Five Atlantic Canadian CEOs on why workplace diversity and inclusion is kind of a big deal
As told to Darren Campbell and Dawn Chafe
Fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace has emerged as a key issue for Canadian CEOs. A recent survey of CEOs conducted by professional services firm PwC found that 66 per cent of the respondent’s companies had diversity and inclusion strategies and another nine per cent plan to develop one. But is the issue as pressing for executives leading businesses in Atlantic Canada? Atlantic Business Magazine quizzed five prominent local CEOs to get their thoughts.
The very birth of the organization, which was the homecare division, came out of an effort to employ women. I would say though that the increased emphasis on diversity and inclusion came around 2009-2010. As an organization we were seeing a lot of growth in the economy of Newfoundland and the labour market was ever tightening. So, probably due to external conditions like the economy, and also because of our own set of organizational values, we made diversity and inclusion more a part of our human resources strategy.
Physically our company looks very diverse. We employ people of different genders, nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. There is an accommodation for various mental health illnesses or challenges. We also like to have diversity in terms of experience and thoughts. We look for diversity and inclusion in our supply chain as well.
I don’t think fostering a diverse and inclusive workplace is a ‘nice-tohave’ anymore, I think it’s a ‘must-have’. The reason for that is we need to be competitive on the global landscape now. That’s the way the business world works. The kind of perspective you get from a more inclusive and diverse workplace is intrinsically tied to your strategic perspective on how to do business. I think businesses that don’t actively plan to be enriched by a diverse workforce and supply chain miss out on the opportunity to gain that perspective.
I think we have a ways to go in Atlantic Canada in terms of our attitudes around diversity and inclusion. Having special programs doesn’t mean that the people who are filling jobs that have one of those tags are any less able. I’m not sure we always get that. It’s time to have this conversation, not about social responsibility but about business smarts. It makes good business sense to do this.
It’s been on my radar since I became a university administrator. That goes back to the 1980s and early 1990s. This was partially because the human rights agenda in Canada really accelerated. All universities were confronted with this issue and developed offices that dealt with human rights issues. They built human rights issues into their collective agreement with their bargaining units and also looked to recruit students and faculty and create an inclusive environment.
We have all sorts of programs around inclusion and diversity and support groups for gay and lesbian students. We have support groups for international students. We have workshops and activities for incoming students and staff on diversity, on racism, on harassment and on gender orientation. All of this is part and parcel of the way we accept students into our university and prepare them for the complexity of the university experience. By the way, we were probably one of the first universities in Atlantic Canada to provide benefits to same-sex couples.
We’re in the talent business. We’re going to be successful as a university to the extent to which we attract talented people because they help us bring out the talents of the people who come here as students. Whenever we break boundaries and create new spaces for people, they rush in. I’ll give you one example. It’s fair to say we’re one of the best bestknown universities in the country for students with learning disabilities. We have a nationally recognized institution – the Meighen Centre. This has opened the doors for us to a whole series of interesting and talented people that would not have come to Mount Allison without this institute.
Businesses are not closed shops. If the wider world is diverse, global and increasingly seen as a tolerant, open and varied place, it seems to me for your organization to be effective; you have to have the same sort of sensibilities and characteristics.
Creating an environment that is totally tolerant of diversity and inclusion should not be the exception but the norm. Being in the hospitality industry, our clients are very diverse, therefore the benefit of having a diverse team is they can offer support, familiarity and a sense of comfort to our guests. Our company culture has always fostered an appreciative understanding and valuing of differences. In our Atlantic operations, the leadership team is close to 70 per cent female.
It is actually quite rewarding to be able to say that without an intended or formal ‘strategy/policy’ a diverse and inclusive workforce exists in our small company. We feel that our hiring practices have always focused on finding the best talent, skill set and fit for the business regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or beliefs. There have been only two instances where we put in place an actual strategy to hire immigrant workers to support our housekeeping team as a result of fruitless results when advertising locally; both times resulted in us acquiring ladies who exude work ethic and strive for excellence in their efforts.
I started seeing a focus on this about 15 years ago. At that time the focus was more on women, African Canadians and aboriginals. In the last five to 10 years, the LBGT [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender] communities have been identified as being an often discounted group when it came to some employment opportunities.
There are many benefits to having a diverse and inclusive workplace. Having individuals with different backgrounds, life and work experiences can add valuable input and ideas. Having work environments that welcome, embrace and work harmoniously together regardless of our race, sexual orientation or gender sends a message to everyone that we can all work together for the betterment of our business, communities, our cultures and our world.
We have a major problem in Nova Scotia and it’s the dwindling population here. With the decrease in the population, all of our businesses are in danger of not doing well or not existing. Every one of us has a service. Either you need people to do that service or you need people to acquire that service. There are so many advantages to having people from different cultures working for you. Their ideas could be new ideas for your office or business that you benefit from. If you’re in the export market, where they come from is probably a market for you. I look at immigration as a great source of increasing the population and bringing in a lot of good resources that our businesses can use.
I don’t really have specific diversity and inclusion policies. I haven’t had to do much about this or promote it because I’m the marketing material for the rest of my staff. I am diversity. [Editor’s note: Fares immigrated to Halifax from war-torn Lebanon in 1975.] I know first-hand the commitment and loyalty newcomers have, so I go after them. I don’t shy away from hiring someone who may not speak proper English yet because I can see they can perform for me. For your business to grow you have to go out there and get whoever is available. If you’re not willing to have a diverse workforce you are going to be hit in the bottom line.
We are improving, but people in Atlantic Canada are not as open to this as I would like them to be. There is still that stigma that [immigrants] come here and take our jobs. Canada is a great country and a lot of people would love to be residents of Canada. The sooner we open up, the better our future will be.
I think it’s a matter of respect; respect for what makes us different and respect for what makes us the same. Diversity and inclusion to me is about being open to people in all of their diversity. As a woman who has been able to build a successful career, it is important to me to pay that forward. Continuing to build an inclusive environment that is supportive of everyone pursuing their own unique goals and career objectives is a priority for me.
As a business, having a diverse workforce means you can more authentically connect with a broader customer base. Being able to better understand the cultural norms of a customer segment and being able to provide services in the language of choice of your customer is just good business. I also think that having a more diverse workforce fosters greater diversity of thought. As a company you will do better work, make better decisions and choices when you have strong representation of the population and communities that you intend to serve.
You ask if I’ve ever felt excluded in an industry which, traditionally, has been male-dominated at the top. I am fortunate that I have worked for 23 years for an organization that embraces diversity as one of its core values, and I have never been on the receiving end of any deliberate form of exclusion. Having said that, I’ve learned that men are typically better at creating informal networks, and that within these networks, decisions get made, relationships are built and deals can be made. While I do not believe women are intentionally left out of these networks, I think we do not seek them out or leverage them as much as we could and should. As a result, I am now much more aware of looking for these informal networking opportunities, and I seek them out far more deliberately than I did earlier in my career.