Reaching out to immigrants and visible minorities brings companies new perspectives and access to more clients

Globe and Mail
January 26, 2009

Deirdre Kelly

It wasn’t what you’d expect a staff member to be doing at the corporate offices of Bayer Canada.

Wearing a traditional Chinese costume from her native Hong Kong, Suzanne Wan was performing a fan dance. The audience consisted of colleagues, mostly newcomers to Canada like herself, watching as Ms. Wan unfurled the brightly coloured fans, making them look like birds in flight.

This was more than a show.

As a participant in Diversity Day, a company initiative meant to showcase the various cultures at play within Bayer, Ms. Wan used the occasion to underscore her value as an employee within the global organization – her ethnicity.

“Different cultures bring different perspectives,” says Ms. Wan, who has worked at Bayer in Human Resources for the past 27 years, first in Hong Kong and, after immigrating in 1988, continuing at the company’s HealthCare and MaterialSciences division in Mississauga, Ont.

“In business today, there are no absolute right or wrong ways of doing things. It’s about being open to different opinions and ideas that might come from different backgrounds and cultures, and celebrating them.”

Having left the compliance gate long ago, Bayer has strategically positioned itself as an industry leader in actively creating an equal opportunity environment for all its staff.

To Helen Sraka, Bayer’s head of Talent Management, focusing on diversity just makes good business sense.

“Canada has a lot of immigrants, and in that pool of newcomers is a lot of talent,” says Ms. Sraka, a Croatian by heritage who joined Bayer in 1984.

“You need to be able to look at that diversity across the board because a company is only as good as its strength in diversity. A diverse environment drives a business forward because there is naturally an abundance of different opinions and ideas that spark creativity and help set an organization apart from its competitors.”

By diversity, Ms. Sraka goes beyond a narrow definition of racial and ethnic differences to embrace also gender and generational divisions in describing the full spectrum of Bayer’s 900 employees. New mothers, for instance, are allowed flex time to accommodate the demands of their offspring, while new Canadians are given English-language training and mentoring with an already established member of staff.

New employees are hired largely from within Canadian universities and schools where students are representative of the diverse Canadian population.

So-called visible minorities often approach Bayer on their own, attracted by the company’s growing reputation as an equal-opportunity employer. Bayer also seeks out new immigrants for its work force, in particular physicians and pharmacists from other countries unlicensed to practice in Canada.

“We pro-actively reach out to that pool of candidates,” says Ms. Wan. “We go to local colleges to recruit them for our medical department.”

Among these is Humber College, which offers programs to foreign medical personnel looking for careers in clinical operations and drug safety – fields of interest to Bayer.

At Sun Life Financial Inc., new Canadians are sometimes hired before stepping foot in the country.

Founded in Montreal in 1865 by Irish immigrant Matthew Hamilton Gault, the financial services company seeks new recruits through embassies in foreign countries where potential immigrants first apply to enter Canada. The company believes that hiring sales agents and advisers from within a particular ethnic community allows them to better communicate their products to people of similar backgrounds in Canada.

At least that is how Sonia Del Rosario got her start with the company 22 years ago.

“I got recruited through the embassy in my native Philippines,” says Ms. Del Rosario, Sun Life’s financial adviser in Ottawa. “They knew who was a good candidate for immigration from within the community, and my name was put forward.”

Managing a pharmaceuticals company at the time, she was at first reluctant to move into financial services.

“I am a nurse by profession and I hadn’t worked in the field before,” Ms. Del Rosario says.

But Sun Life offered on-the-job training, and the opportunity to work in her mother tongue offering services to people from her own culture.

“I believe that working with my ethnic community has provided me with a natural niche. Not only can I serve them in their first language, but I also understand what keeps them awake at night and that understanding is key to success.”

While Sun Life has long opened its doors to new Canadians, over the last two years hiring has focused on recruiting ethno-Canadians within the country, again through community referrals, says Jacqueline McMullen, assistant vice-president of Sun Life’s Career Sales Force Growth division.

“As Canada grows and becomes a more culturally diverse country we need to ensure that we have advisers who represent all our key markets across Canada,” Ms. McMullen says.

Last year, of the 700 new advisers hired, 34 per cent were new or ethno-Canadians, while 12 per cent were new graduates and 38 per cent were women.

India native Vinod Karna is director of Diversity Recruitment at Sun Life’s headquarters in Waterloo, Ont., says that there are emerging opportunities among ethnic groups in Alberta, Saskatchewan and in Halifax.

He says managers can go a long way toward understanding ethnic communities by looking at their publications, attending cultural events and making connections with community leaders.

Mr. Karna adds that newcomers make for excellent salespeople “because we are driven to succeed in our new environment.”

But, as Ms. Wan demonstrates at Bayer, immigrants bring to the workplace more than just a willingness to work hard.
“We bring something fresh to the table,” Ms. Wan says. “We open people’s eyes to an idea of diversity as a state of mind.”

Reference: Globe and Mail