Where Diversity Initiatives Can Go Wrong
Christine Paquette was looking for the next evolution of her career. At 21, she was working part-time at an esthetics salon, and looking to grow and develop. Naturally, she assumed that working at CIBC, one of the country’s most prominent institutions, might be a great way to start.
As she proceeded to apply for a position, Paquette was shocked by the bank’s application process. The questionnaire asked her to “explain [her] favourite tradition or story.” Paquette is fluently bilingual and already possessed customer service experience, so she was naturally puzzled as to how this would make her a better bank teller.
Then, as CBC reported recently, she saw exactly what the application had in mind.
Understandably, Paquette was questioned about her communication skills - a practical question given her desired position. Then, the application went a step further and suggested that applicants ‘show’ their skills instead. It went on to suggest that applicants could "write a song, poem, dress in traditional regalia, or bring in back-up dancers!"
Paquette, who happens to be Ojibway and Metis, was horrified. Her grandmother was a residential school survivor who was brutally beaten for expressing her culture, and as a result, few traditions had made their way down to Paquette or her mother.
Paquette posted about the incident on Twitter. In their reply, CIBC noted that it had worked with an Indigenous organization to formulate a more inclusive recruitment process.
Yet, the incident highlights one key lesson - a misguided approach to diversity can be just as problematic as no diversity at all.
What went wrong
CIBC was likely pursuing their recruitment strategy with the best of intentions. They recognized that in what can be a job with little room for creativity, a person’s individuality is what might make them a unique candidate and colleague. They understood that not everyone fits into a square box, nor does that box give unique candidates the opportunity to show what makes them shine.
Yet, in this case, their approach backfired. CIBC’s encouragement of applicants sharing of their cultural or traditional differences failed to recognize that different individuals treat their cultures and traditions differently and that there is no one way to express one’s culture or traditions.
In offering suggestions such as ‘traditional regalia’ or ‘back-up dancers,’ the recruitment process (however unintentionally) made a mockery of some serious cultural sensitivities.
All of us have a cultural background of some sort, whether it’s indigenous to this land or from places far away. With the diversity that exists in the Canadian workforce, many of us have knowledge of a second or even third language, along with a cultural history and traditions that have been passed down for generations. For some, that culture is deeply entwined with religion and religious observances, and for others it may be rooted in a sense of national pride to a birthplace or ancestral homeland.
How we choose to express these cultures is just as unique. Some of us are proudly open about our cultural identity, choosing to publicly wear clothing or other apparel that reflects our cultural tradition. Yet, others have come from a difficult or painful past, or may have been forced to hide their culture or identity for fear of persecution. The latter is more reflective of Ms. Paquette’s ancestors, where her grandmother’s culture had been forcibly beaten out of her, and where expressing her culture was something to be feared.
Asking these candidates to express their culture through ‘traditional regalia’ or ‘back-up dancers’ is both insensitive and deeply problematic. The reality is that many candidates will not feel comfortable expressing their traditions publicly, especially in something as vulnerable as a job application. They may be concerned about cultural bias or backlash, or that a wrong move will keep them from getting hired.
A better approach
While there is always a benefit to encouraging a diverse pool of candidates to apply, employers need to tread carefully when asking about diversity during job applications.
Here are a few helpful tips on what the employer could have done better, and what every employer should keep in mind when hiring:
Keep the questions job-related. Focus on a candidate's competency for the role, and their ability to perform the job duties. While asking about traditions might have been well-intentioned, there was little connection to a generally straightforward role such as, a bank teller.
Ask all applicants for a role the same questions. This is critical to fairly assessing each candidate for a role. Document your process and take detailed notes. That way, you can determine if a candidate is right for the role, rather than making a biased selection simply because you liked their personality.
You can gauge personality through job-related questions. You don't need to ask about cultural traditions to gauge someone's personality. If you're concerned about how a candidate will fit in with a team that works long hours to meet deadlines, ask them about their experience doing just that. If you need to know about how they'll engage with customers or clients, ask them about past customer service experience and certain interactions. Their answers will give you plenty of feedback without prying into personal circumstances.
Lastly, tread lightly around human rights. Employees are protected from discrimination in the hiring process and employers can avoid any inadvertent discrimination by avoiding potentially sensitive topics. A candidate might disclose something related to their marital or family status, race, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs, but employers should never broach these topics and should avoid prying further, if they do come up. The perception of bias is a dangerous game and can easily land well-intentioned employers in hot water.
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