The death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 has led to global anti-racism protests and has shone a spotlight on inequality in all aspects of society, including the workplace. Individual protestors are not the only ones who have stood up, rather we have also seen the business community standing up and actively engaging in initiatives to address injustice. The tragedy of Mr. Floyd’s death has brought about the possibility of a renewed focus on principles of equity, diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
But why is diversity important to businesses? Other than the moral reasons for striving towards a society and workplaces that are truly equal, what is the business case for diversity? Studies have definitively shown that diversity in the workplace provides a broader range of knowledge and skills, contributes to improved problem solving and increases access to market share. With increased diversity comes increased innovation. As noted by Vijay Eswaran, Executive Chairman, QI Group:
Business has the transformative power to change and contribute to a more open, diverse and inclusive society. We can only accomplish this by starting from within our organizations. Many of us know intuitively that diversity is good for business. The case for establishing a truly diverse workforce, at all organizational levels, grows more compelling each year. The moral argument is weighty enough, but the financial impact – as proven by multiple studies – makes this a no-brainer”.
Despite the clearly demonstrated benefits of diversity, our workplaces and leadership tables in Canada are not equal and inclusive. Visible minorities remain under-represented in all segments of workplace leadership. A 2017 Ryerson study found that although visible minorities make up more than half of Toronto’s population, they only represent 3.3 percent of corporate boards and 9.2 percent of the private sector’s senior management.
Canada is a diverse community and Canadians generally view themselves as non-racist. Unfortunately, that simply is not true. Racism is alive and pervasive in our society, including in Canada. In Toronto, black residents are 20 times more likely to be shot by police than white residents. A 2017 Ispos survey found that at least 9 million Canadians self-identified as victims of racism in 2017. Our news stories are full of deaths of visible minorities at the hands of police.
Multiculturalism has become Canada’s slogan, but this ignores the historical roots of racism in Canada. Between 1628 and the 1800s there were 3000 US enslaved African people brought to Canada and forced to continue to live in slavery. The Slavery Abolition Act did not become law in Canada until 1834. From 1886 to 1996, 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools. From 1881 to 1884, 17,000 Chinese labourers came to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many died during construction. What followed was the head tax that resulted in the collection of $23 million from Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923. Then Canada closed the door to Chinese immigrants until 1947. In 1939 Canada turned away an ocean liner carrying 907 Jewish refugees, resulting in their return to Europe and the death of many of these refugees in the holocaust. During the Second World War, 20,000 Japanese people, with the vast majority holding Canadian citizenship, were sent to internment camps. Until 1976 our immigration system was one which made it difficult for people from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean to immigrate to Canada. Racism has historical roots in Canada and those roots cannot be ignored.
The reasons for racism are multifaceted. In 1996 Donovan Bailey spoke out about racism in Canada months before he ran the fastest 100 metre race in history up to that point, earning a gold medal and cementing his place in the Canadian history books. In response to the George Floyd tragedy, Bailey noted the danger of racism in Canada is that “In Canada, it’s racism with a smile”. Overt racism is more easy to deal with. Systemic racism continues to present barriers to participation in Canada.
The engagement of business in the response to Mr. Floyd’s death has been seen in their public response. Companies have reacted by making public statements and donating money. Examples of corporate response include Nike’s reversal of their iconic Just Do It slogan in an online video to For Once, Don’t Do It. The messages included “Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don’t make any more excuses. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Don’t sit back and be silent.” Although it’s their primary competitor, Adidas retweeted the video with the message “Together is how we make the change”.
But statements and money alone will not change the systemic racism that is seen throughout our society. The first step is acknowledgement of the existence of systemic racism. Racism is not just an individual act, but rather it is a systemic issue accompanied by the fear and discomfort of naming it and changing it in our workplaces. The next step in the workplace is to apply this acknowledgment to policies and practices to eradicate racial biases that are found throughout our corporate culture and operations. Arguably such steps are not only advisable but are required by our statutory regimes. Human rights legislation requires workplaces to do what they can to eradicate racism in the workplace, prohibiting adverse treatment based on race. Occupational Health and Safety legislation requires workplaces to investigate discriminatory actions in the workplace. In a recent review decision, the Appeal division ordered the Board to consider interviewing a worker about allegations concerning the “culturally unsafe or insensitive workplace” which provides a clear indication that the Appeal division considers allegations of cultural insensitivity in the workplace as being within the Board’s jurisdiction.
The traditional approach to tackling racism is within a company’s workplace diversity, equity and inclusion policies. To effect change, corporations have to treat increasing diversity like they treat other strategic goals. That will only happen if the goal is embraced by the leadership of companies and their boards, by setting measurable objectives and holding people accountable. Education of the workforce and society in general about the bias and inequality in society is of fundamental importance. Creating change in your workplace requires leadership from the top and calls for specific action, rather than simply denouncing racism. Companies can take a lesson from Boston Scientific, which in denouncing the actions that led to George Floyd, communicated specific steps for their employees to take to help eradicate racism in the workplace. Those steps included:
- Speak up when you experience or witness intolerance, mistreatment or bias in action – saying nothing condones discrimination
- Create an inclusive environment for everyone – seek different perspectives and respect points of view and communication styles that are different from your own
- Process your feelings; and
- As a company collectively agree to do better.
Elimination of systemic racism in the workplace requires training of your workforce on unconscious bias and at a minimum requires the creation and implementation of a policy on diversity and inclusivity. There are no mandatory provisions that must be included in your diversity and inclusion policy unlike a workplace harassment policy and a diversity and inclusion policy is not legally required. Your policy should include such things as:
- A statement of commitment to creating and maintaining a diverse and inclusive workplace;
- A statement that the policy applies to all aspects of employment as well as to interactions with customers/clients;
- A process that provides the opportunity for dialogue within the workplace with respect to barriers to diversity and inclusion;
- A commitment to education and training of management and staff to ensure that an understanding of the individualized needs in the workplace are understood by all;
- A statement of commitment to human rights, equity and privacy laws;
- A complaints process; and
- A statement that collection of personal information will be kept confidential.
The good that can flow from the tragedy of the death of George Floyd is the momentum to effect change. Harness that momentum to implement processes in your workplace to eradicate systemic racism and in doing so you will gain the benefits that a truly inclusive and diverse workplace provide.