country. The vice president didn't want her to leave the company, so she was offered the opportunity to work from her new location with Telepresence on her desk, which again she took up. What all this means is that we can attract and retain a much wider mix of people."

Like many major companies, Cisco prides itself on its support groups and affinity groups for particular groups of employees. "These include women's networks, which provide development opportunities - for example though a series of speakers at bi-monthly events, where people can network afterwards," says Walker. "We also have focus groups - small monthly group meetings - where various topics are discussed so that women can learn about things like soft skills and technology. Then there is the outreach work which involves going out to schools and working with girls that are 12-years-old and up to help them think about what careers are available in technology companies. Yes, there are engineering roles, but not all the jobs are techie and it's a case of helping them realise that and offer careers support."

Cisco's slate is not entirely clean. As recently as May this year, the company hit the headlines in the States when it was accused by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of discriminating against minority job candidates. Cisco were accused of having "demonstrated an ongoing pattern and practice of not hiring qualified, minority candidates based on their race, colour and national origin," according to EEOC letters released to the Mercury News.

And last October, USA Today reported that Motaz Elshafi, a software engineer, casually opened an internal e-mail at work only to read "Dear Terrorist." The note from a co-worker was sent to Muslims working at Cisco Systems a few days after train bombings in India killed 207 people.

But Cisco points out that more than 43 per cent of its US workforce identify themselves as ethnic minorities, and that initiatives promoting diversity and the advancement of minorities and women continue to be a priority wherever they operate.

"I'd describe Cisco's work around diversity as a journey," adds Walker.