B.C. Workplace Diversification: Culture Shock

Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Iranians, Ukrainians, and all the rest – B.C. needs them. Badly. The baby boomers are teetering toward retirement, and our strong economy is churning out jobs. With new immigrants streaming over the border to fill vacancies, multiculturalism in the workplace is no longer a feel-good slogan; it’s a business imperative.

Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Indians, Iranians, Ukrainians, and all the rest – B.C. needs them. Badly. The baby boomers are teetering toward retirement, and our strong economy is churning out jobs. With new immigrants streaming over the border to fill vacancies, multiculturalism in the workplace is no longer a feel-good slogan; it’s a business imperative.

BCBusiness invited a panel of experts to discuss diversity in the workplace. We learned just how difficult it can be when people with different backgrounds, customs and expectations try to work together. We also learned what businesses need to do now to prepare for increasing diversity. Absorbing this cultural variety is critical because B.C. isn’t the only region that needs these people. If new immigrants can’t find a home in our growing economy, they’ll move on to another one. Meet our panel of experts: Mackie Chase is the director of the UBC Centre for Intercultural Communications. Ray Holdgate is the chief of the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service, who is working with other B.C. fire services to increase the diversity of their staffs. Carmen Grant is the director of HR for RC Purdy Chocolates Ltd., helping manage a factory workforce where 75 per cent of the workers are visible minorities. Matthew Stevenson is a job coach and industry liaison with the Immigrant Skilled Trades Employment Program, helping new immigrants land jobs in B.C. and coaching them through the learning curves. BCBusiness: What kind of trends are we seeing today in workplace diversity in B.C.? Mackie Chase: People are talking so much about labour shortages and looking ahead. It seems like in every sector, you talk to people who can’t fill places. What I’m hearing from the work that we do at the centre is that it’s not unique to Canada and that, more and more, we’re going to be in competition with the rest of the world. One exception is the United States, and they have a higher population replacement that we do. BCB: B.C. is known for its ethnically diverse population. How does that relate to this labour shortage? MC: It’s creating lots of challenges. One is that we have a wealth of people power that we’re not tapping into very well. We’re good at making gatekeeping regulations, but we’re not so good at looking at alternate ways of gatekeeping: bridging systems. BCB: What sort of danger is there for businesses and for organizations if they don’t address these issues? MC: We’ve seen that in Paris and in lots of places in the world where people get more and more isolated and feel that they’re being held back and aren’t being integrated. We don’t have a very healthy, safe society when people are feeling frustrated and angry. Ray Holdgate: I think business won’t exist; that’s what will happen. If this city doesn’t do something in terms of the employment situation, then the businesses are going to migrate toward somebody who is doing something. So it’s up to Vancouver as a city to foster a new way of thinking. In my profession, we do a lot of the same. We traditionally sit and wait. We float out an application and we ask, “Why isn’t somebody coming to my door?” And because of our criteria, these gates, it’s a difficult issue. BCB: Carmen, workplace diversity is no surprise to you. Tell us about the workforce at Purdy’s. Carmen Grant: Our manufacturing workforce, with about 140 people, is probably about 75-per-cent visible minorities. When you see doctors and lawyers who are driving cabs, we have those people working in our factory. They came to Canada but their qualifications didn’t apply here. So it was, “We need to work, we need to support our families; here’s a job, I’m there,” and they stayed. BCB: What issues have come up with a 75-per-cent visible-minority workforce? CG: Last year we started to hear some talk that was a bit concerning for us. It was “them” or “they” or “you hire too many of those kind.” So I brought in a consultant who did some work on respect in the workplace. She did half-day sessions with our workforce in the factory. We set up something so they had partners, so when they heard some of that going on in the workplace, they could go to that partner and say, “I’m hearing this and I’m not liking it. Do you have any ideas on how I might handle it?”

“People don’t get along in the workplace, and they’re afraid to talk to each other” — Ray Holdgate

We also have production meetings before production starts every day, and we remind them of the things they have agreed to, the things they were uncomfortable with and the solutions that they had come up with. It was, “Remember when we talked about this? Here are the things you said you didn’t like about what happens in the workplace. Do you still see it happening? And if it is, how do we address it?” BCB: So it really takes some following up after you do something like this. CG: It does, and that’s actually the hardest part, because people forget. They walk out of that room and they go, “Okay, that was all very nice and well and good and yeah, we heard a lot of stuff.”

