Diverse population drives university’s equity practices

U of T focuses on promoting women and minorities to leadership roles

When a human resources department oversees 10,000 full-time employees in Canada’s most diverse city, issues of equity are bound to come to the forefront. At the University of Toronto, even organizing events for a work-life balance month required giving thought to the challenges people of different cultures, genders and ages face at work and at home.

While some HR departments pay lip service to diversity, the university walks the walk, says professor and vice-president of human resources and equity Angela Hildyard.

“The linkage between HR and equity is very valuable. Our student body is probably the most diverse student body of any institution in North America,” says Hildyard. “If we’re going to provide a really great student experience, then we have got to pay very serious attention to the diversity of our student body. That means we’ve got to not only look at the diversity of our faculty and staff, but we’ve also got to know much more about the diverse communities we have at the university.”

Many equity programs focus on improving the position of women and the university has led the way in this arena, she says. This year, the university appointed its first-ever female deans in medicine, engineering and law.

“They are outstanding individuals and it’s just wonderful that they happen to be women,” says Hildyard. “Our strategy in all searches is to ensure that the identification of potential candidates is as thorough and expansive as possible,” she says.

While much work has been done in Canada to help women break through the glass ceiling, less attention has been paid to the number of visible minorities in leadership roles, she says.

The university is trying to advertise positions broadly to reach out to a more diverse pool of applicants and will soon use online recruitment software that allows applicants to self identify, giving the university a better idea of whether or not it’s reaching a broader audience.

Getting more diverse applicants is only the first step to having more minorities in leadership positions. Most organizations define leadership in a very narrow way, says Hildyard. North American ideals of leadership might be very different from the ideals of minority cultures and thus people with strong, but perhaps unusual, leadership characteristics can be overlooked for promotion.

Hildyard wants to broaden the university’s definition of leadership by examining what other cultures look for in a leader and then align hiring and promotion practices with that wider definition.

To that end, Hildyard’s department is taking advantage of the university’s research on diversity to understand how different cultures view leadership and how to encourage individuals from these cultures to take on leadership roles.

With the university’s large and diverse employee base, represented by 22 different unions, communication is paramount. Last year, Hildyard announced that finding more effective ways to communicate with faculty and staff was going to be a priority. With that in mind, HR revamped its orientation guide.

“The guide is an opportunity for employees to come into this hugely diverse and very decentralized model to get a sense of the rest of the institution,” says Hildyard. “Our sense was that our previous way of doing it wasn’t particularly effective.”

HR also updated its website so employees can find information much easier than before. With the old site, employees had to know a lot about the university’s structure to be able to find the information they were seeking, says Hildyard. The new site, which is nearly complete, is more intuitive and has multiple links, she says.

The university’s new performance management system also helps improve communication between HR, managers and employees, says Hildyard.

The process is very detailed and comprehensive, she says. It allows managers to show employees exactly why they received a certain rating and to detail how employees can improve that rating. It opens a dialogue between manager and employee, she says.

“It is time-consuming and we had a little push back because of the length of time it takes,” says Hildyard. “But I think there is now an acceptance that it’s a very good use of time.”

The performance management system was tested on about 640 employees in professional and managerial positions last year. The process was refined based on their feedback.

This kind of two-way communication is very important to the university. The first employee experience survey, which will be administered in April, will examine key themes as decided by an advisory committee and interest groups, including the work climate and quality of work-life.

Some of the questions have been used by other organizations and will serve as a comparison. The questions for faculty will be compared against other large, research-intensive universities in the United States. Hildyard plans to repeat the survey every couple of years to measure progress.

“We’re not doing this just to collect all this information and stick it on a shelf. We have made commitments to the members of our advisory group. We are collecting this information so that we can learn from it.”

In her annual report last year, Hildyard highlighted retention and succession planning as one of the biggest issues facing the university. In the next decade, about 33 per cent of the professional and managerial employees will be eligible for retirement.

To stem that loss, the university negotiated with faculty to end mandatory retirement last July, several months before Ontario banned the practice.

“It was important for us to do this ahead of the legislation so that we could do the best possible academic planning,” says Hildyard.

The university now has phased retirement options and plans to help faculty work past the age of 65. There are also plans to enhance and increase the mentoring program to retain knowledge of experienced staff.

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