Barrier or Opportunity: How do you think about diversity?

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In the world of human resources, diversity is a commonly used word. You probably can’t name an HR conference of the recent past that didn’t have at least one session devoted to diversity in the workplace.

A quick Google search of “diversity in the workplace” will give you…just a second….there we go, 5,530,000 results, in 0.23 seconds no less. Scanning the search results you’ll find that references to diversity specialists and diversity managers are ubiquitous, that CEOs in Canada and elsewhere are becoming diversity champions, and that yes, bloggers are blogging about diversity! Even the most unlikely (and perhaps funniest) of workplaces are beginning to talk about diversity.  

Diversity refers to many things: cultural, linguistic, sexual orientation, age, gender, cognitive facilities, and so on. It’s a long list, and ah-hem, very diverse.  But what I’m focusing on here is the diversity we see in Ottawa’s labour force as a result of immigration.

In the past 10 years, Ottawa has received a total of about 64,000 immigrants. That’s almost equivalent to the total population of Barrhaven!  Immigrants represent an incredibly diverse set of cultures, languages, skills and experiences. According to the Census, 22% of Ottawa’s residents are immigrants, and projections by Statistics Canada suggest this could rise to 29% over the next 20 years.

Diversity is not a new topic, but it seems pretty clear that interest in diversity is growing rapidly. We’re also starting to see a change in how we think about diversity: what it means to our workplaces, and importantly, how we “situate” diversity within organizational and business strategies.

It was only about ten years ago that research based on 2001 Census data began to document the deteriorating labour market outcomes experienced by new immigrants.  At that time, the diversity within and among immigrant populations coming to Canada was largely viewed as a barrier to successful labour market integration. Diversity was associated with lack of language skills, or with religious and cultural practices that had to be accommodated. Diversity meant educational credentials attained from an unfamiliar university from another country. It meant, as it still does, great pot-luck dinners, but the top level view of diversity was largely that it created challenges for the workplace. And more, the challenges of diversity were typically cast as deficiencies of the new immigrants themselves (sub-par English or French skills, no Canadian work experience, etc.), while the perceived “solutions” were largely seen as the domain and responsibility of the immigrants themselves.

Managing diverse teams is not without challenges. The truth is, a diverse labour force does, and likely always will, present challenges for any workplace. But the new and much more powerful thinking is that diversity represents opportunity: to incorporate different perspectives, to gain access to highly skilled internationally educated and trained workers, to better understand and respond to a diverse customer base, to expand markets, and so on. It’s an important change of viewpoint, for what used to be seen as the immigrant’s problem is far more likely today to be seen as the organization’s responsibility to seize the opportunities presented by diversity; to support and sustain inclusive and dynamic workplaces through sound practice and policy. For many organizations today, strategically managing diversity is simply a business imperative.

Of course, not all businesses and organizations think this way. But there are great examples of workplaces making real systemic change based on this far more astute view of diversity. Many of these organizations are members of the Hire Immigrants Ottawa initiative. The engagement of these organizations suggests to me that Ottawa’s employers are finding ways to turn diversity challenges into diversity opportunities.

So how do you think about diversity: barrier, opportunity, or both?  I hope you’ll reflect on that question, and maybe share your thoughts.

Clarence Lochhead is Senior Manager, Policy and Research, Hire Immigrants Ottawa

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