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The Power of Diversity in the Workplace

Group demonstrating diversity in the workplace

The world is shrinking. Globalization means companies from virtually anywhere can sell to customers from virtually anywhere, and in North America, local markets continue to become more and more cosmopolitan due to immigration. Target demographics are changing, and businesses that ignore those changes will one day find themselves without anyone to sell to. However, to stay relevant, businesses must do more than simply cater their products and services to these increasingly diverse demographics. In fact, it’s unlikely they can even do that successfully without fostering workplace diversity. But what exactly is workplace diversity, and how do organizations implement it?

Workplace diversity vs. affirmative action

When people think of diversity in the workplace, they tend to think of an office filled with people of various ethnicities, and, unfortunately, many people extend that thought to include legislated quotas, vis-à-vis affirmative action. But workplace diversity is not about meeting quotas. In fact, if you’re just out to meet quotas, you’re potentially sacrificing some of the best candidates available to you. And of course, the same is true if you stick to hiring people with similar ethnic and educational backgrounds. Diversity is actually rooted in merit and in the appreciation of differences. It focuses on finding the right candidate for the right job regardless of (not because of) their ethnicity, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, certain physical/mental abilities, marital status, education, and socioeconomic status – and then leveraging the various benefits that come with having a diverse workforce.

Benefits of diversity in the workplace

So what are the benefits of having diversity in the workplace? Studies show that the more an organization’s staff reflects its demographics, the better its bottom line. That’s because the people within the organization have a better understanding of their target audience. So, as demographics become more cosmopolitan, it’s best to have a cosmopolitan staff. The more groups your organization targets (and for most organizations these days, that’s a lot), the more those groups should be represented in your workplace to provide insight and present innovative ways to appeal to those groups.

It’s also argued that diversity makes the workplace inherently more inclusive. The more your employees witness diversity, the more comfortable they’ll feel about their own identities and more open they’ll be about sharing their ideas. However, if this sounds a little like the age-old message that our differences are only skin-deep, think again. That message refers to the idea that everyone’s the same despite their physical differences. But when it comes to diversity in the workplace, that’s exactly what you don’t want. True diversity welcomes different worldviews – different thinkers. You could have people of every colour in the rainbow on your staff, but if they all have similar educations, socioeconomic statuses, and marital statuses, that’s not diversity. In fact, having employees of the same skin colour, but with varying struggles and successes in their backgrounds would constitute a truer form of diversity in the workplace.

Obstacles to diversity in the workplace

Although Canada prides itself on its multiculturalism, a 2011 study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto reveals that employers in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver show a clear bias in granting interviews to applicants with English-sounding names. This bias stems from concerns surrounding applicants’ language and social skills despite items on their resumes (such as education and experience) that clearly suggest those skills are more than sufficient. Essentially, between two applicants both born and raised in Canada with similar educations and work experiences, the one with the English-sounding name is more likely to get a callback. While this trend highlights a rather shameful aspect of employment in Canada, it also highlights just how much opportunity Canadian employers are missing out on.

In fact, the longer Canadian organizations continue this kind of discrimination, the more detrimental it will be to their bottom lines—and not just because they’ll miss out on the benefits of diversity discussed above. With a deluge of Baby Boomers set to retire year after year for many years to come, and with the national birthrate on the decline, Canadian employers need to examine all applicants’ resumes in detail to ensure they’re not turning down top talent based on superficial criteria. To continue such foolhardy screening practices is to invite a not-too-distant future plagued by hiring crisis after hiring crisis.

How to foster diversity in the workplace

Talking about increasing diversity in the workplace is one thing; implementing it is another. Beyond carefully screening applicants’ resumes to avoid prejudices based on insubstantial content (like names), organizations, especially at their most senior levels, must create and embrace diversity policies that advocate the proactive attraction of diverse applicants. Such proactivity includes approaching various community organizations – such as cultural centres, ability centres, and LGBT organizations – and asking for the opportunity to put on presentations, participate in job fairs, and distribute collateral as a means of attracting applicants from those groups. Your diversity policy would even include supplying information, holding classes, and providing benefits for expecting mothers, among other family-friendly practices, so as not to build a wall between single and non-single employees.

While it’s true that the Employment Equity Act already requires Canadian employers to proactively engage women, differently-abled people, Aboriginal people, and visible minorities, a diversity policy makes the issue of employment equity something to be celebrated and sought after – not begrudgingly abided by. Similarly, employers need not wait around for a government audit to learn about their compliance with the law. Rather, a diversity policy should already include quantitative data that allows you to measure how well your policy’s been performing. Such metrics include tallying the amount of minority candidates you interview, analyzing pay equity among various groups within your organization, and conducting employee surveys to assess their perception of inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

In fact, that last point about the perception of your employees is a key factor in harnessing the potential of workplace diversity. Your internal affairs are just as important as your outreach efforts because your employees will spread the word about your high level of diversity and inclusiveness, which in turn will help you attract even more diverse employees. Additionally, since issues such as diversity and employment equity align with people’s philosophical beliefs, you’re more likely to retain your top talent simply because people enjoy working for organizations that share their values.

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