Putting Diversity to Work

Successful organizations harness the strengths of a diverse workforce.

When you’re in the matchmaking business, having the right candidates on your books can make or break you. That’s why Nurse Next Door Home Healthcare Services puts a lot of emphasis on hiring a diverse workforce. “It makes good business sense,” says co-founder John DeHart. “In our industry a good match makes for a happy client. We have been able to match clients with caregivers who speak their local dialect and even cook the regional cuisine that they are familiar with.”

Last year the Vancouver-headquartered franchise won a DiverseCity Cultural Award for Business. But happy clients aren’t the only dividend of their focus on diversity. It also helps them keep recruiting costs down. “We get 200 applicants for every vacancy – and we don’t recruit or advertise,” says DeHart. He believes it’s because of the organization’s many tentacles in the community. “We touch so many communities because of the diversity of our existing workforce, which broadens the pool of people who know who we are and who want to work for us.”

Nurse Next Door is one of many organizations embracing workforce diversity as a path to organizational success. A decade ago, many employers paid lip service to diversity in order to comply with human rights legislation. Today, having a diverse workforce is a business imperative for top organizations. The growing number of retiring baby boomers means that employers must tap alternative sources to fill vacancies. And as the global market expands, having employees who understand the cultural context of customers and markets is essential in everything from product design to sales to customer service. As General Electric’s CEO Jeff Immelt once said, “You don’t get to sell things for long unless you are part of the culture into which you are selling.”

British Columbia society is a microcosm of this global market. Our labour force represents a mosaic of ages, cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, and socio-economic statuses. How do local organizations reap the benefits of such diversity?

Diverse workforce mirrors the face of the community

Working within a community that speaks more than 115 different languages, Nicola Webb, general manager of HR for the City of Surrey, and Kelsey Swanson, manager of Surrey’s community development services, are no strangers to diversity.

“You can’t work or live in Surrey and not be exposed to diversity,” says Webb. “There’s no job that is isolated from the public or from your co-workers.”

Surrey is considered one of the most diverse cities in Canada, and hiring and managing a diverse workforce is a key business initiative that helps the City deliver on its goals of supporting the community and serving its residents.

“It’s important that all members of our community feel welcome in the City’s recreation centres and City Hall,” says Swanson. “We want to remove the barrier of City Hall being a scary place and not like the community it serves.”

To that end, the City works to build an inclusive environment by actively hiring people who have disabilities. “When members of the public walk into a recreation centre and see a staff member in a wheelchair, they gain exposure to people with disabilities. It also helps those who have disabilities to feel welcome at that centre,” says Swanson. During the City’s annual “I am Game” event, staff and the community are given the opportunity to play sports such as wheelchair basketball and sledge hockey, thus increasing their understanding of the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

Other diversity initiatives include partnerships with community immigration and intercultural services to promote hiring opportunities, and ensuring every public access point has staff who can provide service in Punjabi (the second most spoken language in Surrey). Staff are also encouraged to participate in Multi-cultural Week and ethnic celebrations throughout the year to enhance their understanding of the many cultures they serve in the community.
It’s one thing to want your workforce to reflect the community it serves; it’s another to ensure there is a sufficient pool of diverse qualified candidates to fill vacancies. That’s why the City runs programs to build capacity within the community so that its residents can be eligible for municipal jobs. For example, volunteer opportunities help new Canadians gain their first Canadian work experience, while mentorship programs assist young people needing certification for employment.

The payoff may not be obvious on a balance sheet, but Webb says the value delivered by the City’s diverse workforce and initiatives is evident in the community’s satisfaction with mayor and council. “We believe that inclusivity of our workforce is fundamental to the health of the City and of society. We have a social obligation as well as a financial objective.”

Multicultural employees link to community resources

Rebecca Clapperton, manager of diversity at BC Hydro, would agree. “We build greater trust when the communities we serve can see themselves represented in our workforce.” For the last three years, BC Hydro has actively recruited Aboriginal employees to join its team. By offering pre-apprenticeship training and bursaries to Aboriginal youth, the utility has reaped the benefit of a growing pool of qualified candidates. Their motive goes beyond fulfilling BC Hydro’s goal of having a workforce that is representative of BC’s labour market by 2017. Technicians working in remote areas of the province rely on their contacts and relationships with Aboriginal communities to assist with mending equipment and accessing logging roads, activities that are vital for the utility to maintain competitive service levels.

Further afield, BC Hydro’s practice of seeking out qualified immigrants does more than just fulfill a local labour shortage. The utility was recently embroiled in complicated negotiations with a Brazilian vendor to retrofit BC Hydro’s generation plants. “We were struggling to build a relationship with the vendor because of language and cultural differences,” says Clapperton. One of BC Hydro’s engineers who could speak Portuguese and understood the cultural context the vendor was operating in, was able to advise the negotiation team.

