The Demand for Diversity in the New Workplace Order
Publication
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 14 Oct 2004, p. 40-48
Description
Speaker
Subramaniam, Rajesh, Speaker
Media Type
Text
Item Type
Speeches
Description
A focus on three aspects: A business case for diversity; some key barriers limiting workplace diversity; ways in which we can foster a diverse workplace. The need to ensure that one's workplace is a meeting ground for differing and diverse ideas, opinions and perspectives. Research on what diversity can accomplish. The need for a diverse workforce to stay relevant. The need to be innovative. Some real-world examples. Organizational fit and what that means. A subtle form of discrimination. Ways in which organizations can foster a diverse work force: leadership, action and cultural alignment. A brief discussion of each. A significant and meaningful finding. A call to the audience to help break down walls that prevent people from practising in their trained profession.
Date of Original
14 Oct 2004
Subject(s)
Language of Item
English
Copyright Statement
The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
Contact
Empire Club of Canada
Email:info@empireclub.org
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Agency street/mail address:

Fairmont Royal York Hotel

100 Front Street West, Floor H

Toronto, ON, M5J 1E3

Full Text
Rajesh Subramaniam
President, FedEx Canada
THE DEMAND FOR DIVERSITY IN THE NEW WORKPLACE ORDER
Chairman: Bart J. Mindszenthy
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests

Diana Conconi, Vice-President, Fleishman-Hillard and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Chelsea Shanoff, Grade 12 Student, Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute; Dexter Hinkson, Youth and Family Pastor, Christ Church, Brampton; Tom Duke, Operations Manager, Inkan Limited; Fred Fulton, Vice-President, Marketing, Fulton Windows; Sean McNamee, Vice-President, Legal, Regulatory Affairs and Human Resources, FedEx Canada; Doug Morris, Contract Sales, Inkan Limited and Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Ratna Omidvar, Executive Director, The Maytree Foundation; Michael Keaveny, Commercial Consul for U.S. Consulate, U.S. Commercial Service; and Lucille Joseph, President and CEO, Career Edge Organization.

Introduction by Bart Mindszenthy

Ladies and gentlemen--Diversity. In the context of today's luncheon address, the dictionary defines this noun as "ethnic variety, as well as socioeconomic and gender variety, in a group, society, or institution."

Sounds pretty simple and straightforward to me.

But while "diversity" may be a wonderful word with an important meaning, I suggest that it's too often become scared and tainted and maligned by prejudice, fear, misunderstanding and short-sightedness.

In fact, failing to tap into the real benefits of diversity in the workplace costs the Canadian economy close to $2.5 billion annually. According to the 2001 University of Toronto study that put such a hefty price tag on what's sometimes called our "brain waste," the skills, talent and potential of immigrants are being grossly underutilized in the Canadian workplace for a host of relatively regressive reasons.

Charles Darwin reminded us that, "It is not the strongest or the most intelligent that will survive, but those that can adapt and change." Clearly, that applies not just to all living beings, but also to organizations in Canada and around the world that want to remain vibrant and relevant entities.

Which brings us to our guest speaker today--Rajesh Subramaniam, who has been President of FedEx Canada for just over a year now. When he said he wanted to speak about diversity in the new workplace order, I felt it was an important topic begging to be addressed by a corporate senior executive.

Born in Trivandrum, India, he was a 1987 top graduate in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology. This was followed in short order with two masters' degrees: in chemical engineering from Syracuse University, and in business administration from the University of Texas in Austin.

Mr. Subramaniam joined FedEx in 1991 as a marketing analyst, then was shifted to marketing and communications responsibilities for the Asia Pacific region in 1996.

Prior to his appointment in Canada, he was Vice-President for FedEx's Asia Pacific operations for four years.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the podium of the Empire Club of Canada the President of FedEx Canada, Rajesh Subramaniam.

Rajesh Subramaniam

Thank you for that kind introduction.

It's a pleasure to be a part of this prestigious forum, and to see so many people with a shared interest in workplace diversity. This issue--by its very nature--is rather complex. My remarks will focus on three aspects.

I'll first outline a business case for it. Then I'll talk about some of the key barriers limiting workplace diversity today. Finally, I'll briefly talk about ways in which we can foster a diverse workplace and in turn achieve some great things.

By doing so, I hope to leave you with one underlying impression: business leaders--many people in this room--must ensure their workplace is a meeting ground for differing and diverse ideas, opinions and perspectives.

