BC Business: David Thomas on the economics of embracing workplace diversity

Jul 10, 2012

The following article was published by BC Business on July 3, 2012.

BC Workforce Diversity

B.C.’s workplaces are finally reflecting the diversity of the province. (Image by: Phil Bliss)

When John Rose, CEO of Nuheat Industries Ltd. in Richmond, learned that the mother of a Sudanese employee had suffered a stroke and the man had not seen her in years, he arranged to fly the employee home. When the executive asked what Singa – the man’s remote village of 3,500 people in the Sudan – needed, his employee told him: a well. Company employees wanted to help, and raised funds for the project, which, combined with donations from Rose’s family, totalled $20,000. The corporate leader wired the money to the employee, who was waiting in Sudan, and the money paid for a well in Singa. Now the village’s residents have fresh water and the local women no longer have to walk eight kilometres a day to find water during the dry season. Today Nuheat displays a carved elephant at the workplace, a thank-you gift from the village chief that serves as an everyday reminder of the company’s global contribution.

At Nuheat, which manufactures floor heating systems, employee inclusiveness and multiculturalism extend far beyond the walls of its office and production plant; the company has included diversity as a core business principle. Its employees come from 23 countries, ranging from Slovakia and El Salvador to India. To honour their heritage, the organization, as a whole, celebrates the national holiday of each employee’s home nation by raising its flag and playing a CD of the corresponding national anthem. “The celebration of different cultures is very special,” says Rose. “It can be quite moving. People send pictures of the ceremony back home.”

This 100-employee organization has been recognized as a model employer: it won the Cultural DIVERSECity Award for Business in 2007, awarded by the DIVERSECity Community Resources Society in Surrey. It has also been recognized five times by Canada’s 50 Best Managed Companies awards program.

Welcome to the new world of workplace diversity. Traditionally, corporations have perceived diversity as a problem to be managed, says David Thomas, director of the Centre for Global Workforce Strategy at SFU’s Beedie School of Business. He acknowledges that organizations are slow to change, and attitudes and values take time to transform, yet he has seen a shift in recent years regarding diversity: “Many companies are seeing it as a potential asset,” he notes. Working with people of different values can make us re-examine our own opinions or help us consider different options, Thomas adds. In his view, an inclusive workplace can produce more loyal, happy and productive employees.

In the past, business leaders traditionally associated diversity solely with visible characteristics, including age and gender, race, ethnicity and people with disabilities. However, in its broad definition, workplace diversity means acknowledging differences in a workforce and adapting business practices to create an inclusive environment that values employees’ range of skills, perspectives and backgrounds.

The Four Layers of Diversity model created by the Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Gardenswartz & Rowe fleshes out today’s broader definition of diversity by identifying four key dimensions: characteristics that influence an individual’s personality; internal dimensions, including personal characteristics that individuals have no control over such as gender, ethnicity and age; external dimensions that individuals have some control over such as their educational background, appearance and personal habits; and organizational dimensions, including elements under the control of an organization that individuals have a limited capacity to influence such as work location, and divisions or departments.

Here in B.C., large corporations have taken the lead in promoting and managing a diverse workplace. BC Hydro, for example, has a position dedicated to diversity and talent-management strategy and offers a variety of related recruitment, employee development and progress monitoring strategies. For skilled-immigrant new hires, the Crown corporation provides on-site training in English for occupational purposes, and an accent-reduction program. Cross-cultural communication workshops are available for culturally diverse teams, and its intranet website offers online diversity resources and a tool kit. A team is dedicated specifically to the recruitment and retention of aboriginal employees, and an employee-based women’s group provides networking and career development opportunities for females. Mediacorp Canada, publisher of Canada Employment Weekly, named BC Hydro one of the best employers in the country for new Canadians in 2011.

If attitudes are changing, it’s at least in part out of necessity: as businesses face a looming labour shortage, more employers are looking to skilled immigrants to fill their talent gap. The Business Council of B.C. points out that between now and 2015, the province will have more than a million job openings due to retiring baby boomers and business growth. At the same time, Citizenship and Immigration Canada data show that 42,000 new immigrants, on average, have arrived in B.C. each year as permanent residents since 2006. In 2010 (the most recent data available), the leading sources of immigrants to this province were China (21 per cent), the Philippines (15 per cent) and India (13.25 per cent). Of those aged 25 to 64, 36.3 per cent were professionals in a field requiring a university education. On a national level, recent immigrants to Canada are four times more likely than native-born Canadians to have a graduate degree, according to the Canadian Council on Learning.

Large organizations like BC Hydro have the resources to assess individual differences and figure out how to get all those diverse factors working in harmony. But without the same resources, how can small-business owners manage talent and labour costs while at the same time addressing the multi-dimensions of diversity? The following tips were gleaned from research and interviews with local executives and HR professionals.

Open your mind

Examine your own biases and apply radical honesty about entrenched attitudes that you and your employees might have about existing policies and practices. Ian Cook, director of research and learning at the B.C. Human Resources Management Association, says that he hears comments like, “If someone’s worked trades in Pakistan, how can I tell if they can do a good job here?” and, “Their accent is not the kind of English that we’re used to. The crew won’t understand him.”

Cook recommends that employers in trades visit their provincial regulator, find out what’s involved in hiring foreign workers and learn how to assess and recognize foreign education and experience. Employers will have to address common fears about hiring foreign workers, such as that it will take too much time, cost too much and result in higher turnover. Employers need to ask whether these concerns are valid or are merely an excuse for non-action, rooted in their own reluctance to change.