Recognized as one of the top diversity employers in Canada, BC Hydro’s diversity initiatives go beyond culture and ethnicity. They were the first recipient of Simon Fraser University’s Nancy McKinstry award for leadership in gender diversity in 2009, and more recently won the BC HRMA award of excellence for innovation for their “Generational Diversity” report which provided key insights regarding employee engagement within their generational pools.

Clapperton stresses that BC Hydro’s diversity initiatives are focused on ensuring the right people fill the right positions. “We haven’t lost sight of merit,” she says. “Instead, [our diversity initiatives] help us expand the search and provide an opportunity for a broader, more balanced candidate pool.” To do that, HR assesses each vacancy with an eye to what the real need is, rather than simply replacing an individual who has left. For example, just because an incumbent has an MBA and engineering degree, doesn’t mean his or her replacement must too. By considering other qualifications, such as project management skills, the candidate pool is opened up to a more diverse group.

BC Hydro’s public image reflects its commitment to diversity. They recently refreshed their recruitment look and feel to visually represent the diverse workforce they would like to attract. “We fundamentally believe that diversity leads to balanced decision-making,” says Clapperton. “At Hydro, diversity isn’t so much a program as a commitment strategy.”

Success is measured through a variety of factors, including employee engagement. Do employees feel free to voice their opinions openly? Does the organization provide the kind of flexible work arrangements that enable diverse employees to balance their work and personal needs? “Most important though,” says Clapperton, “we measure success by considering how diversity contributes to the bottom line by positively influencing customer satisfaction and promoting a safer workplace.”

Diversity encourages innovation

Innovation is the cornerstone of academic success. And most innovation originates by thinking outside the box and considering perspectives that are different from your own. This is why it’s not unusual for departments and faculty at the University of British Columbia to have rules against hiring their own graduates. “Bringing people with diverse perspectives together can result in new ideas that couldn’t have been developed in isolation,” says Tom Patch, associate vice-president equity.

Like BC Hydro, UBC was named one of the top diversity employers in Canada in 2010. In an increasingly competitive environment for attracting the best faculty, Patch says that people are attracted to a place where they know their perspectives will be welcomed, and where they will be valued and included.

Students benefit from this approach by being exposed to new ideas. “Our mission is to graduate students who are ready to participate in the world as they find it,” says Patch. Increasingly that’s a more diverse world. Although local students have grown up in a context where diversity is taken for granted, ironically, for many international students raised in homogenous environments, diversity is a foreign concept. While the student body is increasingly diverse, Patch admits that UBC’s workforce lags behind. Women and visible minorities continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions and Aboriginal people and persons with disabilities are underrepresented in many sectors of the UBC community. “We need a faculty that understands the concerns of the student body.”

One of the unique aspects of UBC’s diversity program is an employment equity census. The census started out as a requirement for the Federal Contractors Program, but it now helps UBC track the progress of its equity hiring strategies. “We use the census to get a snapshot of the demographics of our workforce … so that we can determine whether our representation is appropriate given the availability of people within those groups in the workforce,” says Patch. The census data is available to the public, which fosters transparency and helps focus administrators on the issues. In partnership with HR, the Equity office provides training to faculty to ensure that the selection process is sensitive to diversity issues when screening and short listing candidates.

This Fall, UBC is rolling out an Equity and Diversity Strategic Plan that formalizes its goals in these areas and measures its progress. (A draft plan that incorporates feedback from students, faculty, and the public is available on their website.) Patch says the plan aims to show that hiring a more diverse workforce isn’t an isolated program that is an end to itself. “Diversity needs to serve a broader purpose,” he says. The plan will ensure that UBC’s workforce values difference and that workers who were historically underrepresented aren’t marginalized. “It’s an institutional measure that these things matter. In that way, diversity becomes part of our decision-making processes. It’s about being a more diverse place and recognizing the strength that comes from difference.”

Looking beyond stereotypes and quotas

Ironically, as organizations start putting diversity to work for them, the focus on diversity is shifting. Recruiters no longer look to fill quotas but instead aim to ensure a wider pool of candidates is included in the selection process. Stereotypes that used to characterize minority groups are becoming less useful.

Instead, employers are learning how to recognize and appreciate the strengths of different individuals, regardless of whether they are part of a minority or disadvantaged group. The face of diversity may be changing, but the benefits of having a workforce that provides a wide range of perspectives, experiences, and relationships are too important for BC employers to ignore.

By Sharon Boglari




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