How to make it work for you

Globe and Mail
May 26, 2009

The following is a transcript from an online chat featuring Ratna Omidvar, President, Maytree, and Chair, TRIEC Board of Directors.

One of the greatest challenges for any enterprise, large or small, is recruiting and retaining workers, a situation that is certain to escalate as baby boomers move into retirement.

One way to meet the challenge, experts say, is to strengthen the recruitment of visible minorities. In fact, 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.

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 — it just makes sound branding sense.

The challenge for many companies, however, is how to get started, and then how to recruit and retain visible minorities on staff.

Enter Ratna Omidvar. She is president of Maytree, a Toronto-based foundation dedicated to accelerating the settlement of immigrants and refugees.

Under Ms. Omidvar’s leadership, Maytree has gained international recognition for developing, testing, and implementing programs and policy solutions related to immigration, integration and diversity.

Ms. Omidvar, who was born in India and earned a bachelor of arts from the University of New Delhi, immigrated to Canada in 1981. She is a Fellow of Centennial College, and has received an honorary diploma from George Brown College. In 2006, she was appointed to the Order of Ontario.

She also was the first executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council, and is the chair of its board of directors. She serves as a director of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, and is a member of the board of the Tamarack Institute.

Ms. Omidvar joined us earlier for a discussion about diversity and the workplace.

Dave Michaels, Hi Ratna, and thanks for joining us today. The talk these days is of a business case for diversity. Is this a new concept — the idea that your business can gain a competitive advantage through a diverse work force?

Ratna Omidvar: No, this is not a new concept. The women’s movement has made many of the same arguments since the early 1950s. However, the discussion has sharpened in the last few years because of increasing globalization and the worldwide movement of people with skills and talent.

In Canada, the demographic imperative, particularly in our large urban centres, has provided a new context. Whilst labour market shortages have taken a back seat in the current economy, the need to reach into new markets and deliberately internationalize our customer base for Canadian goods has also provided a new urgency.

Finally, new research is being tabled that makes a link between diversity, innovation and competitiveness.

Slowly but surely the argument is being made that diversity is not a social justice issue but plain good business sense.

Dave Michaels, How can an entrepreneur prepare a business and its employees for a diversity initiative?

Ratna Omidvar: First of all, the entrepreneur, the corporation or the business must start with “Why diversity?” They must make the objectives of the initiative crystal clear and ground it within a compelling business rationale. Without this foundation, any diversity initiative will likely falter. It will fail to get the buy-in from employees who may well dismiss it as a form of social engineering or tokenism. In order to be taken seriously, this work should be done at the leadership level of the organization and the messaging should come from this level as well.

Next, a strategy needs to be prepared. How employers choose to do this will differ by size of employer. However, regardless of size and sector, a successful strategy will be owned by the leadership of the organization, who will make it a key priority, allocate resources and key staff to it, and commit to measuring and reporting on results within a specific time frame.

Elements of a diversity strategy include the establishment of a diversity council or advisory council that reaches out to diverse members of the organization for advice and input. This council will take on the task of identifying successful strategies, either through research or by identifying what has already worked in similar or similar-sized organizations. It must set realistic goals for change and lay out a road map for implementation. It must measure its performance against these goals.

Noel Hulsman, How much should cold, hard strategic imperatives influence the hiring process versus larger, more generalized notions of equity? I’m thinking here of specifically prioritizing, say, Indo-Canadians because I want to market either to the Indian community here or abroad, as opposed to prioritizing Indo-Canadians for the sake of a more diverse workforce. And is the idea of ‘prioritizing’ anyone a flawed idea?

Ratna Omidvar: Prioritizing anyone of any particular race is not only a flawed idea but it is in fact illegal. It is illegal to ask for any requirement that is not a bona fide occupational requirement (BFOR). Employers can discriminate on the basis of BFORs. Strategic imperatives can influence the hiring process if it can be proven that the job can only be performed by an individual from a specific ethnic community. If an employer cannot prove that the job can only be performed by an individual from a specific ethnic community, then it is illegal for an employer to conduct outreach to any specific ethnic group because it leads to discrimination.

You can state (as many employers do) that you will be looking for candidates from particular designated groups, but your hiring practices must weigh fairly the skills and competencies of all candidates against those articulated in the job posting.

So instead of saying you are looking for Indo-Canadians, you need to articulate the skills and competencies for the job at hand – which can translate into competencies related to language, knowledge of business practices in India or specific cultural competencies related to doing business with Indians or in India. There is a subtle but clear difference.

