Employment equity gone wrong

University hired unqualified professor without sufficient background checks

A university hiring committee, foiled by a female, visible-minority candidate who forged her academic and professional credentials, may be cleared of any wrongdoing, but questions still remain about their hiring practices.

When Vietnam-born Lana Nguyen applied for the job as an assistant professor in electronics engineering at the University of Regina, three years ago, she was rated last out of three candidates. She was eventually hired and appointed assistant professor of software engineering a year before the job opened.

“If she was hired because she was a visible minority than that is not appropriate. It’s not in anyone’s best interests, including the candidate. That’s not the point of (employment equity). It creates a really unsettled and unhappy culture in the workplace to hire someone just based on their gender or race,” said Liz Calvert, provincial chair of the Saskatchewan Employment Equity and Diversity Association.

The University of Regina case highlights a number of issues including the importance of reference checking. However, more importantly, it underscores the ongoing misperception surrounding employment equity practices: that filling quotas and hiring a “token” individual comes before hiring qualified and competent individuals. It also fuels the misperception that having a diverse workforce requires loosening requirements and sacrificing merit.

“These types of cases fuel people’s perceptions that employment equity is based on selecting people based on one factor as opposed to ensuring there is qualified people for the job. But in fact, it has actually forced people to be much more disciplined in their hiring practices. It has actually made the selection process better and broken up some pretty select clubs,” said Lynne Sullivan, a senior consultant with Towers Perrin.

Nguyen’s alleged fraudulent behaviour came to light when she applied for a promotion and the fabricated resume was discovered by a peer review committee. She resigned in February and was arrested and charged in April with fraud and forgery.

In a recommendation to the university at the time of Nguyen’s hiring, dean Amit Chakma wrote: “Nguyen’s candidacy has been the fruit of our relentless and proactive efforts in identifying potential women faculty members.”

An external review of the university’s hiring and academic practices cleared the university administration of any wrongdoing but also found that the university didn’t do enough to check her resume or transcripts, which is not uncommon at most Canadian universities.

“Consistent to the faculty’s employment equity objectives, the dean had asked all search committees to be particularly alert to the opportunity to appoint qualified women candidates, and it appeared...that Nguyen’s appointment represented a success in that regard,” states the report.

The report, written by the president and associate vice-president of human resources from two other Canadian universities, did not mention any improvement to employment equity processes as a part of its recommendations.

“I think we will all be pleased to note that, in the review team’s estimation, our academic appointment processes are in line with those used in other universities,” said David Barnard, president of the University of Regina.

The intent of employment equity programs is to level the playing field, said Calvert, by opening the process up to members of groups that may not have had the opportunity previously. It also takes into account factors such as systemic racism built into the education and working world that may work against certain groups and favour others.

In this case, the first problem was that the university didn’t have an effective employment equity plan in place, said Calvert. If they had, they could have avoided this type of situation.

“If you have a good employment equity strategy in place you hire by qualifications first. You go through the same rigorous back checking. So, it would actually avoid a situation like this because you’re looking and checking for those qualifications,” said Calvert.

And, that’s the point of employment equity: opening up the search for talent to all pools of people.

The Bank of Montreal Group of Companies (BMO) is a prime example, where creating and maintaining a diverse and equitable workplace is enshrined in the core values of the organization and linked to business initiatives. The organization was recently awarded for their employment equity and diversity initiatives by the Conference Board of Canada.

“We ardently look for top talent. That’s the reason why we do it. That includes looking at talent pools that traditionally haven’t been a focal point in our industry,” said Lesya Balych, vice-president of workplace equality at BMO.

Theirs is a two-pronged approach: developing a diverse workplace and developing an equitable workplace. To this end, the firm, headed by very senior executives, developed the Chairman’s Council on Equitable Workplace as well as Balych’s office of workplace equality.

“Because workplace diversity and equality are a part of our values, it is part of the fabric of our enterprise. It is sewed in to it.”

The organization has developed employee-led diversity action teams, and offers supports to maintain a diverse workplace, like an internal employee assistance program. They’ve recently launched a pilot project to help identify barriers facing persons with disabilities.

The demographics of the organization reflect the success of diversity initiatives at BMO. The number of women holding executive positions has increased to 32.5 per cent from nine per cent in 1991; visible minorities account for 18.7 per cent of the overall workforce, up from 12.5 per cent in 1992; the number of Aboriginal People has also increased from 0.5 per cent in 1992 to 1.4 per cent; and the number of persons with disabilities is also up from 1.8 per cent in 1992 to 3.3. per cent. They are also aiming to achieve gender parity at the senior levels by 2007.

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