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[HR] Cultivating Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace

The concept of “diversity” refers not only to demographic and cultural differences, but a workforce made distinct by the presence of many religions, cultures or skin colors, both sexes (in non-stereotypical roles), differing sexual orientations, varying styles of behavior, differing capabilities, and usually, unlike backgrounds.

An initiative by the Canadian government to enhance labor force diversity is the federal Employment Equity Act (EEA) which is similar to Affirmative Action in the US, has roots in the 1984 Abella Commission, chaired by Judge Rosalie Abella, and was first passed in 1986. The EEA covers the public sector as well as any private sector firm that contracts with the government and has more than 100 workers in Canada and government contracts valued at more than $200,000. The EEA requires efforts by employers in covered sectors (e.g., communications, transportation, and banking) to reduce disparities in employment and workforce representation between designated groups (such as women, visible minorities, aboriginal peoples, and people with disabilities) and the general workforce.

While these policies laid the foundations for diversity management, the business sector’s engagement with diversity management revolves around the twin rationale of the “business imperative” and the need to address shortages of skilled labor force. The “business imperative” argument lists several compelling reasons for increasing diversity in Canadian organizations – Fostering creativity and innovation, tapping new/highly competitive global markets and the ability for the business to enter into ethnic markets.

Most workplaces in Canada (and I daresay, the world) bring together people of different ethnic backgrounds, religions and age groups into a cohesive and productive unit. Furthermore, advances in communication technology, such as the Internet and mobile devices have made the marketplace a more global concept, with multi ethnic and multicultural interactions happening at a global level. In order to survive in such an increasingly competitive world, a company needs to be able to manage and utilize its diverse workplace effectively. Thus, managing diversity in the workplace should be an integral part of the culture of the entire organization.

Most diversity programs in Canada agree that enhancing workforce diversity is of tremendous significance for business organizations in today’s competitive global urban markets. It seems that many well-meaning diversity management initiatives have been largely ineffective thus far in dealing with workplace discrimination and racism in the Canadian workplace, so there is a need to decenter the focus of diversity management from a business imperative to an antidiscrimination and social justice imperative.

Let’s consider some key benefits of a diverse and inclusive business environment:

  • Organizations that create an inclusive environment enhance their reputation with job seekers, allowing them to attract the best workers in the market.
  • Employees who feel included, valued and rewarded are more engaged and motivated. It is a well known fact that creating an inclusive and harmonious environment in the workplace was a key driver in employee engagement and commitment.
  • Greater employee engagement leads to reduced turnover. Again, a well-known fact among HR circles is that an engaged employee will clearly not want to leave their employer if they can help it.

Managing a diverse workplace begins with strong policies that foster equality within the organization. Once these policies are in place, the company can begin implementing diversity measures throughout the entire organization. Some best practices that’ll put you on the right track towards being able to manage diversity in your company include:

1. Ensuring that internal people policies from hiring to promotions and raises are based purely on employee performance as opposed to tenure, ethnic background or any other kind of category classification.
2. For recruitment, rate candidate qualifications based on the quality of their experience, not on age or any other category. You’ll end up with a diverse but qualified workforce.
3. Encourage diversity when creating teams or special project work groups within the company.
4. Address complaints of favoritism or discrimination seriously and immediately. Encourage employees to report all instances of discriminatory behavior, and have a definitive process in place for investigating and dealing with these issues.
5. Hold quarterly awareness sessions for your staff on the benefits of diversity in the workplace. Encourage feedback on how the company can better manage workplace diversity.

Diversity in the workplace is important to running a successful business — heterogeneous groups deliver better solutions and critical analysis, so it’s important to structure and run an organization in a way that promotes diversity. But by just adopting the attitude of “not seeing color,” you run the risk of treating people insensitively. Barriers exist — it is up to us to deal with them appropriately. One must recognize that people have differences, be they physical, generational or cultural, and we cannot just pretend that these barriers have been broken down. Instead, it helps to celebrate the differences among employees, and encourage them to let their individuality show.

Self-awareness is quite crucial when it comes to diversity and inclusion. It starts with managing one’s own attitude and behavior. For example, examine one’s own behavior in job interviews. When an applicant of a certain ethnicity or gender comes in, do you make assumptions that they have to prove or disprove during the interview? How do you respond to different styles of communication? Self-awareness is key to developing a safe, fair workplace for a diverse group of employees.

As a business owner, you probably already conduct employee reviews and assessments. When preparing these reviews, it is a good idea as a best practice to also examine your employees’ attitudes, particularly how they work with others. If you notice that an employee only delegates tasks to people of a certain race, or if an employee discounts the ideas of people below or above a certain age, it is your responsibility to address the issue. Identify issues among your employees and bring them up when assessing their performance. It’s going to be a bit of a tough conversation, but it’ll potentially save you and your organization a lot tougher situation down the road.

When you do identify diversity-related issues in the workplace, discuss them with your employees in an open, non-confrontational manner. For example, encourage employees to work with others of different backgrounds or generations. Initiating these types of interactions encourages your employees to learn more about communication styles, talents and goals – their own and those of their co-workers.

Consider the fact that companies like Facebook have begun publicly sharing their diversity numbers. Their last report from June of 2017 shows that current representation in senior leadership is 3% Black, 3% Hispanic and 27% women in engineering. New senior leadership hires at Facebook in the US over the last 12 months, 9% are Black, 5% are Hispanic, and 29% are women. Their diversity report also illustrates their short, medium, and long-term plans to deliver a more inclusive workforce. These actions include unconscious bias training, focused diversity sourcing efforts in recruiting, student programs (Facebook University, CODE.org support, Computer Science & Engineering (CS&E) Lean In Circles), and initiatives like TechPrep that introduces programming to pre-high school age students.

As a final thought, I think it’s extremely important for all companies operating an internal diversity program, that they share a “Diversity Report” to validate the program and the progress it’s made Year over Year. If they choose not to do so, I feel that the program they run, is no more than lip service.