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Pluralism in Action: In an economic slump, is diversity in the workplace a casualty?

As part of The Pluralism Project, a roundtable in Calgary discusses ways to make sure local companies and organizations are reinforcing a diverse workforce, especially during an economic downturn.  

By: /
13 December, 2016
Calgary, the home of oil and gas in Canada and host to the Calgary Stampede rodeo, is pictured at dusk in Alberta, Canada July 13, 2016. REUTERS/Todd Korol
Salimah Kassamali
By: Salimah Kassamali
Research and Policy Officer, Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies

While the election of Donald Trump has put a spotlight on the tension south of the border between U.S. citizens and foreign workers, a much more positive dynamic was on display recently in Western Canada. 

The benefits of racial, gender and other kinds of diversity seemed strikingly obvious to business leaders and industry executives during a roundtable discussion earlier this fall in Calgary, hosted by The Pluralism Project

Like previous roundtables, including those held in Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo, there appeared to be a consensus that diversity and inclusion are assets for companies from an economic and social perspective: critical forces for social and sustainable growth, and, when leveraged appropriately, a bolster for innovation and trade.  

But what happens during an economic downturn? Is workplace diversity one of the first casualties of a recession as companies downsize, even if a larger and more diverse team might be more essential than ever?  

These questions are particularly poignant in Alberta, where the economy has been hit by a recent lull in the oil and gas sector. As one executive director in the telecommunications industry explained, staff cutbacks over the last two years inadvertently led to a less diverse team. The key to safeguarding workplace diversity, then, can only be found in the response – deliberate, thoughtful and strategic methods to employ women, ethnic minorities and internationally trained professionals, particularly during economic downtimes. Over the course of a lively conversation, six major takeaways emerged:

1. Diversifying and educating HR recruiters diversifies the candidate pool.

Human resources recruiters can have biases of their own, and as a result could overlook a candidate’s valuable skills and experience. Training HR recruiters to be more aware of their own prejudices may be one way around this. Deliberately hiring a diverse group of recruiters takes this a step further and is a way to cast a broader net when looking for new employees, as these recruiters would be more likely to promote a mixed candidate pool.

2. Greater recognition of international credentials and experience is needed.

This would help prevent recruiters from treating international qualifications as second tier. Local companies and organizations can be exclusionist towards international qualifications even though many international MBAs, for example, have valuable transferrable skills. Focusing on skills and competencies could avoid wasting talent. Programs that connect immigrant professionals and Canadians who studied abroad to local employers can be one way around such barriers and can reduce the deadweight loss associated with unemployment. 

3. Recognizing and valuing international experience can help broaden perspectives and international networks.

This can easily be seen when Canadians go abroad and then return home to work. In 2012-13, only three percent of Canadian students took advantage of international exchanges; this is much lower than in other countries like Australia, Germany and the United States. But international experience can help those Canadians who come back to Canada foster an environment of diversity and inclusion in their workplace. Changing the perspective of businesses to see international experience as a valuable asset can motivate Canadian students and young professionals, in particular, to seek experiences overseas.

4. Affirmative action policies are not the only way to promote gender diversity.

Affirmative action policies can sometimes lead to a frustrating misperception that individuals are hired based on gender rather than performance. Instead, companies can encourage gender diversity by removing unnecessary restrictions or barriers to entry. For example, some jobs can be unappealing for women with children if they are required to be available 24 hours a day in case of emergency. Certain allowances should be made around individual situations in order to encourage more people to apply for these positions.

5. Engaging youth on sciences, technology and engineering can help target systemic issues of inequality.

Affirmative action policies can sometimes have negative consequences for marginalized groups as well. For example, creating opportunities specifically for First Nations in the oil and gas sector has led to some resentment in the field. Tackling issues of systemic inequality therefore should be done at a much earlier stage. Some companies are engaging First Nations children to introduce them to opportunities in these sectors through youth mentorship and educational programs. Both government and the private sector can contribute to overcoming generational inequalities this way. 

6. Reducing federal immigration barriers and providing an easier pathway towards permanent residency makes it easier to hire newcomers.

Small companies are wary of language barriers, regulation and burdensome tax requirements. These barriers prevent them from keeping international staff and from reaping the benefits of international networks and opportunities to attract a different customer base. Federal policies that make it easier for people to get a permanent pathway to residency would make it more tenable for smaller companies to hire a more diverse group of people. 

While these are a few of the many approaches to preserving and strengthening diversity in the workplace, the Calgary group also emphasized that true inclusion can only take place with dialogue and acceptance. Identifying differences, addressing biases and maintaining forward-thinking is especially important during periods of economic downturn. While safeguarding progress on diversity may be challenging, it is also an opportunity to put in place the policies and programs that will ensure continued progress on diversity and inclusion when the economic recovery occurs.   

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