Diversity is more than just checking off boxes – it’s about creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work, including their ideas, questions and insights, without fear of embarrassment or criticism. This according to Sue Haywood, director of HR practice and head people officer at Business Sherpa Group.
“It’s not just enough to say we have people who look differently. If people look differently but are forced to act the same, then we don’t actually have diversity,” says Haywood.
Unfortunately, diversity remains an uncomfortable topic of conversation among those who worry about putting their foot in their mouth.
“A lot of it comes from fear of saying the wrong thing,” says Haywood. “People are like, ‘What if I offend somebody? What if I say something that’s not perfect?’ People are so afraid of being viewed as racist, sexist, homophobic or any of the other ‘isms’ that they’re keeping their mouths shut.
“I think we have to step away from this idea of perfection in order to make progress. It’s far better to try, perhaps misspeak, but have a dialogue about that, than it is to do nothing because you’re afraid of not being perfect.”
At the end of the day, companies need to take a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective with each business decision they make, rather than keep such policies a separate consideration, says Haywood, whose management consulting firm provides HR consulting, as well as bookkeeping, recruitment and executive solutions for small and medium-sized businesses across Canada.
"How can you actually get a diversity of opinion and perspective in a remote workplace? Reaching out to others is really important."
“I think if you can really instil that mindset, that’s where you can open up the dialogue and come up with new and better ways to make the workplace more inclusive. And that benefits everybody.”
As for how remote work is advancing the cause of diversity, Haywood believes the results are mixed.
“A lot of people are working alone. I think we’re forgetting, as brilliant as we all are as individuals, two smart people are far better than one. We’re missing out on that diversity.
“How can you actually get a diversity of opinion and perspective in a remote workplace? Reaching out to others is really important.”
At the same time, working from home has broken down barriers by allowing people to be more themselves, says Haywood.
“Before the pandemic, a lot of people were trying to live up to this facade of what is professionalism, what is the way we have to behave in the workplace.”
Employees have accepted that their professional and personal lives overlap at times. It’s not uncommon for children or pets to make unexpected guest appearances in the background of Zoom calls, for example.
'Everyone should be able to thrive'
Alita Fabiano, marketing communications manager at LRO Staffing, knows how important it is for workplaces to represent diverse cultures, generations and abilities. She became an advocate for inclusive change after a tumour left her with a hearing impairment some eight years ago.
“Workplaces owe it to their teams and, ultimately, their community to do better,” she says. “This issue deserves our attention because everyone should be able to thrive in our society.”
Taking a more inclusive approach to hiring is one solution to the current labour shortage, Fabiano points out.
“It helps (employers) tap into a large pool of skilled talent by not overlooking anyone.”
There’s much to consider when trying to be diverse and inclusive, she acknowledges.
“There’s no perfect way to approach it. What’s important is to understand that a truly inclusive workplace is always a work in progress. There’s always going to be constant learning and understanding that needs to be done.”
An inclusive workplace can mean something different to each person, she notes. A building designed for wheelchairs won’t help everyone with a disability, for example.
For a visually impaired person, a contrast in colours between the walls and floor is helpful. For Fabiano, she uses bone-conduction headphones to assist her with phone conversations.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. It’s just creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable to disclose when something is affecting them.”
There have been times in her career before she joined LRO Staffing when Fabiano kept her impairment to herself.
“I was so scared that it would stop me from getting a promotion or that people would look at me differently,” she explains.
Employers need to create an environment where employees feel comfortable speaking up, says Fabiano.
“I don’t think anyone … expects their employer to know it all and to guess what they’re thinking. I think it’s just that willingness to constantly learn and understand.”
Fabiano credits LRO Staffing with “not just talking the talk, but walking the walk” when it comes to celebrating individual differences in the workplace. The Ottawa-based firm specializes in the recruitment and placement of permanent, contract and temporary positions.
“They really have given me this platform to speak on this issue and have helped give me the tools I need to succeed,” says Fabiano.