At the same time, prioritizing a new outreach strategy is a really good idea. For example, advertising through ethnic media outlets or community agencies can be very useful in getting a new talent pool into the door.

Noel Hulsman, If there is historical enmity between communities or ethnicities, should that be taken into consideration when developing teams or hiring?

Ratna Omidvar: Canada is in a unique position to create new models of understanding and bridge-building between people and communities. We should not be picking winners or losers based on anything else but the right person for the right job. Research has shown that a diverse group of people, from different parts of the world, with different life experiences, create prosperous organizations. That should be the focus.

That said, we know that friction between ethnic groups can be very strong and possibly carry over into the workplace. Where there is potential for intercultural conflict, it can be mitigated by diversity training, as well as clear communication from leadership that the company will be more innovative, creative – and ultimately successful – when diverse teams work together.

Noel Hulsman, Talk about setting targets and tracking. How should one go about that? What pitfalls exist?

Ratna Omidvar: It is important to set measurable objectives and then lay out a plan of action that will move your organization toward meeting these. As such these objectives should be quantifiable and measurable. They should be achievable. An example of an objective could be: “By such and such a date, our organization will increase the sourcing channels for new talent and so increase the pool of potential candidates,” or “By such and such a date our organization will have in hand a bias-free interviewing process.”

But this is not a quota. A quota must be filled. A target is one you strive to achieve. The pitfalls clearly happen when hiring managers or others misunderstand the difference.

Dave Michaels, We haven’t talked about diversity at higher levels of management. Are there any special considerations or challenges here, and how can they be handled?

Ratna Omidvar: Diversity in leadership is incredibly important, because it reflects our society. Research has shown that there is a link between diversity in leadership and financial and organizational performance. Diverse leaders provide a link to domestic and global markets and can help organizations attract and retain the best talent.

Of course, all organizations must actively develop the pipeline for talent today, so that they can have leaders tomorrow.

At the same time, we need to recognize that our own biases and prejudices play a significant role in who we imagine as leaders. Diversity training and workshops on bias-free hiring can be a first step. However, more important for senior-level management positions is our ability to be a part of new networks that expose us to new leaders both within and outside an organization.

Norman Monteiro of Sarnia, Ont., writes: Despite official stands on “respecting diversity in the workplace,” several government departments seem not be practising what they preach. New recruits are, more frequently, from anything but the visible minority group. This is more prevalent when it comes time for promotions. Is there anything in your experience that you could comment upon and perhaps an explanation on why this might be happening in the civil service?

Ratna Omidvar: You are right. The public service has been slow to make progress.

The government of Canada, which must table reports on the diversity of the work force, recognizes that there is a problem. A number of task forces have been struck, and a number of reports have been tabled. I don’t know whether any real action is being taken.

However, there are a few encouraging signs. The government of Ontario has appointed a Chief Diversity Officer to bring increased diversity to public service leadership in the province. The City of Toronto has focused its efforts on diversifying the boards of its agencies and commissions and they have seen real progress.

So, not all good news, but not all bad, either.

Dave Michaels,, writes: Are there any companies or organizations out there that are getting it right?

Ratna Omidvar: If you’re referring to diversity at the work-force level, I suggest you visit the website, which showcases more than 30 case studies of employers who have developed and implemented promising practices on recruiting, selecting and integrating skilled immigrants.

One example of a large company that has this right is Ernst & Young. Support for diversity comes directly from the top. Chairman and CEO Lou Pagnutti is the executive sponsor of the firm’s Ethnic Diversity Task Force. (

On the other hand, you have small companies that are also leveraging diverse talent. i3DVR International Inc., for example, a company started by immigrants, lives and breathes diversity. It relied on skilled immigrants to become a premier provider of digital video technologies. That department also has close to a 100 per cent retention rate. (

If you’re referring to diversity at the leadership level, I urge you to check out the report we’ll be releasing tomorrow at

Dave Michaels,, writes: Can you tell us in general what will be in this report?

Ratna Omidvar: In general it will examine the number of visible minorities in leadership positions across the corporate, public, elected and voluntary sectors in the Greater Toronto Area. It also features success stories and leading practices. This research has been conducted by the Diversity Institute at Ryerson University.

Dave Michaels, I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks, Ratna, for participating today. And thanks to our readers as well.

Reference: Globe and Mail