The Business Case For Diversity
DIVERSITY MAKES BUSINESS SENSE
Firms lauded for accommodating minorities: Royal Bank, Pelmorex, IBM promote culture of inclusiveness As a new year is born, the face of Toronto continues to evolve. Unlike 25 years ago, when only one in seven residents was a visible minority, today the ratio is more than one in three. Other notable statistics: Fourteen per cent of GTA dwellers have some form of disability; an estimated 450,000 are gay or lesbian; 42 per cent are in the religious minority; and 2.1 million were born outside of Canada (at 44 per cent of the population, that's higher than even Miami or New York). All in all, that's a rich, varied tapestry.
Employers have begun to recognize this and it's changing the way they do business. Accommodation and respect are the catchwords of today's human resource practitioner.
In part this has to do with our competitive environment. The race to attract top talent is becoming colour- and gender-blind - employers simply can't afford to ignore the full pool of candidates.
Then there's the legislative angle. The Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act are the two most significant pieces of legislation concerning workplace rights, according to Christine Thomlinson, Partner, Rubin Manning & Thomlinson LLP. The Human Rights Act (http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/H-6) says everyone should have an equal opportunity ''to have their needs accommodated ... without being hindered in or prevented from doing so by discriminatory practices based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, disability or conviction for an offence for which a pardon has been granted.''
Meanwhile, the federal Employment Equity Act (http://laws.justice.gc.ca/en/E-5.401/index.html), strives ''to achieve equality in the workplace so that no person shall be denied employment opportunities or benefits for reasons unrelated to ability.''
The focus is on four designated groups: women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and members of visible minorities.
While most employers are meeting their obligations, some are going far above the minimum.
The Royal Bank, for instance, recently hosted its first ever in-house Diversity Fair. There were booths with representatives from each of the designated groups, alongside Pride Employment Network (for gays and lesbians), Toronto's language agency and others.
The Conference Board of Canada hosted its 13th annual Employment Equity Merit Awards in October. Minister of Labour Claudette Bradshaw presented IBM Corp. and Pelmorex Incorporated (which operates The Weather Channel), with the Vision award. It recognizes ''the importance of opening up the workplace to all our citizens, regardless of gender, race, culture or physical attributes.''
In the case of IBM, the company boasts a broad range of programs to foster respect for differences. There's a diversity council to act as a forum on relevant issues. Employees are encouraged to form special interest clubs, such as the Black Network Group and Aboriginal Peoples Network, which provide mentoring and community outreach. As well, all new employees receive a presentation on the importance of equity in the workplace. Additional training is available on cultural differences and the dispelling of stereotypes.
The company has also launched the Canadian Women's Leadership Council to develop women for senior positions within the firm. And in the last six years, more than 600 IBM volunteers have reached about 23,000 young women to encourage their interest in technology. Moreover, some of the firm's visually impaired employees mentor students at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's (CNIB) summer camp.
Beyond this, IBM allows for same-sex commitment ceremonies in the ''time off for employees being married'' category. Plus, it opened a child-care centre in 2001 at its Markham location to help working parents.
As for Pelmorex, it too has a host of initiatives that promote understanding. A sample of this is inviting designated groups to deliver presentations to employees. Topics include culture awareness, non-discriminatory interviewing and accommodation strategies.
The firm, based in Mississauga, uses two diversity committees to help implement employment equity programs. It also has members of designated groups as prominent on-air personalities, and a number of its television programs deal with issues of interest to these audiences.
When it comes to rewarding managers, Pelmorex has tied part of its annual bonuses to how well employment equity and diversity are promoted.
In terms of recruiting, qualified Aboriginal peoples and persons with disabilities are sought out. Flexible work hours and technical aids offer support to these groups. So do scholarship programs set up in conjunction with the CNIB and the Canadian Hearing Society. Pelmorex uses the Workopolis/CNIB Web site in hiring the visually impaired. It also provides free public service announcements for a range of community groups.
Not everyone got a Vision award, but three firms earned Certificates of Merit for their respective efforts.
Shell Canada offers scholarships through the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.
The Yanke Group of companies, a transportation firm headquartered in Saskatoon, encourages cross-cultural and equity awareness in its training programs.
And the University of British Columbia (UBC) accommodates the disabled in a number of ways: Pay equity is in place based on fair value, and additional access ramps and elevators were added after reviewing results of its retention questionnaire. UBC also has a Return To Work program for faculty or staff that modifies work hours and/or duties in case of illness or injury.
For more information on equity and diversity, you can surf the Labour Program of Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) site, at http://labour-travail.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca//index.cfm?fuseaction=english.
Thomlinson adds that common law is helping to reduce workplace discrimination. Meiorin v. British Columbia (1999) is a case in point. Here, a female firefighter who had previously done her work satisfactorily failed to meet one aerobic standard after four attempts. She was dismissed. The court reinstated her after finding the standard unfair to women in general, and not essential to the position.
This led to a uniform three-part test regarding accommodation. The firm must show that job requirements have been adopted for legitimate workplace purposes, that good faith was used and that the requirements are ''reasonably necessary'' to accomplish the purpose of the position. Otherwise, the employer has to prove they've done what they can to the point of ''undue hardship.''
In essence, it's a win for diversity. Employers can no longer set standards for job performance that arbitrarily exclude. This ruling, and the city's morphing demographics, point to even more accommodation and respect for differences in the future. For today, there may not be a panacea. But each small step can lead to that eventual giant leap of embracing everyone in the workplace.
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