Boeing puts diversity to work – silently

Deaf employees use BlackBerrys to communicate

In 33 years of working at Boeing in Winnipeg, tooling technician Marty Rabu has never heard a single word that’s been spoken to him.

Not because he’s an indifferent employee. Far from it. He’s one of 21 deaf people who work at Boeing Canada Technology’s Winnipeg Division, which manufactures aerospace composites. That’s one of the reasons Boeing Canada Technology, Winnipeg Division, landed on Mediacorp Canada Inc.’s Best Diversity Employers 2008 list.

Marty and his cohorts communicate “loud and clear” with able-eared co-workers over the din of the factory floor by thumbing their thoughts to each other on BlackBerrys.

It was Rabu who turned Boeing Winnipeg on to the BlackBerry’s potential, says communications manager Alana Broadbent.

“His sister-in-law told Marty that the community college where she worked distributed BlackBerrys to their deaf employees,” says Broadbent.

After Rabu and another employee conducted a two-week trial in 2004 and showed how the BlackBerry eliminated the use of scribbled paper or sign language interpreters to communicate, the company gave BlackBerrys to all its deaf employees.

“Of course, the supervisors and managers who deal with those employees directly were given BlackBerrys too,” says Broadbent. “But a lot of other people in the company also have BlackBerrys. As well, if you have just one BlackBerry, two people can type messages to each other and hand it back and forth. So the initiative has made our deaf employees feel much more a part of the business.”

In a story written for Boeing’s in-house employee newsletter, Rabu said: “Deaf employees have a tendency to feel invisible. The BlackBerry makes us equal with everyone.”

But there’s a lot more to diversity at Boeing’s Winnipeg division than BlackBerrys. While its 1,550 employees are busy making wing-to-body fairings, thrust reverser blocker doors and engine strut fairings for Boeing’s 777 series passenger planes, the company is also staging:

• Diversity days, which stretch over a full working week usually in the fall. Each day, a different volunteer from a specific cultural background goes on stage and on camera. While enjoying a cafeteria lunch from that culture’s kitchens, employees watch PowerPoint presentations, and even videos of dancers or singers, on strategically placed plasma screens and thus get attuned to the diverse backgrounds of co-workers.

• Diversity training, including formal educational classes on respecting and honouring co-workers’ origins, leanings and affiliations in four target groups of people: women, Aboriginals, visible minorities and people with disabilities. About 50 per cent of Boeing Winnipeg’s employees fall into those four categories.

• Language training for recent immigrants and others wanting to improve conversational English.

• American Sign Language training to learn the skill of hand and finger communication.

• Monthly awareness campaigns sent over the plasma screens profiling events on the calendar such as Hanukkah or Ramadan.

• Aboriginal recruitment in partnership with the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development in Winnipeg and its aerospace training program.

• Job shadowing in co-operation with Red River College’s deaf studies program in Winnipeg. Students get to see, and communicate with, deaf employees at work.

• Art Exhibitions for young deaf artists staged at Boeing in conjunction with the Manitoba School for the Deaf and the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

To get all that done, Boeing’s volunteer diversity team meets twice a month to spot diversity issues and to plan engaging, awareness-heightening activities for employees.

“Promoting diversity is important for creating a positive and respectful workplace,” says Cathy Bain, Boeing Winnipeg’s HR manager and leader of the diversity team. “We value all of our employees and recognize that leveraging their unique backgrounds contributes to the overall success of our business.”

Andy Shaw is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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