FYI, you need to work on your DEI

By Sue Sodek

 

People managers and business owners know it is not enough to just schedule staff and invoice customers. You are also expected to be the company expert on every legal obligation and people issue that comes with doing business in Canada.

These days, there’s a brand-new acronym and a whole series of items you need to consider under what is now known as “DEI” – which is short for Diversity, Equity and Inclusiveness. This can be a sensitive topic for some employers. Take heart, I am going to walk you through what this means, your legal obligations, and why putting a focus on DEI may make good business sense.

 

Let’s talk terms

Diversity is a term we are all familiar with, and for our purposes can be considered a catch-all term to describe the typically protected grounds under Human Rights and Charter pieces of legislation. Generally, these are descriptors or factors experienced by groups or individuals that historically may have led to mistreatment, lack of opportunity or discrimination. Examples include gender, race, religion, physical or mental disability, and so forth. It is helpful to remember “diversity” can’t always be readily observed: not every person with physical challenges is in a wheelchair, and not every person with gender expression or sexual orientation differences wishes to announce and/or be recognized as such. When it comes to the workplace, diversity is a good thing to aim for. The more people you have with varying abilities and backgrounds, the wider the customer base you may be able to serve, and the better you will represent the community you live and work in.

When people with diverse backgrounds work together, they tend to develop more empathy and a greater appreciation for other cultures or ways of life. Diverse teams tend to be more creative, problem solve better, and generate more profits.

Equity in this case can be defined as the need to remove barriers to success. It is not the same thing as equality. Equality is having everyone begin at the same starting line, with the exact same chance of winning the race; in reality, lots of people never even get to make it to the track. We can likely all acknowledge that systemic barriers exist at times for parts of the population and not everyone has the same opportunities in life. And we can probably all agree that at one time or another, most people need some support in order to be successful. If you only treat people “equally,” you may in fact be actively excluding people who could be assets to your business if they just had a level playing field.

Equity is about removing those obstacles that might be keeping good people from being able to contribute to the workforce. It starts before hiring and continues throughout the lifecycle of someone working with your company. In the past, I have had hiring managers say “Well I’d gladly hire an X (wherein X is a woman/minority/ person with a physical challenge) if one would just apply” and think their obligation is met. I would like to (gently) point out that if you’ve done absolutely nothing to attract or retain any sort of diverse hire, you may be flouting the law and you are also doing your business a disservice.

Inclusiveness is what we should all be aiming for, whether it is at the workplace or just as a society in general. Inclusiveness does not mean we all hold hands as the sun sets at the end of the workday. Inclusiveness does not mean we have to like each other. And inclusiveness doesn’t even mean we all suddenly agree with each other’s choices. Inclusiveness just means we are respectful.

As an employer and a person living in 2024, you are simply aiming for a workplace where people are both respected and respectful. In basic terms, if someone has a physical challenge, where possible, work is modified to ensure they can continue working. If someone feels they are the target of unfair treatment, management has policies in place to investigate, understand and correct what is occurring within their workforce. And yes, if someone says actually, I would like to be referred to as he/she/they, that is accommodated, because it is just a minor grammatical change, and not a challenge to anyone’s core belief system. Hiring becomes a more open process that actively invites a wider pool of candidates. Problem solving is a collaborative effort. Workers and managers have realistic expectations and everyone feels safe while they work.

 

Building towards a respectful workplace

Now that we have the terminology down, what should your DEI plans be and what are your legal obligations as an employer? As a starting point, you need to ensure you are in compliance with local, provincial and federal legislation. It is no longer sufficient to rely on vague notions of fairness and building codes and assume your business has met its equity obligations. Starting with the job posting and hiring process, there are several tweaks you can consider to get building towards that respectful workplace.

