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Fostering an inclusive workforce requires all hands on deck

Reflection, expertise and informed leadership should guide the way, experts say

A group of businesspeople are having a meeting in an office.An organization that wants to be effectively diverse and inclusive evaluates its entire structure, including who occupies leadership roles (Getty Images/Fat Camera)

As companies re-evaluate their diversity and inclusion policies, there’s a renewed focus on taking it from a stored document to an action-based platform. 

Getting it right is the challenge, requiring effective leadership, expertise and support at a time when the status quo just isn’t going to cut it, say diversity and inclusion experts. 

Here are four tips to help facilitate an inclusive workplace from the top down.


First and foremost, organizations will have to do some serious self-reflection, says Dynasti Hunt, diversity, equity and inclusion coach and managing director of talent and equity at Third Sector, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization that works to systemically improve the delivery of social services focusing on educational opportunity, housing stability, economic mobility and physical and mental health.

This requires a deep dive—followed up by regular evaluation—into every structure, system and policy to expose any practices that perpetuate inequity, limit opportunity and preserve the dominant group’s status. Initial questions to ask include: who sits on the board of directors, executive team or in management?; how is performance evaluated and recognized?; and what’s behind the hiring process?

“Figure out how do we break it, how do we change it? How do we shift in a way that doesn’t just put new structures in place that support the dominant culture? How do we truly dismantle it?” says Hunt. 

This, Hunt adds, requires engagement with underrepresented groups inside the organization to help determine where the issues lie, what impact they have had and what adjustments or overhauls must occur.   


Being an equitable and inclusive organization takes an active and engaged plan, says Karen Catlin, author of Better Allies: Everyday Actions to Create Inclusive, Engaging Workplaces. Will more Black people be promoted or recruited for leadership roles, will programs encourage employees to be better allies, will the hiring process shift to ensure candidate diversity?

“[It’s] here’s what we have been doing and here’s what we’re going to be doing differently,” says Catlin. “And that could be very personal to that company ... what their specific industry or office needs.”

This, adds CPA Jenny Okonkwo, founder of Black Female Accountants Network (BFAN), can’t be a siloed effort but rather should be an integrated endeavour. 

“The most progressive organizations along the diversity, inclusion and equity continuum are those that make it a part of the overall corporate business strategy,” she says. “That’s when it can yield the outcomes that an organization might be looking for.”

Organizations should take their time to develop a plan, ensuring that it aligns with every aspect of the business, recommends Tony Bridwell, senior vice-president and chief people officer at Ryan, a global tax services and software provider. For the third consecutive year in 2020, Ryan was named one of the Best Workplaces for Inclusion in Canada by Great Place to Work.   

“When you realize there is an opportunity to improve inclusion in the workplace, it is tempting to set up programs and systems all at once,” explains Bridwell.  “If the goal is sustained and meaningful change, these programs need to be strategic and authentic to your culture, so listen, plan and implement. In other words, crawl, walk, run!” 


Getting diversity and inclusion efforts to move from written policy to measurable action takes the right expertise. 

This comes in the form of partnerships with reputable organizations—including the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion (CCDI), Pride at Work Canada, Catalyst, Feminuity and the 30% Club—that can train and mentor leadership and staff, or by creating an in-house position dedicated specifically to achieving that goal, such as a chief diversity officer.   

“Partner with organizations to work on scaling that diverse and inclusive workplace, both at the organizational level and individual level,” says Okonkwo. “The mentoring of newcomer professionals by market-leading, progressive firms is particularly powerful because it teaches leaders cross-cultural competencies and how to effectively manage the complexities of culturally diverse teams." 

Research studies, Okonkwo adds, have also shown that when leaders harness their power, access and privilege, the entire organization benefits, providing opportunity for everyone. "This is the true essence of leadership," she says. 

Catlin agrees adding that leaders set the tone for the organization, which has a ripple effect on those they lead. 

“People look to their leaders. They respect them. They mimic them,” she says. “They will say, ‘I must show my support for diversity in my company in a way I’ve never done so before.’” 


How employees interact, engage and support each other are at the core of an organization’s values and principles. 

It’s where allyship comes in as a crucial component for creating an equitable and inclusive workplace, as it’s the people who shape and bring these efforts to life.

Given this, a company’s overarching diversity and inclusion plan must trickle down to every employee, engaging and insisting they be a part of the solution, says Catlin. 

Aligning a workforce requires the employees to not only understand the role of an ally and the organization’s direction, but the varying sensitivities, inequities and perspectives underrepresented groups experience. It’s where dialogue (expect tough conversations), education (self-directed and formally organized) and mentorship comes in. 

“There are everyday actions people in the workplace can take to be more inclusive of anyone who is from an underrepresented demographic,” she adds. “We should be asking ourselves, ‘What can we be doing to create a more equitable and inclusive workplace, where they can contribute to what the organization needs, where they can thrive?’”   

At Ryan, this translates into creating a workplace culture that inspires meaningful dialogue, where employees feel safe to share their experiences.

“We’ve been working to create a culture of accountability, well-being and psychological safety,” says Bridwell. “This allows us to have a successful listening tour where employees feel comfortable sharing their perspectives with each other.” 


Put in the work to become a better ally with these five tips. Heed this advice to make your workplace more welcoming for trans people. And find out how Canada’s Big Four accounting firms fare on diversity and inclusion efforts.