Allison Graham

Is the glass ceiling in corporate Canada on the verge of being shattered? It’s a timely question given news that Royal Bank of Canada is being lauded by New York City-based Catalyst for its Client First Transformation program that has seen women and minorities make huge strides up the bank’s management ladder. Women now comprise nearly 40% of RBC’s senior executive team and visible minority representation in management has doubled from 13 to 26% in the last decade.

RBC is one of the few recipients of this year’s Catalyst Award, a distinction given by the non-profit organization — which has offices in Toronto — to honour “innovative organizational approaches with proven, measurable results. Catalyst award chair Julie Nugent explained the reasons behind the acknowledgement:

“What we found at RBC as we talked with employees from all levels of the institution is that there is a consistent message and subsequent action around embracing diversity.

“We were particularly impressed by RBC’s ability to adapt their successful women’s programs to engage all diversity groups — aboriginals, visible minorities, persons with disabilities and New Canadians among them.

“Not only are the programs in place; the programs are working. These awards are not about top-down talk. To qualify the programs must have made a significant and positive impact on the entire workplace culture.”

So how has RBC embraced diversity so effectively when so many other companies have seemed to fail?

In an exclusive interview with the Financial Post, Gord Nixon, president and CEO of RBC, and Zabeen Hirji, RBC’s chief human resources officer, shared insights on how the combination of leadership, education and bottom-line expectations account for RBC’s success.

Mr. Nixon noted that the bank looks “at diversity through two different lenses. From an ethical perspective, it’s extremely important and it’s the right thing to do, but it also represents incredible business potential. To ignore the value offered by this huge part of Canada’s workforce and potential client base is a missed business opportunity.”

The close linkage between diversity and the business case helps to open the minds of people who would otherwise be less likely to embrace diversity. Mr. Nixon believes that humans naturally have unintentional biases, but that explaining the potential to capitalize on various markets makes employees more accepting and interested in learning about diverse workplaces.

Ms. Hirji adds, “We don’t do diversity for the sake of doing diversity. We’re operating a business. We focus on diversity so we can better serve the Canadian public. To overcome the natural tendency for managers to hire people who are most similar to them, we ask them what will best serve their community and increase results: having five people just like you or having a mix of people who can bring cultural competence, access to other ethnic groups and potentially new languages of service?”

To increase the number of women and minorities holding management and executive roles at RBC requires patience as well as a significant investment into education and leadership programs.

Tolerance and inclusion are key expectations at the bank and employees that don’t share those values do not progress through the ranks. At the same time, an employee who didn’t embrace RBC’s other core values — teamwork, responsibility, integrity and service — would also be turned down for promotion.

During our interview Mr. Nixon and Ms. Hirji made it plain that integrating cultural differences is a twofold process: expanding the business-norms to accommodate cultural and religious customs of all employees provided they are acceptable behaviours for a work environment and educating employees about various customs so they can increase understanding and acceptance and manage their actions accordingly.

For example, a woman who decided not to shake a man’s hand citing religious beliefs would not be expected to do so. She would, however, be made aware of how that could be interpreted by potential clients or coworkers. The same applies for a person who does not make eye contact as a sign of respect for elders. He or she would not be expected to change, but would be aware that the general population may interpret this as untrustworthy behaviour.

Mr. Nixon is quick to recognize it’s important to not generalize when it comes to diversity discussions. “The extremist views apply to a limited few. It’s been my experience that people are not looking for special treatment because of their circumstances, whether it is that they are a visible minority, have a disability or are of a particular sexual orientation. They just want to have an equal opportunity to advance in the bank.” The HR department has made it company policy to have a universe of people represented during the hiring process and as people are chosen for mentor and leadership positions that will help them climb the corporate ladder.

Could this have unintended consequences? Could the average white male end up being discriminated against? Mr. Nixon thinks we are a long way away from that happening.

So I asked, at what point does diversity trump talent? Asked to choose, and Mr. Nixon wouldn’t want to have to, he said he would “never want to see people hired based solely on diversity targets rather than for their actual talent. However, sometimes the definition of talent needs to be adjusted to fully see the potential in all candidates. It’s important to foster and nurture the various human resource pools and invest in people so they develop the talent needed to further their careers. As a leader one needs to take chances on people — in my experience, you are rarely disappointed.”

Mr. Nixon and Ms. Hirji both recognize it is easier for large companies with financial resources and HR departments to implement diversity programs. Still, they hope that through their work as co-chairs of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council they can take the message of tolerance, inclusion and the strong business case it represents to the general public. Ms. Hirji stated that small businesses are filled with untapped resources. If business owners and other organizations embraced diversity, Canada’s business community as a whole will be able to capitalize on what RBC sees as our country’s greatest global advantage — our diverse human capital resources.

Royal Bank will be recognized for its achievements at a conference and gala in New York City on March 24.



Reference: Financial Post