Diversity takes flight at Air Canada

Employees with different backgrounds and abilities help airline tap into different markets

Twenty years ago, when Air Canada first introduced flights to Asia, the faces of the flight attendants greeting the mostly Asian passengers were largely the same: Caucasian and female. The route was eventually cancelled.

Fast forward to 2008. Air Canada is now flying to five Asian countries and passengers going to Seoul, Hong Kong and Tokyo are likely to see their own faces and cultures reflected in the staff on board.

Last year, more than 30 per cent of the Montreal-based airline’s new hires were visible minorities, something that helped land it on Mediacorp Canada Inc.’s Best Diversity Employers 2008 list.

Although Air Canada has never enforced hiring quotas, it is subject to the Federal Employment Equity Act as a Crown corporation. The act requires the airline, which has more than 27,000 full-time employees, to have representation from all groups, at a level comparable to that found in the general population — in other words, multicultural, multilingual and inclusive of women and people with disabilities.

“Our customer base is very diverse,” says Jo Steiner, director of employee and labour strategy. “That is one of the main drivers behind our commitment to diversity in the workforce. It’s not so much to see diversity but to experience your diversity and feel that your uniqueness is recognized by the company.”

Air Canada draws on the expertise of its diversity and languages team, which has contacts within Aboriginal and minority communities and uses sponsorships, internships and student grants to attract a more diverse group of recruits.

When the airline is hiring new flight attendants, for example, it puts out a call to Aboriginal employment centres in search of potential candidates. The employment centres pre-select recruits and prepare them for the first interview.

“We reach out and are open to all of the diverse groups,” says Steiner. “We make a conscious effort to go out to visible minorities, Aboriginal groups and others to make sure they’re aware of our hiring.”

Air Canada also recruits at high schools, especially in fields where women and minorities are under-represented in the applicant pool. Chantal Dugas, manager of diversity and official languages, is often joined by a female mechanic or an Aboriginal pilot.

“It’s very important so they can relate and use their story as a role model,” she says. “Once I went with an Aboriginal pilot to a career fair and he was so popular that no one talked to me the whole time. It was very important to those kids.”

But even with all of the success and diversity training at Air Canada, Dugas says people with disabilities remain under-represented in its workforce.

“We do still have preconceived ideas,” she says. “The first time we had an employee walking in with a guide dog, the guards didn’t want to allow the person in. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Air Canada had made strides in recent months, however, in preparation of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. As the official airline, Air Canada will transport Canada’s Paralympic team.

This has forced the airline to learn how to accommodate the needs of passengers, and employees, with disabilities, says Louise McEvoy, general manager of languages and diversity.

“It helps to raise awareness,” she says. “All of the employees who were (trained) communicated to the rest of the company to make sure we accommodate their needs perfectly when it comes time to travel.”

Air Canada also regularly reviews its physical requirements for jobs such as ramp agents and pilots to see if accommodations can be made for workers with disabilities.

“We constantly review that because even that helps us with preconceived ideas that we have about someone,” she says.

Employees are so used to diversity that it has ceased to be much of an issue, says McEvoy. When a completely deaf mechanic joined one team, some of his co-workers attempted to learn sign language, she says.

“His group has worked with him in a tremendous way and made him feel included,” says McEvoy.

Air Canada has also focused on teaching employees about the nuances of different cultures, whether it’s on the job or in the air.

“Cultures are very different and little gestures that you may experience from a customer, you may experience them differently than they’re meant to be,” he says.

Air Canada is well situated to attract immigrant workers in the future who often want the travel benefits of working for an airline, says Steiner. He has no doubt that as the face of Canada changes, so too will diversity in many industries.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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