Assembling a work force that looks like the greater community has become a business imperative. Equally important is doing it the right way

Globe and Mail
January 26, 2009

Terrence Belford

As Jason Colley explains it, in 2004 senior management at American Express Canada looked out the windows of the company’s new headquarters in Markham and realized the world had changed. Geography helped sparked social change.

Markham, one of Toronto’s northern suburbs, had become a city with an extraordinarily diverse population. No longer a farming town dominated by white Anglo Saxons, Markham was now home to expanding Chinese and South Asian communities. In most families, women worked as well as the men.

If the company was going to recruit staff locally, its hiring and retention policies would have to change. Diversity would have to become a fundamental pillar of corporate culture, says Mr. Colley, manager of talent acquisition, the man responsible since 2007 for finding ways to dip into existing pools of qualified women, ethnic minorities and those with physical disabilities.

“At the same time, our customer base was changing,” says Mr. Colley. “There was a realization that there were sound business reasons to have our staff reflect the various communities we served.”

American Express is just a case in point. Major corporations are fostering diversity in the workplace as good business sense, not only to reflect changing customer bases today, but as a strategy for the long term.

Organizations such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business say that one of the greatest challenges for any enterprise – large or small – is recruiting and retaining workers. They predict that as baby boomers move into retirement, that challenge is certain to escalate.

At the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, associate dean Beatrix Dart says she can think of at least four sound business reasons for all enterprises to pursue diversity in the work force. Her first echoes those who point to the shrinking pool of available people following the boomer bulge.

She also says that business is increasingly international in nature and having people on staff fluent in foreign languages and cultural savvy can prove a tremendous asset. Then there is the need to have an organization reflect the communities it serves: That just makes sound branding sense, she says.

The fourth point reflects a change of perception as to who is the decision maker in households.

“Surveys show that women have the greatest influence in 70 per cent of household purchases,” she says. “With new cars they are the primary influence in 60 per cent of buy decisions. It just makes sense to strengthen the female component and use their insights.”

“All organizations have to start looking for ways to reach deeper into the pools of available talent within their communities,” says Jane Allen, chief diversity officer at Deloitte & Touche LLP, the international accounting and consulting company with 7,900 staff across Canada. “It simply makes good business sense.”

The challenge for many, however, is how to get started and then how to create internal systems and processes to ensure programs created to achieve diversity do not wither on the corporate vine.

At both Amex Canada and Deloitte, the process started with benchmarking, a complete demographic survey of just how diverse staff was, say both Mr. Colley and Ms. Allen. Deloitte even brought in an outside consultant to help structure change and advise on the process.

“The idea is to create a baseline, which can be used to measure progress,” says Ms. Allen.

The next step for both was creation of a company-wide diversity council. In Amex’s case it has 12 members from across Canada. Deloitte has 18. The council acts as a central organizing group, monitoring change and reporting to both management and staff.

Step three was to create a series of task forces with each given responsibility to organize, launch and monitor specific diversity initiatives.

“At Amex one of the top priorities was not just broadening recruitment but broadening retention programs as well,” says Mr. Colley. “Our goal was to have units such as our call centre and credit risk groups – those that deal directly with customers – more closely reflect our client base.

A top priority at Deloitte became increasing the number of women in management.

When Mr. Colley took over his new position in 2007 he began to reach out to non-traditional sources for recruiting, such as job sites directed toward aboriginals and specific ethnic communities.

“We also started working with student groups, such as the aboriginal students’ organization at Ryerson University,” he says. “It is not so much an effort to hire X number from any group, but to ensure they are not overlooked in the process,” he says.

Key to any diversity initiative is creating an internal structure that makes managers accountable for expanding diversity in their business unit and supporting their efforts, explains Ms. Allen.

“That means identifying who makes the decisions or influences recruitment and retention, right from the board level down to everyday staff,” she says. “Then we created individual programs for each unit with set targets and a monitoring system to check on progress.”

Those programs can indeed be broad ranging. Amex, for example, now has two dozen managers working as mentors to new Canadians trying to make the most of their training in the homeland in the Canadian workplace.

Deloitte will introduce its own mentoring program this year, but, unlike the one at Amex, it will be aimed at exposing existing staff to the challenges faced by their managers and bosses.

At Deloitte there are company-sponsored affinity groups among employees where gays, lesbians, the physically disabled, women and Canadians from a broad range of ethnic backgrounds can network, often becoming incubators for new programs and a continuing resource to tap into their own community for new corporate talent, says Ms. Allen.

At Amex, the company developed partnerships with groups such as the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council to participate in TRIEC programs designed to speed the entry of new Canadians into the work force.

At both companies diversity is still a work in progress. Evidence of its success is still chiefly anecdotal.

“Measurement is probably still a year away,” says Deloitte’s Ms. Allen. “But I can see we are seeing very encouraging results in things like performance reports and in internal discussions.”

Reference: Globe and Mail