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Jumping the diversity hurdles

There's so much learning out there sitting on a shelf, that can make the lives of employers and potential employees much easier.
For businesses and charities located in the Greater Toronto Area—perhaps the most culturally varied region in Canada—expanding the diversity of their staff and learning to deal with the sensitivities of different communities is essential to success. And for new immigrants searching for work, finding employment can be a matter of survival. A new program from the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC) aims to make a painful, time-consuming and expensive process much smoother. Its new online "campus" to help companies and skilled immigrants integrate, gathers collective wisdom and insight and provides it for free.
The site, launched this fall with funding from the Ontario ministry of citizenship and immigration, contains training videos, discussion guides and learning modules aimed at helping corporate executives learn how to search for, attract and retain skilled immigrants. The site also functions as a destination for immigrants trying to tap into professional and cultural communities in search of a job.
Those lessons can be important for nonprofits as well as corporations. Shirley Marie Garcia, the senior manager of human resources at the March of Dimes, says the website will not only help her to hire employees from various backgrounds, but will be a valuable tool in helping all employees learn about their clients, who are people with disabilities.
"We want to make sure our employees are reflective of our clients' diversity," says Garcia. "It's not even an option. Any organization can't afford to disregard the reality that Canada is becoming a diverse country."
Rose De Veyra, TRIEC's manager of learning initiatives, says that for human resource executives, dealing with new immigrants is not a straight-forward process.
"It isn't as intuitive as we think it is," she says. "From where you post your ads, how you accept résumés, how you do your interviews, it's all different. You might not be tapping into immigrant circles.
"From the recruitment phase, when they source talent, sometimes there are differences from where they normally look. They're missing out on a pool of talent who might be coming from bridging agencies, or they might be advertising in a paper that's not readily accessible to immigrants. They need to learn to try advertising in ethnic newspapers or try advertising through immigrant networks."
De Veyra says TRIEC had put together a series of recruiting videos and guides and held a number of workshops on the issue of recruiting immigrants. But both TRIEC and their client organizations were having trouble turning it all into an ongoing plan.
"Lots of good work was sitting on a shelf somewhere because there was no way of getting it out to people. The problem was how to sustainably develop a program, how we were going to roll it out to employers. Community agencies, colleges, universities, employers, they all had a long laundry list of reasons why they had no clear plan on how to carry it all out."
De Veyra says that putting all the work in an online learning hub seemed an ideal solution, that would allow organizations to access the material they needed at no cost, and without having to attend day-long workshops.
"We saw the TRIEC campus as a way being able to offer the learning more widely. Employers didn't have the time or money, and online we're able to chunk it out into smaller segments so that in half-an-hour, you can get what you need."
TRIEC recruited a number of companies to act as resources in developing the site.
"We always engaged our partners," says De Veyra. "We had an advisory committee. We would go to them and ask, 'What are the challenges in integrating new immigrants into your workforce?' The results have been very rewarding for everybody involved."
Samantha Kilpatrick, a training and development specialist with telecommunications company Huawei Canada, was part of that advisory committee, taking part in focus groups and offering input into the website's development.
"I like online because people can work at their own pace," she says. "It allows for self-learning and it's very time and cost effective. There's also a chance to talk about the subject with anybody who's online at the time."
Kilpatrick says that because Huawei is a Chinese company with a Canadian branch and 400 employees in the GTA, providing telecommunications infrastructure for local companies, the need for a program such as the TRIEC campus may be especially pressing.
"There are at least 35 countries represented in our four walls alone. We have Mandarin speakers, we have Russian speakers, we have a lot of different languages. Having different languages, different cultures, it just makes for a much richer place to work. And then you can take that outside. Our customers are local companies. We have to be able to treat them with respect. These days in business, perhaps it's a necessity."
But Kilpatrick says that recruiting employees from various communities is not as easy as it might seem.
"From a recruitment standpoint, we sometimes have a difficult time in filling positions from local candidates. It can be tough in terms of understanding their local traditions. For recruiters, TRIEC helps address the best way to deal with a candidate.
"One of the first issues is usually language. It's very important not to overlook somebody because they perhaps can't get their ideas across as clearly as a native English language speaker. We can make analogies about the hockey game last night or going up to the cottage that a new immigrant might not understand."
De Veyra agrees that TRIEC will help employers learn to change their approach to hiring, but she says the website will also help new immigrants make some of the adjustments to a North American workplace.
"It's hard to untangle the unspoken rules of the workplace, how you work with your colleagues, how you work with your boss. Those are the biggest obstacles. There are cultures where you can't disagree with your boss, where you don't speak up."
But Kilpatrick says the TRIEC site will also be very helpful even to Canadian-born employees, helping them to learn about dealing with clients from different cultures, both inside and outside Canada.
"There is definitely a dual advantage there. For those of us who have to travel abroad, it's really good."
March of Dimes intends to go one step further to develop a program that will help front-line workers deal with cultural diversity. "The clients we have, we want to ensure they have a certain level of comfort and trust with our workers," says Garcia. "All our workers will demonstrate courtesy, but some of the conflicts that arise can be attributed to the fact that they don't always understand why somebody behaves the way they do."
For an organization like the March of Dimes, says Garcia, the cost of such programs is crucial, making the TRIEC website even more useful.
"The best thing is it's free. Let's face it, we're a non-profit organization. This way, for example, I get free videos that I can use in my training. If I had to purchase videos, it would cost me several thousand dollars."
Krishna Rau is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto, with a particular interest in social and political issues. His work has appeared in numerous publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Report on Business, Now, Toronto Standard, This Magazine, Xtra and Canadian Forum. He also has a chapter in the recent anthology, White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race.
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