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The power of getting diversity and inclusion right in the workplace

By Rachel Crowe


Does your organization make diversity and inclusion a priority? Often, it can seem daunting, time-intensive and expensive – and there can be confusion around how to create meaningful change in the workplace.

It’s true that it’s not simple; if it were, there wouldn’t be so many conferences, articles and books on the topic. But it is possible to start to make an impact with inexpensive practical tools and practices that are achievable.

Diversity is already the reality in the world we live and work in. For example, 21.9 per cent of Canada’s population are immigrants. In fact, nearly 50 per cent of residents in the Greater Toronto Area were born outside of Canada. If organizations want to hire the best talent, they need to hire a diverse workforce. Employers who learn how to create a workplace where people feel like they belong and their ideas are valued will be able to best leverage this talent and gain a competitive edge.

Numerous studies show the positive correlation between ethnic and cultural diversity in the workplace and profitability, such as the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s 2017 Diversity Dividend: Canada’s Global Advantage; but the key is inclusion. If people don’t feel as though they can fully contribute and are valued, performance and retention will be negatively affected. In their Inclusion @ Work Index 2017–2018, Diversity Council Australia and Suncorp showed that “even somewhat inclusive teams” boosted team performance and employee satisfaction and success. Employees on inclusive teams were shown to be “10 times more likely to be highly effective than workers; nine times more likely to innovate; [and] 19 times more likely to be satisfied with their jobs”.

Jenny Okonkwo, a chartered professional accountant arrived in Canada 12 years ago. When Okonkwo first immigrated, she quickly landed a position in her field at a level similar to the one she’d left back home.

“It was well documented that you’d have to take a step or two backwards in your career to enter the job market,” Okonkwo said. “Being aware of this situation before moving gave a me an advantage in getting mentally prepared for the professional challenges.” Although she was an experienced accountant, based on the information she had received in England, she originally applied for a junior position with an international organization. However, when she went for the interview, the hiring manager saw her potential.

He didn’t offer her the job; instead, he invited her to apply for a manager’s position that was on par with her experience and expertise. In addition to applying her accounting and analytical expertise to contribute to the firm’s success, Oknokwo used a combination of project and relationship management, negotiation and presentation skills in her role. She proactively took steps to go beyond her original mandate and her manager’s expectations.

What makes Oknokwo’s story stand-out is not just that she didn’t have to take a step back professionally, which happens to so many immigrant professionals, but also the environment she found herself in after being hired. She had the expertise and ability, but also a manager who set her up for success. He helped to create an inclusive environment, which meant Oknokwo could do what she needed to be successful. It’s this kind of experience that should be more common in Canadian workplaces.


Where to start?

Developing a diverse and inclusive workplace is an ongoing, iterative process. It takes reflection and commitment from leaders and champions within an organization to acknowledge gaps and practices in an organizational culture that contain bias or discrimination. It takes conversations with employees at all levels to understand everyone’s experiences and what can be done to help. No matter what one’s role is in an organization, it’s possible to generate meaningful change. Here are some ideas on some practical ways to start making a positive impact:

If you’re involved in recruitment and hiring processes, take a look at the talent you’re attracting and who is being hired. Are you attracting a diverse group of talent? If not, you’re likely missing highly skilled individuals. Think about where job openings get posted and add some new options into the mix. Also, take a closer look at the job description. Are there requirements that are more “nice to haves” than necessary skills and expertise? If so, these could be deterring strong potential candidates from applying. For example, “excellent communications skills” is often included in job descriptions, but the communications skills required for a training facilitator would be quite different to those needed by a computer programmer. Think about what skills are truly needed for each position.

If your talent pool is diverse but the people being hired are fairly homogeneous, it’s time to take a closer look at your interview process. Do your interview questions effectively draw out the information that you need to know about the candidate’s skills and experience? For example, there are unwritten rules and expectations for questions like, “Tell me about yourself,” that someone who has immigrated to Canada may not know. An immigrant professional may have the skills and expertise you’re looking for, but you could miss it. Asking, “Could you please tell us about your work experience and how it relates to this position?” has the same intention as, “Tell me about yourself,” but would be understood by more people.

Retention is tied closely to inclusion and begins with onboarding. If organizations have formal onboarding, it usually highlights procedural information. New employees come away knowing more about how to book meeting rooms and their medical benefits, but very little about the unwritten rules of that organization. What are the unsaid expectations around who should be included in project updates? What are the best opportunities for informal networking (do many people use the lunch room)? Is cross-team collaboration something that happens a great deal or are teams expected to work more independently? Including topics like these in the onboarding process helps anyone who is new understand the expectations of the workplace, not only immigrant professionals.

Many suggestions on how to make a workplace more inclusive for immigrant professionals make it more inclusive for everyone. In looking at how team meetings are run, for example, a best practice is to send an agenda out ahead of time to better manage time at the meeting so that everyone has a chance to speak and offer input. This is also helpful for being inclusive of different learning styles and personal preferences about reflecting and contributing.

The key to making effective change when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace is to identify a couple of areas to work on. Choose something doable and meaningful, and then implement the change well: consult with leaders and staff at different levels, communicate about why the changes are happening and outline measurable outcomes. By starting with a few workable actions and doing them well, you’ll create meaningful change and generate buy-in from all staff, including senior leaders, which will create a culture of support for future initiatives and continue the process of making your workplace both diverse and inclusive.

Rachel Crowe is the manager, learning and workplace inclusion at the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.



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