‘Culture fit’ feels like racism to many visible minorities

Canadian executives call it “lack of fit.” Visible minorities call it prejudice.

Visible minorities say systemic racism still plagues many Canadian organization and creates a “sticky floor” which limits the opportunities for advancement and promotion, according to a study from the Conference Board of Canada.

For example, the heavy emphasis recruiters and hiring managers place on culture fit when considering applicants for a job makes it difficult for visible minorities to move into senior positions.

Fit or suitability for a job often comes down to chemistry between hiring manager and job candidate. “Visible minority candidates who had been unable to create a rapport with hiring managers due to different backgrounds and ethnicity left the interviews feeling that prejudice may have been to blame,” states The Voices of Visible Minorities: Speaking Out on Breaking Down Barriers, which summarizes the discussions from seven focus groups with Canadian-born and immigrant managers and professionals.

According to many in the focus groups, “lack of fit” was an indication of a preference for “the status quo and underlying racism” within an organization.

Similarly, many of the immigrants felt just speaking with an accent had cost them opportunities for senior positions. “In fact, some believed that phone interviews were used as a way to weed them out, since recruiters rarely called back after the initial phone interview,” states the briefing.

Pressure to perform is often greater for visible minorities because of a need to prove they deserve their job. “In some cases, visible minorities felt that managers needed to justify the hiring of a visible minority to the rest of the organization.”

Many also feel extra pressure to succeed, “because if you don’t, you may be responsible for curbing the career opportunities of the visible minorities who enter the organization after you.”

Visible minorities now represent about 13.4 per cent of the population, up from 6.3 per cent in 1986. Yet a survey of almost 70 Canadian organizations, conducted by the Conference Board earlier this year, found just three per cent of executive positions were filled by visible minorities.

“Racism is not something readily discernible by the senses: you cannot see it, hear it, smell it or touch it, but it does exist. It is subtle, invisible and ethereal,” said Senator Donald Oliver, the champion for the Conference Board’s program of research and education to help organizations maximize the talents of visible minorities.

“These are examples of systemic barriers,” said Prem Benimadhu, vice-president, organizational performance at the Conference Board. “Organizations that allow barriers to remain will lose access to this growing talent pool.”

The paper presents a number of recommendations for organizations eager to eliminate the barriers that keep visible minorities from advancement. According to focus group participants, supportive managers were essential to their progress.

The paper lists seven key competencies for effective equitable leaders as identified by TWI Inc., a leading Canadian workplace diversity consulting firm. Equitable managers:

•are open to differences;

•treat employees equitably;

•are sensitive to and accommodate employees’ different needs;

•treat employees with dignity and respect;

•contribute to change efforts that support diversity;

•demonstrate knowledge of best practices; and

•enthusiastically endorse and participate in diversity-related programs.

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