Generally speaking, unless you live in a remote part of the country with a small labour pool, you should be trying to advertise more broadly, with the goal of attracting a more diverse response. Consider branching out from your standard job posting sites. Is there a college or trade program where you can attend a job fair? Is there a local not-for-profit that helps candidates from diverse backgrounds? Is there a publication in a language other than English that can help get the word out that you have jobs to offer? All job postings should include a line about providing accommodation for those who request it, and you should be able to back that up. If a candidate with a visual impairment presents themselves and asks for assistance filling out an application form, do you have a version you can offer? Are there any modifications currently that can be made to your core roles which would allow for more people to perform the work? What about the community your business represents and serves, does your current workforce reflect that community? Is there a segment of the population underrepresented by your employee base? These are some of the considerations you should remember while you still aim, as always, to select the best person to safely and effectively perform work for you.

Once you have the right people in place, you should review your policies and procedures and ensure they support a more equitable workplace. Again, you aren’t looking to change hearts and minds here. You are simply setting the precedent that your business is one where people are treated with respect. At a minimum, you should have a Zero Tolerance Policy towards any workplace violence or harassment, with strict penalties for violators and protections for those who make reports (see the sidebar for a sample policy, and check with your provincial authorities to ensure your policy is compliant).

Your message of expecting and giving respect to all should be communicated in every interaction you have. As with any change, the process to meet your equity goals can cause some initial discomfort, take time, and have associated costs, but equity and inclusiveness aren’t just a legal obligation but a good business (and moral) choice, and this is the way of the world now. If you are experiencing resistance to change from your workforce, it may be helpful to remind people at one point in the not-too-distant past, tax payers were up in arms over adding ramps to buildings. Curb cuts at intersections to assist with mobility were considered a major innovation. And any readers over 50 likely remember happily riding backwards in cars with no seatbelts. Nowadays we know better, and understand changes such as these make life safer and better for all of us. With a little effort, so will your new focus on DEI.

 

SAMPLE Workplace anti-violence and harassment policy

At ABC, we are committed to providing a safe, open environment in which all workers are treated with respect and dignity. ABC has a Zero Tolerance Policy towards any and all acts of violence or harassment in the workplace. Harassment will not be tolerated in the workplace from any person, be they worker, supervisor, manager, client, contractor, supplier, visitor or member of the public.

 

Application

This policy applies to all ABC employees and will be reviewed annually in accordance with the applicable legislation.

 

Definitions

Workplace harassment includes but is not limited to any conduct that is known or ought to reasonably be known to be unwelcome and unsolicited. Note that legitimate and reasonable action taken by an ABC manager or supervisor relating to the direction of work or discipline of workers does not constitute workplace harassment.

Sexual harassment is defined as any unwelcome and unsolicited sex, gender or sexually suggestive actions, comments, remarks or gestures that are known or ought reasonably to be known to be offensive, unwelcome, embarrassing, demeaning, intimidating or humiliating against a targeted individual.

Workplace violence includes but is not limited to the exercise of or attempt to exercise physical force or behaviours by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker.

 

Employee responsibilities

ABC requires all employees to behave responsibly and to comply with this policy at all times; to not engage in, support or tolerate any unacceptable behaviour; and to immediately report incidents of workplace violence or harassment to (their supervisor/ management/ownership/human resources).

 

Management responsibilities

ABC supervisors and managers will ensure employees are not exposed to workplace violence or harassment by personally demonstrating appropriate behaviour, by promoting this policy and by treating complaints seriously, including ensuring the person that either lodges or is witness to an incident is heard and that all complaints are addressed.

Reporting incidents Be sure to include the steps employees are to follow, with specifics around timeframes and the names or positions of who is in charge of reviewing the reports.

Investigations Include details around timing, the seriousness with which complaints will be taken, and who will be involved in the investigation process. Include a line that wherever possible, the privacy of the workers involved will be protected. Consequences List the steps someone can expect to occur when management has completed an investigation, and conditions that may be considered when determining corrective action. Include a note that workers will not be penalized or disciplined for reporting an incident, or participating in an investigation regarding workplace harassment.

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