Embracing the cultural mosaic

Is your team culturally diverse and inclusive? Here’s why it should be.

Many organizations cite diversity as one of their core values and gloss over issues of inclusiveness as someone else’s problem, but just pop by their offices around lunchtime and what you see might tell a different story. "In day-to-day interactions, people still tend to congregate with people who look like them," says Wendy Cukier, vice president of research and innovation at Ryerson University in Toronto, and founder of the school’s Diversity Institute. "They’re not deliberately trying to exclude others, they’re just following behavioural patterns they’re probably not even aware of. Who you did — and didn’t — have lunch with will tell you a lot."

It’s called unconscious bias, it’s the biggest hurdle to creating a culturally diverse workplace and it’s everywhere. "In spite of some progress in the past five years, racial minorities and immigrants are still excluded from informal networks and continue to face discrimination and barriers to advancement," Cukier says.

Recruitment and hiring, for example, are anything but bias-free. In 2012, researchers at the University of Toronto studied hiring practices in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver and found that applications submitted by people with English-sounding names were 47% more likely to receive callbacks than those with Indian or Chinese names in Toronto, 39% more likely in Montreal, and 20% more likely in Vancouver. It happened regardless of work experience, education or language proficiency.

In many ways, this subtle, subconscious discrimination is a lot harder to tackle than the overt kind, Cukier says. "Even though organizations often employ a lot of rhetoric around inclusivity and diversity, when you look at what’s happening at ground level, it’s just not translating into action," she says. "It’s something companies have to work hard at to overcome, but it can be done."


With a continued focus on globalization, having people with local knowledge is invaluable when you’re tr ying to open into new markets or do business with international companies, Cukier says. And given Canada’s culturally diverse demographic, if you have employees who don’t look like the clients you’re serving, it puts you at a disadvantage.

"There’s a lot of research that shows that although diverse teams may be more complex to coordinate or manage because everybody doesn’t think and behave the same way, they also tend to be more innovative," says Cukier. "A real positive outcome of increasing diversity in teams is you get better decisions and better ideas overall."

A 2014 article in the Journal of Diversity Management noted that the positive effects of a diverse organization include a strong knowledge base created by a variety of cultural experiences, an in-house resource of cultural trainers and informers, as well as a greater tendency to expand the business into foreign locales. But there are some hurdles, including a difficulty achieving harmony in groups and conflicts that require strong management skills to overcome. Folks from different cultures may interact differently, which can lead to misunderstandings.

Scott Crowley, regional managing partner at MNP’s Toronto office, has seen it happen. He worked with one employee from the Netherlands who had a very direct manner, but some perceived her as being overly critical. Another employee from Southeast Asia was accustomed to a hierarchical office environment and was uncomfortable communicating with the higher-ups. "People only know what they know, so it takes a lot of education, learning and shifting of how you see things," Crowley says. "Part of an inclusive workplace is understanding our differences and where they come from — it’s about being better through understanding."

To help new immigrants integrate into the workplace and overcome cultural challenges, MNP works with regional offices and external consultants to create solutions. "Bridging cultural diversity is a competitive advantage in business," says Karen Cooper, MNP’s vice-president of human resources in Calgary. "Our commitment to diversity allows us to draw on knowledge from different cultures, backgrounds and international experiences, and brings richness to our team, clients and profession." At MNP, diversity integration is handled through formal onboarding, experiential learning and mentorship programs, as well as targeted diversity hiring to employ people of ethnic descent into specific client groups.

"It’s easy to say we’re committed to inclusiveness, but the only way to know that it’s working is to ask our staff," Crowley says. "We do 360 reviews with all our staff, myself included, and diversity is a big component. It’s about living these values, not just preaching them."


Creating an inclusive atmosphere is a process of continuous improvement, says Cukier. "Organizations need to understand that it’s not just an HR issue, but a strategic issue. You have to apply a diversity lens to everything you do, whether it’s corporate governance, product development, communications or procurement."

When it comes to unconscious bias, she has seen organizations create checklists of areas where bias can creep in (such as inviting everyone out for happy hour even though one of the team is Muslim and doesn’t drink). "This strategy helps everyone take responsibility for building an inclusive environment," she says.

To counteract biases, people must first identify and own their biases, adds Fiona Macfarlane, chief inclusiveness officer and managing partner for EY in British Columbia. "Then they must be mindful, respectful, curious and supportive of colleagues’ differences, while understanding their own frames of reference." Sometimes it’s as simple as asking questions like, "Do I typically hire the same type of person or personality type?" or "Who do I take to important client or cross-team meetings?"

EY has a variety of unconscious bias awareness-raising tools and resources, including a self-reporting tool designed to foster self-awareness of work styles and cultural preferences. The goal is to help employees effectively communicate and collaborate in a global team environment, Macfarlane says. "An important aspect of leadership is to turn around and see who is following you. If those who follow you all look and behave just like you, something is wrong. That is not representative of our highly diverse society."


Diversity is essential for creative tasks, or when you need to solve complex problems or start a new campaign, says Marc-David Seidel, associate professor in the organizational behaviour and human resources division at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. And there are right — and wrong — ways to cultivate a cohesive, culturally diverse workplace. Many organizations adopt sensitivity programs, but Seidel says they only work in severe cases of overt discrimination. Then there are the team-building initiatives, but these tend to be useful only when they’re not focused on diversity.

Instead, he says, one of the most effective strategies managers can adopt on a day-to-day basis is to create working groups with tasks where an individual’s expertise fits what the group needs. Maybe it’s analyzing an overseas culture or exploring a global market. "You want to put people in a situation where everyone sees them as the expert," he says. "So it becomes ‘Bob is an expert on that subject,’ or ‘we couldn’t have completed the project without Bob’ as opposed to ‘minority Bob.’" It’s a way to cultivate respect and create opportunities for employees to work together, Seidel says.

"The real benefits of a culturally diverse workplace come from having different points of view and experience, and having a functional level of conflict where people are free to disagree and you can build on it and learn something," he says. "The key to success is being able to embrace different experiences, values and opinions in an atmosphere where people feel comfortable voicing them."