To this end, it's our responsibility to break down barriers: not in the name of equality, but diversity. Not out of kindness, but necessity.

I believe it's possible. The private sector has long championed important social reform, including day-care and health-care benefits. It's now time to advance diversity in the new workplace order.

There's a strong business case for it. Professor Jeffrey Gandz of the Richard Ivey School of Business explains why. His research suggests that diversity can:

o capitalize on opportunities to improve products and services;

o attract and utilize people effectively;

o improve the quality of decision making; and,

o reap the many benefits from being perceived as a progressive organization.

I would add two more reasons to this list.

The first stems from the increasingly complex and volatile world that business must operate in. The marketplace is populated by a myriad of stakeholders, all with their divergent needs, interests and objectives. To remain relevant, an organization needs a diverse work force, with an appreciation for, and an intimate understanding of, these stakeholders.

The second reason centres on the need to be innovative. To remain viable, an organization needs to create thousands of new ideas. That's one tall order.

Companies need to rely on all of their employees for ideas. Gary Hamel describes this as "unleashing the imagination of people across the organization." This calls for an environment that fosters diverse and differing ideas, opinions and perspectives.

All of this sounds good in theory, but what does it mean in the real world?

Ask Japanese car maker Nissan. Its storied turnaround--from a $5.6 billion loss in 2000 to a $2.5 billion profit this year--can be attributed in large part to its Brazilian-born, French-educated and globally minded CEO, Carlos Ghosn.

Skeptics said he could not bridge the cultural barrier to revive the company. Yet he successfully injected a new mindset at Nissan that replaced insular with independent thinking. It was the fundamental shift that drove Nissan's turnaround.

Ghosn explained that: "We have a tendency to reject what is different. And at the same time, we need what is different. Because what is different is the only way we can grow…"

The underlying point is clear: sameness is suicide in the business world--particularly now as we operate in the global economy.

It's my firm belief that success will only come to those organizations that can tap into the different backgrounds and abilities of their employees.

This does not necessarily mean organizations must go out of their way to protect and promote specific groups of people. But it should mean that they create an environment that ultimately treats everyone as an individual.

In a sense, criteria for preferential treatment must be based on competitive advantage rather than personal disadvantage.

Now I'm sure most of you work for companies that possess progressive human resources policies. But I believe there's still a disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of workplace diversity.

This leads me to my second point today: there still remain some key barriers to workplace diversity. Consider some facts.

A study by the Conference Board of Canada found that visible minorities are not represented well in key decision-making positions in Canadian companies. Only 3 per cent reported having a CEO who was a visible minority. Another study found that less than 2 per cent of public companies had visible minorities on their boards.

But discrimination extends beyond ethnic lines. Another survey found that a majority of women executives don't feel fully accepted into executive-level culture.

o Sixty-nine per cent of respondents said that men's lack of comfort in dealing with them on a professional level was a barrier to their advancement; and

o Sixty-six per cent said their exclusion from things like "the boys' club" was holding them back.

How can these startling figures coexist with the progressive practices of corporate Canada? My sense is that today's key barriers are far more subtle than those of 25 years ago. And they are far more difficult to overcome.

Today, for instance, we talk about "organizational fit." It's a consideration in hiring a potential employee or promoting a certain candidate. The objective is to examine if an individual shares in, and will sustain the company's corporate values. This is--rightfully so--a prerequisite to many employment opportunities, particularly in senior management.

But "organizational fit" can have different meanings to different people. Even with the best intentions, it may have more to do with someone's personal rather than professional principles.

You'd likely never ask, but certainly may wonder, if a potential new employee would:

o be a regular at the company's Thursday pub nights;

o participate in the banter with the firm's largest client; or

o attend golf getaways with senior management.

Failing to live up to the employer's expectations may prevent an individual from receiving the job offer, or promotion.

It's a much more subtle form of discrimination, but this line of thought still considers an individual's lifestyle over their ideas and corporate values; their personal attributes over their professional contributions.

Don't get me wrong: organizational fit is a two-way street. Each employee has a personal responsibility to integrate as best as he or she can into the employer's corporate culture. Still, the challenge remains: how can companies strike a balance between organizational fit and diverse workplace?

This leads me to my final point: ways in which organizations can foster a diverse work force. I believe it comes down to three things: leadership, action and cultural alignment.