“Be very open to new ideas and a new way of doing things,” advises Anita Huberman, CEO of the Surrey Board of Trade. In 2009, her organization partnered with SUCCESS, a Vancouver-based social service agency, to assess the role of diversity and skills requirements, now and in the future, at six small-to-medium businesses in Surrey. Huberman found that diversity was not a priority for these business owners; they weren’t incorporating it into their workplace strategy or considering immigrants as a valuable source of skilled labour in the present or future.

Educate yourself

Find out about the cultures and beliefs of people who might be looking for positions at your organization. Take some diversity training and read some of the many books and guides on the topic, both online and in hard copy. Talk to organizations that focus on diversity and hiring skilled immigrants, such as the Immigrant Employment Council of B.C.

Know the law

Most employers in B.C. fall under provincial jurisdiction and related regulations covered by the B.C. Human Rights Code, which contains the statutes that prohibit discrimination based on an employee’s place of origin, sexual orientation, religion or disability. The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal website (bchrt.bc.ca) is a good source of related information and case law. Remember, an employer has a legal obligation to provide the conditions and opportunities for any employee to succeed in a safe work environment free of discrimination, harassment and intimidation.

Graeme McFarlane, a partner who practices labour and employment law at Roper Greyell LLP, says that one of today’s workplace-diversity-related hot topics in B.C. is the elimination of mandatory retirement in 2008. Employers are now finding it more challenging, he says, to plan transitions and make room for new up-and-comers because older, long-term employees are remaining on the job longer.

Another key area is the duty-to-accommodate law in Canada: any employer must “reasonably accommodate” an employee or client, such as people with disabilities or of diverse faiths and cultures, when a company policy or practice will affect this person adversely. Examples of violations can range from a workplace that is not wheelchair-accessible for someone with a disability to a company that won’t let an employee attend religious services on a certain day or wear clothing items required by his or her religion. It can also apply to an employer who doesn’t provide alternate work arrangements and accommodate family responsibilities for a single parent.

Identify barriers to diversity

Barriers can range from disrespectful behaviour and stereotyping to generational barriers and the “digital divide” (for example, lack of social media skills). “You, as a leader, can change the culture,” says Cook. “Bring in a supervisor to help you.” He recommends starting small, ensuring that a workplace of respect is in place. Here are some sample questions to ask yourself, taken from getintheknow.ca: Does the diversity of your organization reflect the diversity of your community? Do your staff and management understand the benefits of a culturally diverse workplace? Do your employees feel valued and respected for their beliefs, opinions and contributions?

Expand your recruitment

Have you considered hiring First Nations employees, skilled immigrants, people with disabilities or seniors? Many of these people have excellent training and abilities but remain unemployed or underemployed; too often, companies overlook them when hiring. Reach a diverse pool of untapped talent through targeted employment groups and resources such as MOSAIC or TalentMatch B.C. As part of recruitment, Cook recommends having a potential employee work under a supervisor for a day or set up a test. “Recruit based on practice,” he advises. “Don’t base it on a piece of paper or a conversation.”

Bring greater sensitivity and awareness to your hiring practices

Make sure that your interviews are free of bias and are culturally sensitive. For instance, some cultures consider it inappropriate to emphasize personal achievements, while others view direct eye contact as disrespectful. Create a set of questions in a structured format with a clearly defined list of the skills, abilities and qualities that you are seeking. Keep the questions based on behaviour and competency, not personality.

Offer mentoring opportunities

Job shadowing and mentoring can help a skilled immigrant employee, especially if the process includes information on Canadian regulations, laws and workplace norms. For small business, this can prove a valuable strategic investment because it will maximize the employee’s management potential, according to hireimmigrants.ca, a website partially funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. “Mentorship allows you to formulate the relationship over time,” says Cook. “People have been amazed at the results.”

Develop and assess diversity policies and procedures

Make diversity part of your business plan, rather than a tacked-on afterthought. Assess progress based on the barriers you identified, feedback from employees and staff and the level of success you have achieved. A human resources professional can assist with assessment tools and follow-up.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Make sure that all employees know the business case for diversity and how it supports company goals. Be clear about the expectations for every position and provide progress benchmarks. To reduce the impact of language barriers, add diagrams or other visual aids when making an oral presentation. If you’re product testing, get skilled-immigrant employees involved to ensure there’s cross-cultural fit.

Invite skilled immigrants to review your product language to make sure that it is free of slang, jargon and culture-specific terms. This can also prevent embarrassing errors like English product names that translate to something derogatory or inappropriate in another language. Some noteworthy examples are Waterpik oral-care products (“pik” is the common Danish word for male genitals) and Chevrolet’s Nova, which means “doesn’t go” in Spanish.

Encourage mutual learning and respect

Recognize what respect should look and feel like within the workplace, and how it relates to diversity, inclusion, engagement and productivity. Be willing to learn from your employees; if they come to you with suggestions or complaints, listen. Bosses and managers can play a role by setting an example: “You can have as much cultural sensitivity training as you like, but if the leader doesn’t model the desired behaviour, you’ve wasted your money,” says B.C. HRMA’s Ian Cook.

Convey diversity in your brand and external documents

Ensure websites, reports and marketing materials contain multicultural images of both men and women of different ages.

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