Cultural Accommodation in the Workplace: Tips and Practices

We all know that Canada’s population is becoming more diverse — and a large number of institutions and firms are leading the way in promoting cultural awareness and accommodation. Beyond the legal requirements under the Ontario Human Rights Code, it’s also good business sense. Organizations that accommodate all cultures and faiths in their workplace have realized benefits such as improved productivity and reduced turnover, while enhancing their ability to attract the best talent possible—some forward-leaning not-for-profit organizations have also embraced this approach.

People with Jigsaw Puzzle Forming GlobeManagement at Ottawa’s Vanier Community Service Centre(VCSC) recognizes that its diverse staff is an essential asset to the organization, as the centre serves an increasingly diverse client base. In 2011, Hire Immigrants Ottawa presented VCSC with an Employer Excellence Award in recognition for its promising practices. For example, to build cultural awareness at the workplace, diversity training is offered to all staff members. In order to continually improve upon the centre’s policies—with the goal of creating an inclusive workplace—VCSC’s senior management and its employees engage in quarterly open-exchange consultations.

“I work in an inclusive environment where employees are encouraged to reach their full potential. I am proud to be part of the VCSC team,” says Joumana Azzi, a program manager at the centre.

VCSC’s Diversity Committee celebrates the richness of the centre’s international cultures by organizing activities such as diversity potlucks and lunch-and-learns. Employees can also take time off as needed for religious observances, and the centre has adopted flexible scheduling to accommodate its staff. And for staff events such as strategic planning retreats, participants are consulted about culture-specific dietary needs.

With skilled immigrants making up 43% of VCSC’s staff, Executive Director Michel Gervais, underscores the importance of the centre’s approach to accommodation: “Whether we are dealing with planning services or everyday activities, our immigrant colleagues enjoy sharing their expertise and know-how. One of the key contributors to the harmony and cohesion of our team is that there is no such thing as ‘them’ or ‘us’.”

The Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) is another organization whose management believes that diversity in an inclusive work environment leads to improved innovation and productivity. ICTC recognizes and leverages the international education, qualifications, and experience of its immigrant staff in order to find new and more effective ways to approach problem solving, strategic planning, and partnership development. ICTC has implemented policies to accommodate its employees’ religious observance, such as flexible work hours and the opportunity to telecommute.

Meeting and event scheduling is undertaken to account for religious holidays, and culture-specific dietary needs are also confirmed before catering is arranged. As ICTC President, Paul Swinwood puts it, “We need our employees to perform at a high level. We have been successful in achieving this goal through a flexible approach to work/life balance. Flexibility has been the most effective way for us to recognize the value of our hard working staff. As we have grown and become more diverse we have continued to embrace this approach and have expanded it to accommodate for any cultural or religious needs.”

ICTC holds regular cultural orientation sessions for all employees—especially new hires—to increase their cultural awareness and to provide them with a better understanding of the various working and communication styles of their colleagues. As part of a continued commitment to adapting its workplace for a diverse employee base, ICTC is building a library of cultural resources and is planning to roll out a series of Lunch-and-Learns to improve the cross-cultural competency of its employees. And ICTC also celebrates its cultural diversity by organizing staff events such as potlucks, which introduce colleagues to traditional dishes from different cultures, and which afford an opportunity for staff to honour their heritage and share and learn with one another.

“At ICTC, we value and embrace the different approaches and perspectives that internationally educated professionals bring to the workplace, whether it is developing a strategic business plan or planning a social event. It’s a great environment where we all learn from each other,” says Paul Swinwood.

Diversity tree handsAccording to the Conference Board of Canada’s November 2009 report Immigrant-Friendly Businesses: Effective Practices for Attracting, Integrating and Retaining Immigrants in Canadian Workplaces , “A company’s success in retaining immigrant talent depends on its ability to develop an organizational culture that respects and encourages cultural and other forms of diversity.”

Indeed, “the most effective approach to cultural diversity is not to ‘uphold the Canadian standard,’ but to focus on increasing the cultural literacy of all employees regardless of their ethnic background so that they can begin to understand and appreciate their own culture and those of their co-workers.”

The Power of Education
To make this happen, education is critical, according to Nancy Mark, a cross-cultural trainer for the last 25 years, who conducts regular cross-cultural competency sessions for Hire Immigrants Ottawa.

“New Canadians want their faiths to be understood,” says Ms. Mark. “If people understand the backbone of a faith, they will understand the behaviours, traditions and practices of their fellow employees.” Indeed, according to a recent Statistics Canada report, while only 25 per cent of the population had a non-Christian religious heritage in 2006, that number is expected to rise to 33 per cent by 2031.

Employers can foster employees’ knowledge and appreciation of different cultures in a number of ways. Here are some ideas:

  • Organize collective meals where employees can learn about one another’s cultures by sharing ethnic food, wearing traditional clothing and showcasing music and art.
  • Create Intranet-based multicultural calendars to avoid scheduling important meetings on major cultural holidays.
  • Permit flexible schedules so that employees who observe special religious practices can arrange their schedules around those beliefs (see sidebar).
  • Acknowledge all the faiths within your workplace (instead of dropping the Christmas tree, add some recognition of other staff holidays).
  • Hang a world map in the hallway and have each employee pinpoint their place of birth; count the number of languages spoken in the office and post next to the map.
  • Hold a focus group for your diverse staff to discover how they have adapted to the work culture and use their feedback to improve your integration practices.

Canada’s net labour force growth will soon depend entirely on immigration, and as the population becomes more diverse, it will be more important than ever for businesses to accommodate the diverse religious and cultural beliefs of their employees. Accommodation leads to mutual trust, higher staff retention, better morale, more effective working teams and greater productivity.


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