The diversity imperative

Organizations must leverage internal diversity to stay competitive

Two months ago, Jeff Waldman’s employer, a large financial institution in Toronto, asked him to participate in a career fair geared toward people with disabilities. Waldman, who has a hearing impairment, was more than happy to share his employment experiences with potential recruits.

“The whole concept was to get people out there to actually realize that (employment with a disability) can happen,” said Waldman, who works as an HR consultant.

Tapping into an organization’s diverse workforce to show other job candidates that the organization is a good place for them to work is one way organizations are leveraging diversity to a competitive advantage.

With the coming talent shortage, diversity recruitment is becoming an increasingly important way to meet an organization’s labour needs.

“It’s going to be important that we pull talent from every possible area. If I don’t have diversity as one of my platforms, I can’t attract from 100 per cent of the pool,” said Colleen Moorehead, co-founder of the Judy Project, a Toronto-based group that advocates for the advancement of women to executive ranks. “I’ve got to attract from 100 per cent of the pool, otherwise competitively I’m putting myself in a worse position.”

Once an organization has a diverse workforce — people with different abilities, different racial and cultural backgrounds and different genders — that diversity also enriches the thinking and development process. People from different backgrounds can see how a product or service would be viewed by different populations and can anticipate problems or opportunities others might miss.

“It allows different perspectives around problem solving. It enhances productivity through engagement. All of those areas are very critical to being competitive and being productive,” said Moorehead, who is also the president and CEO of corporate training company Nexient Learning in Toronto. “By having diversity in the thought process of your organization, you create new ideas and breakthrough ideas.”

A diverse workforce can also help an organization better serve the needs of its clients through a deeper understanding of the issues these clients face.

That’s one of the reasons the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission has committed to increasing diversity in the ranks of the province’s public servants.

“The business case is around a more effective and responsive public service where understanding that diversity brings different perspectives and innovation to policies, programs and services,” said Charlie Macdonald, a diversity management consultant with the Nova Scotia Public Service Commission. “Building the competencies to be able to serve all citizens, wherever they’re from and whatever their background and culture, is a responsibility of government. The way to do that very quickly and very effectively is to have a representative public service.”

In Halifax, after English, Arabic is the most common language among residents. To help all members of the public service, be they in health care or education, better meet the needs of a culture that is vastly different from the traditional Gaelic culture of Nova Scotia, the Public Service Commission has instituted mandatory diversity training for all public servants and diversity management for leaders.

In terms of recruitment, the three groups the public service is focusing on are Aboriginals, racially visible persons and persons with disabilities. In Nova Scotia, these groups make up 18 per cent of the working-age population, with 11.7 per cent of them participating in the labour force, according to 2001 Canadian census data.

According to the 2005-2006 survey of the province’s public service, people from these groups make up only 7.7 per cent of public servants. However, this is an increase from 7.2 per cent in 2004-2005.

“It’s not reflective of the population,” said Macdonald. “It’s been a challenge and that’s why we have an affirmative action and fair hiring policy.”

That policy is under review and a new draft, based on best practices, is expected to be tabled shortly as part of the province’s focus on diversity. Other programs the province has created include a diversity talent pool and a diversity accommodation fund.

The talent pool is made up of about 300 pre-screened job candidates who fall into one of the three designated groups. In the past year, 34 people from this pool have been placed in casual positions in the public service.

“It’s an entry point, generally through casual employment opportunities, so they get experience with government,” said Macdonald. “But it also gives departments an opportunity to get highly skilled, competent individuals for their short-term needs.”

The diversity accommodation fund provided $29,000 in the past year for special equipment to help employees in the public sector with disabilities, and Macdonald expects to surpass that figure in the next year.

By providing the funds, individual department managers no longer have to worry about whether or not a person with a disability will be too costly to employ in a certain position.

Employers’ fears and ignorance around disability accommodation is the one barrier that Waldman has faced during his six-year career in HR.

“About half of the actual employers I’ve spoken to have no understanding about how to actually deal with somebody who has some sort of challenge,” he said. “Their first gut instinct is to almost back off.”

And this reaction prevents employers from seeing past Waldman’s hearing impairment to seeing his skills. Employers are afraid it will take too much to accommodate Waldman’s disability, but all he needs at work is a phone that he can turn up loud enough so he can hear.

Waldman is also one of 15 HR professionals who volunteer with Ability Online, an online social support network for young people with disabilities. This fall, the organization launched a job readiness program. Waldman answers questions about employment equity and what an employer can and can’t ask of a job candidate.

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