IS Awards celebrate ‘best employers’ of immigrants

Winners excel in recruiting, retaining and promoting skilled immigrants

When Geoffrey Mwangi first walked into the Toronto office of Ernst & Young for an interview, he was immediately struck by the faces he saw around him.

“Almost half of the people I met during that day were people who were visible minorities or were immigrants like myself,” said Mwangi, who came to Canada from Kenya about four years ago.

That included the two partners he met, the person who later became his senior manager and two other managers. It was the beginning of a process that made him more comfortable as a newcomer. Once he joined the professional services firm, Mwangi was introduced to a speech coach who worked with him one on one to help him improve his presentation and communication skills.

He was also paired with one of the partners in his group as part of the firm’s mentoring program.

“The partner helped me set up goals and objectives,” said Mwangi. “The whole objective is to help me succeed in the firm.”

It’s through such employer practices that Ernst & Young, which employs 3,300 people in Canada and 1,500 in Toronto, stepped into the limelight as one of the winners of an Immigrant Success Award, held for the first time this year by the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council.

The Immigrant Success (IS) Awards, presented in partnership with RBC Financial Group, Canadian HR Reporter and the Toronto Star, were set up to recognize “best employers” of immigrants. Winners are organizations that have practices and strategies that allow them to excel at recruiting, retaining and promoting skilled immigrants in the workplace.

Inclusive job postings

One of the winners was the Family Service Association (FSA) of Toronto, which took home the mid-sized firm award. A not-for-profit social service provider with 150 employees, the association has had hiring processes to recognize foreign credentials in place since the early 1990s. Instead of focusing on specific Canadian qualifications and experience, the association “looks at volunteer work that has important value to us,” said Kelley Myers, director of human resources and team leader, organizational resources at FSA. FSA job postings avoid detailed lists of sought-after skills. Instead, they state only the minimum requirements.

“That in essence leaves the door open for a wider variety of skilled applicants to hopefully come through our doors.”

Myers added that although many organizations have a tagline that promotes diversity in the workplace, a look at their job advertisements shows they might as well say “immigrants need not apply.”

At FSA, candidate interviews always involve panels of two or three people. This group includes the manager looking to fill an opening in her department and one or two people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives whom the manager has selected. The members of the panel are often foreign-trained employees who have a personal understanding of what it’s like to do a job search in a new country.

The association also invests in learning, offering employees $300 a year for professional development. In one instance, when an Indian-born employee wanted to become a licensed psychologist, she had help from her supervisor in guiding her studies. Even once qualified to practise psychology in Canada, that employee remained with the Family Service Association.

Inclusiveness versus diversity

Large employer IS Award winner Ernst & Young uses a wide variety of methods to attract and retain employees from countries around the world. Although the professional services firm has focused on diversity for years, in the past that simply meant differences were recognized, said Lynn Wilson, the firm’s director of leadership and organizational effectiveness.

“Our buzzword now is inclusiveness, which to us is very different from diversity,” said Wilson. “Our people 10 or 15 years ago would have said that many of our policies and actions were diverse and equitable, but there was this feeling that maybe things weren’t as inclusive. Now we see differences as critical to our success. We are a stronger firm because of our diversity of thought.”

As part of its recruitment drive, the Ernst & Young website’s careers page allows candidates from around the world to apply to the firm online. A globally accessed site “levels the playing field,” said Wilson. “You don’t have to have a direct channel into the firm.”

Adding a personal touch to the recruiting effort, an employee calls new hires even before they get to Canada to discuss what they can expect once they arrive. One of the firm’s managers even welcomes new employees at the airport and makes sure they have the clothing they need and know where to shop for food.

Newcomers to Ernst & Young are invited to attend a one-day workshop called “Succeeding in Canada.” The workshop focuses mostly on working in Canada, but also on living in Canada. The workshop provides specific information on ways to get paperwork in order and even such details as where to buy parkas. Newcomers are invited to bring their spouses or significant others to the workshop.

“The spouses really appreciated the opportunity to network with other spouses and other families who are going through similar transitions,” said Sadaf Parvaiz, manager of inclusiveness.

Local ethnic diversity steering committees have set up volunteer groups at many of the firm’s offices to help foster a culture of inclusiveness, said Parvaiz.

“Our Vancouver office, every couple of months, hosts a gathering for everyone in the office which is based on a different culture,” said Parvaiz.

It features various cultural holidays throughout the year and employees bring in food from that culture, decorate the room and provide a fact sheet to foster a better understanding of the culture.

New employees are set up with a counselling manager to discuss career goals and the types of additional training they might need in order to transition into the firm and, just as importantly, into the Canadian corporate environment.

A half-day inclusiveness and awareness workshop for managers and partners at Ernst & Young also examines the differences culture can bring to conversations and situations within the workplace.

“We have people look at where they would put themselves on six different cultural dimensions,” said Parvaiz. “By doing that we get to see right in the classroom the diversity of perspective and then we can talk about those differences.”

Another tool Ernst & Young uses is an “inclusiveness calendar,” used not just to increase awareness but to schedule day-to-day activities, said Parvaiz. A manager planning to have a team event or a meeting can see that someone on the team may be planning to celebrate a religious holiday, “so a manager can at least ask their employee whether they’re taking the day off and whether they should reschedule the meeting on a different day.”

To Mwangi, the manager from Kenya, the sum of these efforts is a picture of an employer that accepts people from all cultures. And that means there’s an opportunity for him — an opportunity “to go all the way to the top.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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