“When you see doctors and lawyers who are driving cabs, we have those people working in our factory” — Carmen Grant

BCB: Talking about these things seems to be a big part of it. Ray, what does this look like in the fire service? RH: The challenges we face are really just management problems. People don’t get along in the workplace, and they’re afraid to talk to each other. And probably our biggest problem today is the difference in age gap. So you’ve got “Xers” and “Boomers” and all these things put in one work setting. And you all have to get along. And, of course, we’re a paramilitary structure. When you take this supervisor who’s the captain and he says, “I have no problems at work,” I say, “You have lots of problems at work; you just don’t see them.” And he says, “What do you mean? If I tell them to do it, they do it.” Well, that’s the [uniform] stripes, the structure. And I say, “If you think those young folks over in the corner are sitting looking at all this stuff exuding out of us, this experience and so on, I got news for you: it’s not working.” BCB: In the fire service, the workforce is traditionally young, white males. Do you see a danger that this history makes your workforce inflexible when dealing with diversity? RH: Yes, it does. Recognizing it as an issue is number one. Unlike a lot of organizations, the fire service has long-term employees. Out of a workforce of 830 people, we lose three or four annually, if that. I just spoke to a recruit class of 14 people. There were probably five visible minorities in that group. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have seen that. So for us to make that change is not easy because you have to have people leave to start to accommodate other groups. And you need to attract people to the workplace that have the qualities that you’re looking for. This population dip we’re into right now, it’s going to affect the quality of employee you’re hiring. It’s easy to go out and just get someone to come and work for you. It’s difficult to get a quality person to come who you want to keep. I’d much rather have a person come right off the street with virtually no skills other than soft skills – good with people, get along well, a good fit. We’ll teach you to be a firefighter. What we’re doing right now is exactly the opposite; we’re hiring for skills and hoping it fits, and it’s a disaster. MC: And sometimes I think it’s hard to know if you’re hiring for fit when you’re doing it. In job interviews, for example, we have a game and we expect people are going to know how to play that game. I saw one person who was asked that typical question, “Why are you interested in this organization?” The answer was, “Because I need a job.” [pagebreak] BCB: Matthew, you’ve worked a lot with new Canadians entering the workforce here in B.C. How hard can this experience be? Matthew Stevenson: Well, it’s not easy for them, and I think the term you used – “playing the game” – is entirely appropriate. In every country in the world, and in particular here in B.C., there are regulating bodies, standards, credentials, recognition and so forth. Many people get extremely frustrated. Engineers are marvelous, intelligent people, but they assume, because they have all of these skills and education, they are going to plunk themselves anywhere in the world and everything is going to be okay. Skills and abilities and experience, personality and education are transferable almost anywhere in the world. However, there are a few glitches. One of them is, of course, language versus communication. There are some people who have learned intellectual language, but they have a difficult time communicating. One thing is asking questions when you don’t understand and to not be afraid when you come from a particular country or culture where to ask questions apparently diminishes you. Here, in construction, they want you to ask questions all the time.

“Each of us has an invisible set of rules that we operate by” — Mackie Chase

BCB: What do these diversity challenges look like in the workplace? CG: We have this phenomenon that we hadn’t realized in our lunchroom that everybody has an assigned chair. It’s informal, but they all know it, so you would never go up and sit in that chair because that’s Mary’s. And it took us a while to realize that. When we asked, “Why is that happening?” we heard, “That’s just what we’ve always done when we worked in our country. Everything was assigned to you.” We tend to try to fit the people into the workforce, rather than the workforce to the people. What we’ve done is say, “How can we change based on our employees?” And that’s a huge retention piece; then they like working, and they feel like they’re valued. BCB: What sort of strategies work to avoid the kinds of troubles you can get into in these diverse workplaces? MC: The things that are really tough are the invisible things, like how they expect to give feedback and receive feedback. What is the meeting for anyway? To brainstorm and sort things out? Or is it for the leader to give information? And, if there is a problem, do you solve it by a third party, or by going directly to somebody? What does trust look like? What does honesty look like? It’s an ongoing process of exchanging information and finding ways of making the invisible become apparent, because each of us has an invisible set of rules that we operate by. We have to find processes and structures for making the invisible visible. BCB: Matthew, you’ve been nodding at a lot of things said here recently. Those managers and supervisors who work really well with immigrants, what are they doing? MS: Well, the ones that do it really well are the ones who are prepared to listen. And, at the end of the day, that takes time. It takes time to attune yourself to things like accent and emphasis on syllables, words in past, present, future tenses that get mixed up, respectful words. The good team leaders are the ones who will listen, ask for questions or answers to be repeated in a clear fashion and make a suggestion, not just point a finger, even as busy as they are. RH: We need to rethink as a management group how we are running our organizations, and then we need to know how to implement change. When the attitudes begin to show more empathy with the employees, especially the immigrants, you’ll get some consideration for what their needs are. And I think when you’re dealing with this new sort of immigrant population coming in with totally different ways to be, you have to change your style to go after those people. If you don’t do that, guess what? I’m not going to hire them and you are. And that’s my loss and your gain. CG: It’s the fit. What I want is the person who is going to come in, they’re going to work hard, they’re going to like what they do; they’re going to have a passion for it. That’s what I want in an employee. It doesn’t matter to me where they come from. Now that does cause challenges in the workplace because that does matter to other people, and so we just have to find ways to help them work through that. MC: Maybe we just need to be far more explicit than we’ve been. If you work with homogeneous groups of people you can just assume; chances are pretty good that people know what’s expected and what responsibility looks like. If you’re dealing with lots of people who are new to the country, new to the organization and also the old timers who are new to this change, then there has to be space made and opportunities made for that explicit exploration of what people’s understandings and experiences are.