Tackling diversity goes further than simply recruiting visible minorities
Marc St-Amour's definition of diversity in the workplace may surprise you. "Our controller needs to leave every day at 5 p.m. to pick up his baby at the baby sitter," he says. "That means meetings can't be held any time after 3:30 to accommodate his needs. That's something we consider to be diversity."
Renée Bazile-Jones agrees with the VP of human and financial resources at Expographiq, a Gatineau, Que.-based firm that designs and builds exhibits. "There's a huge level of misinformation about what diversity is," says Bazile-Jones, president of Unparalleled Inc, a diversity and inclusion consulting company in Toronto. "We need to look at diversity as being about all individual differences."
Representation, which refers to demographics, is only part of the equation. True diversity goes a step further to include differences that aren't visible to the eye - differences in the ways people approach their jobs. The two are, of course, linked: a person's background and circumstances will inevitably affect their work style and ethic. But it's all too easy, says Bazile-Jones, for employers to shut out the best candidates because they somehow stray from the norm.
That's something no business-large or small-can afford to do. About 80 per cent of the Canadian workforce is made up of women, visible minorities, aboriginal people and people with disabilities. If employers want to effectively compete for the best talent out there, they have to consider all of their options, and that means reaching out to visibly diverse candidates. But rather than just looking at what's on the outside, Bazile-Jones says, today's employers-especially small businesses-must consider expertise and range of skills. "Small business jobs are often more expansive than those in a large organization," she says. "So people doing the hiring are after candidates who have portable skills within the context of diversity."
Seeking out-and keeping-the best candidates is what brought St-Amour to Expographiq, which employs about 70 people. "The company was having trouble securing and retaining employees," he says. Since he joined the firm three years ago, employee turnover has gone down from almost 10 per cent to less than five.
He credits the improvement with the company's newfound ability to accommodate its staff and promote understanding. For instance, since coming on board, St-Amour has made providing training in conflict resolution a priority. "People often identify relationship issues as a communication problem," he says. "But what they're really dealing with is a diversity issue. Most of the time it's people struggling with different perceptions of each other." What's more, St-Amour has widened the company's recruitment net by reaching out to employment services that target immigrants, such as Quebec's Service Intégration Travail Outaouais, a government agency that connects new Canadians with potential employers. But the biggest change has been acknowledging Expographiq's diversity through constant dialogue. "Everything we do is based on considering differences and talking about them," he says. "Diversity is something that needs to be open and discussed in any organization."
That sense of openness is a must for any business trying to cross diversity barriers. "We need to look at our stereotypes, even unconscious ones," Bazile-Jones says. An employer may consciously make an effort not to assess someone based on their appearance - but, instead, they may unconsciously end up shutting out a candidate who has a heavy accent. Adhering to provincial human rights code can also be tricky. "You'd be surprised at how many employers do not even know they're breaking the code," says Bazile-Jones. A common breach is asking women if they're married or have kids-a huge human rights no-no. Aside from assembling a staff that reflects what's going on in the real world, in terms of appearances and work styles, there's a real business case to be made for diversity. St-Amour says that not only is Expographiq better at retaining its staff since making diversity a priority, it's also better at understanding its clients. "The clients we serve are diverse, and we need to reflect that diversity in our company," he says. "Having our employees be aware of diversity means they are open to our clients being different, too." A prime example, he says, is a recent exhibit Expographiq took on called Treasures of Beijing. "Our employees took the time to research the project in terms of culture, not just the product they were creating, and I'm sure the project was more successful as a result."
The business argument for diversity goes even further, says Bazile-Jones. For the small business, it's simply about survival. "They're competing not only with each other but also with large businesses to find the best people available," she says. "Small businesses need to demonstrate that they get it, that they understand they're dealing with people who are different." That's what will help any small business rise above the competition as an employer of choice. "The more a small business can demonstrate its flexibility and respect for people, the higher the performance level of the staff it hires, and that's what they're after."
For St-Amour, demonstrating flexibility starts the moment a new employee walks in the door. "Part of our orientation process is having a discussion about who we are. We sit down and talk about who we are and how we value our differences in this company," he says. "Our company is about people. We may sell a piece of furniture at the end of the day, but I need people to build it. Paying attention to diversity means I select the right people."