Lets talk about leadership first. Given its strategic value, diversity must be a corporate priority, led by the CEO.

I've taken it upon myself to champion the issue of workplace diversity inside and outside my company--to set a personal example by demonstrating flexibility and awareness. My job is really to create an environment that works for all employees.

And then there's action. Managing diversity requires meaningful acts--perpetuated through a range of policies and procedures. For instance, at FedEx, we've enshrined a "Guaranteed Fair Treatment" process, which gives employees an outlet to escalate issues and challenge behaviour that they might interpret as unfair for whatever reason.

Self-examination is a key factor in building a tolerant and co-operative workplace. That's why FedEx has a number of educational programs that not only help managers understand the differences of others but also understand their own individual tendencies and biases.

We also conduct a global annual employee survey, which also measures our cultural sensitivity. Ultimately, the survey provides a mechanism for internal change because all managers are accountable for the findings, and must act upon any areas of concern.

These programs are not seen by our employees as "over and above the call of duty." It is our duty. That's because diversity is an integral aspect of our corporate character. This leads to my third point: cultural alignment.

Let me explain.

Our founder and CEO, Frederick Smith, believes that "when people are placed first they will provide the highest possible service, and profits will follow." Resulting from this principle is the FedEx corporate philosophy: People-Service-Profit.

For the purposes of my remarks today, all you need to know is that the people priority acknowledges the importance of employee empowerment. The objective is to create an environment where employees feel secure enough to take risks and become innovative in pursuing quality, service and customer satisfaction. The acts I mentioned are just some of the ways in which we do just that.

Now I don't want to leave you with the impression that we've got the perfect workplace. We always look for ways to improve upon ourselves. That's why we look forward to meetings like this one, to prompt discussion and share ideas. But, all in all, I'm proud of the people-focused environment that we've created at FedEx.

I've presented several facts and figures throughout my remarks today. But I want to leave you with one finding that strikes at the heart of this issue.

More than 75 per cent of internationally trained professionals are not working in their field of choice in Ontario. This means, each and every year, tens of thousands of highly qualified people are overlooked or undervalued by the public and private sectors.

I feel for these people because I know what they're going through. By 1991, I'd completed two degrees in the United States: a master's in chemical engineering and an MBA. I searched high and low for a challenging job. I applied to hundreds of them but to no avail.

It was a tough market--to be sure. But many companies did not have the appetite to go through all the paperwork and processes required to sponsor a non-U.S. citizen. Fortunately FedEx saw things differently.

But many of my international friends weren't so lucky. They ran up against a wall that prevented them from finding work in their chosen profession. This--and all other situations that limit diversity in the workplace--must be addressed.

That's why I'm calling upon you today to help break down walls that prevent engineers from designing; doctors from treating; tradesmen from building.

I'm calling upon you today to help break down walls that prevent any man or woman from advancing in their career, regardless of their personal, cultural or religious background.

Ultimately, I'm calling upon you today to help break down walls to build a more prosperous future.

To this end, we need to work together with regulatory bodies, professional associations, government, colleges and universities to reduce and eliminate barriers that prevent skilled workers from entering their field of work.

We also need to take a closer look at our organizations, to balance "fit" with diversity, champion the cause, enhance policies and procedures and make them an integral part of our work culture.

We must do this not out of equality, but diversity; not out of kindness, but necessity.

Just think of our own community. Half of this city's work force is born outside Canada. More than 40,000 immigrants arrive here each year.

This makes us one of the most international cities in the world. And, as such, gives us a great competitive advantage--if we're able to provide citizens with the kind of life that they want for themselves.

Let's welcome their diversity of ideas, opinions and perspectives. Our future prosperity depends upon it.

Thank you.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Doug Morris, Contract Sales, Inkan Limited and Director, The Empire Club of Canada.

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The Demand for Diversity in the New Workplace Order


A focus on three aspects: A business case for diversity; some key barriers limiting workplace diversity; ways in which we can foster a diverse workplace. The need to ensure that one's workplace is a meeting ground for differing and diverse ideas, opinions and perspectives. Research on what diversity can accomplish. The need for a diverse workforce to stay relevant. The need to be innovative. Some real-world examples. Organizational fit and what that means. A subtle form of discrimination. Ways in which organizations can foster a diverse work force: leadership, action and cultural alignment. A brief discussion of each. A significant and meaningful finding. A call to the audience to help break down walls that prevent people from practising in their trained profession.