Skip to main content
RBC
Canadians like to think we've got that diversity thing in the bag. If so, we sure don't know what to do with it.

Take employers. Across every sector, companies, governments, and non-profits take diversity as seriously as payroll, law, and marketing. It’s an important function to keep the machine well-oiled; just not to rethink the machine.

If Canada’s to become an innovation nation, diversity and inclusion will need to be part of that machine.

According to new RBC research, which surveyed 64 major Canadian employers, nearly 90% strongly believe diverse and inclusive teams make better decisions, while 66% strongly believe and another 20% agree leveraging diverse backgrounds and individuals is fundamental to their organizations’ performances. Half of respondents take diversity seriously enough to use scorecards to track their annual performance.

Yet only a handful of employers see inclusion — what you do with all that diversity — as a core part of strategy. It’s a talent tool, something to leave with HR.

The full results of our survey will be released at the 6Degrees conference on diversity, in Toronto in late September.

To understand the thinking behind the numbers, we held a roundtable this week with two dozen leading employers, ranging from Maple Leaf Foods to the City of Toronto, and several diversity experts.

One conclusion: Few Canadian firms have been able to turn diversity into inclusion. Fewer still are even thinking about how to turn inclusion into innovation.

“If diversity lies in HR, it dies in HR,” said Deanna Matzanke of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

And that’s a risk, to economic growth, among other things.

Many employers are pursuing diversity for good but insufficient reasons. Attracting talent. Retaining people. Pleasing clients. In other words, not to disrupt their businesses.

And yet, the economic payoff is way more than productivity. A diverse group of engaged employees is more likely to solve a business challenge than a genius lone wolf can.

Inclusion – a squishy word for most – is about getting those employees engaged, and leveraging each other.

EY, the accounting and consulting giant, is one of the world’s more enlightened employers when it comes to inclusion and innovation. (The firm included a Muslim prayer room in its new downtown Toronto office tower.)

“If people’s minds are elsewhere, they won’t be as effective at work,” said Sadaf Parvaiz, EY’s director of inclusion.

The firm is under pressure from clients and millennial staff to promote diversity, and do something with it.

The retail giant Loblaw Cos. is figuring this out in real time as it digests the acquisition of Shoppers Drug Mart and thinks ahead to a new era of competition from the likes of Amazon. The company can’t move fast enough.

While the grocery business is as diverse as any on the frontlines, that diversity – whether it’s ethnic or gender — tends not to move up the ranks. Loblaw’s new President Sarah Davis is trying to change that, but inclusion isn’t just about getting different people together and making them feel comfortable. It’s finding a new whole that’s greater than the sum of the diverse parts.

Corus, the media and entertainment conglomerate, is looking at a very different future for its business, and trying to find ways to get diverse groups of employees to rethink it. But the company admits it’s early in the journey, and was able to get going really only after its acquisition last year of Shaw Media.

Meanwhile, one of Canada’s best new hospitals, Toronto’s Humber River, is discovering the hard way that innovation is about people more than technology. Its building and equipment – touted as North America’s first digital hospital — are among the best anywhere. But because Humber River serves one of Toronto’s poorest and least educated districts, it hasn’t hired many locals, and realizes now it lacks the diversity needed to think through the most innovative and practical ways to apply a digital hospital to the area it serves.

Among the suggestions:

Get the strategy group to make diversity and inclusion their own priority

Adopt innovation metrics to see how inclusion is paying off

Make it a central part of every leadership discussion

Promote a questioning culture, to engage the minds of the many, not just those who think they’ve got it figured out

Measure, measure, measure. Compensate accordingly. Repeat.

Ironically, Silicon Valley – so often lambasted for an abusive and exclusionary culture – has set the standard for harnessing minds and passions of the many, and calling it innovation.

Canada now has a chance to apply that disruptive thinking to diversity, by leveraging talent rather than just adding it.

As Silicon Valley leaders like to say, innovation is about multiplication, not addition. Same goes for real inclusion.