Looking beyond values to value-add

Clients, employees are demanding that organizations broaden their appeal
By Kristen Carscallen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/19/2006

For businesses where intellectual capital is the major input, the challenge to retain staff is particularly critical. Unless a company is seen as an employer of choice, it won’t attract or retain the kind of people who can develop a competitive business strategy. Therefore, recruiting and retaining top talent is a priority for these organizations. After all, top talent can simply take their knowledge and go elsewhere with relative ease.

One key strategy for both hiring and retention is diversity. Far beyond a matter of values, diversity strategies are rapidly becoming a key weapon in the arsenal of those competing in the talent wars.

Diversity is usually seen as values-driven, but there are also clear business reasons why diversity is a strategic priority for organizations. The first and most obvious answer is the war for talent. Unless patterns of early retirement and immigration change dramatically, there will soon be fewer people entering the workforce in Canada than leaving it. The labour shortage faced by industries in Alberta is a harbinger for the rest of the country.

According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s immigrant population will grow by 24 to 65 per cent between 2001 and 2017, while the non-immigrant population will only grow by four to 12 per cent. In the past, Canada relied on educated immigrants from India and Asia. But as China and India invest more in education and opportunities for their own young people, that labour resource may dwindle and put more pressure on Canadian population levels and the domestic workforce.

The business case is clear. If a company wants to be an employer of choice, it must focus on diversity initiatives to recruit and retain the best. Diversity initiatives are aimed at making the workplace more inclusive, more tolerant of differences and more an environment that provides all employees with opportunities for advancement.

There are six key areas upon which organizations should focus to create a plan to leverage diversity in the workforce:

•making diversity a strategic business priority;

•developing an accountability framework around diversity;

•increasing levels of inclusive behaviour;

•developing mentoring/networking programs;

•strengthening and expanding career management systems and processes; and

•educating and reshaping norms around work-life balance issues.

The war for clients

Canada’s companies and markets are becoming as diverse as its population, especially in major cities. It’s not uncommon for clients to ask organizations what is being done to foster a corporate culture that respects diversity.

That’s not where it ends. Many Canadian businesses, large and small, work with colleagues and customers around the world. The relatively small and open Canadian economy depends to a great extent on international trade in goods and services. Most customers, suppliers, investors and prospective strategic allies are diverse. Projecting an internal culture that does not recognize external realities could cause a company to be perceived as backward.

The point is obvious. If a company wants to be a supplier of choice, it must focus on diversity initiatives to recruit and retain the best employees. Given the business imperatives, institutional policies are certainly important. People need to know where the institution stands on the issue of diversity and a clear policy is a good place to start.

But policies won’t get an organization to the finish line. Creating a culture that values and fosters diversity depends on the individual, not the institution. It’s the constant personal commitment to take the high level values and bring them alive. That is accomplished through discussion and learning about individuals and their circumstances. Without that commitment, diversity values can slide down the priority list when crucial deadlines loom. Without that commitment, an inclusive and supportive workplace is a nice-to-have, not a must-have.

Focus on the individual

At many Canadian organizations, about half of the people at the bottom of the organization chart are women. But at the senior level, the proportion is much lower. Some of this may be due to the glass ceiling. Some might be the self-selection of emerging female talent into non-leadership roles.

Why? As women accept family and child-care responsibilities, many take a different perspective of their careers — either temporarily or permanently. If a working environment is too narrow to accommodate their needs, they will go elsewhere.

Building an inclusive work environment requires that organizations not make assumptions about differences that aren’t there. At the same time, it requires that differences at the individual level be respected and accommodated.

An overriding theme in the pursuit of diversity is the issue of equity versus equality. It is quite common to hear a manager say, “I treat everyone the same.” Fair enough, but the truth is that everyone is not the same. For example, women with young children usually need special accommodation.

But it’s not just women. Other people may need to leave work early, may not be able to eat at a certain restaurant or may need days off for religious holidays. It’s only by talking to people that these differences can be understood.

Young people recruited at university campuses generally understand these differences and the need to respect them. People who have been in the workforce a long time are generally less attuned to these issues, but they are becoming more willing to have discussions and modify their thinking.

Managing diversity in the workplace, and the country for that matter, should be a top priority. The organizations that develop a sustainable model for diversity — one that recognizes the importance of policies but also focuses on individual development and solutions — will be employers of choice and quite probably suppliers of choice. It’s not easy to do, but the stakes are very high.

Kristen Carscallen is the partner and chair of professional services firm KPMG’s national diversity council. She can be reached at (416) 228-7137.

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