The Economics of Embracing Workplace Diversity

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Workplace diversity | BCBusiness
Image by: Phil Bliss
B.C.'s workplaces are finally reflecting the diversity of the province.

The B.C. workforce is undergoing a significant change, its makeup finally reflecting the diversity of the province. Employers can ignore it and fade into irrelevance, or tap into a rich pool of skills and new perspectives.

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.”

Diversity: What Not to Do

Employers have heard variations of “diversity is good” for so many years that they’re almost desensitized to the concept, says Roley Chiu of the Employment Immigration Council of B.C. He calls this phenomenon “employer fatigue.” In Chiu’s view, many employers blame the labour market, rather than their own inability to tap into under-used job-seekers. Ian Cook at B.C. HRMA sees three common mistakes among employers when it comes to diversity:

• They don’t pay enough attention to it.

• They expect someone else to solve the issue for them. He hears comments like: “Why can’t the government just train these people to do what I want them to do?”

• “They think they’ll have the perfect person they need on the doorstep when they need them,” says Cook. “That’s a dangerous assumption.” Is diversity part of your business plan and strategy? If so, how proactive have you been in making your workforce more diverse? What first steps have you taken?

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.


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