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Have Your Say: Should workplace diversity include ex-cons and body piercings? Add to ...

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

Would you hire a convicted thief to work building security, or a woman with neon pink hair to engage with your high-end clients? What about a reformed ex-offender with a welding certificate to work your construction site, or a man with a nose ring to wait tables in your family restaurant?

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The struggle to ensure equal employment opportunities for women, aboriginals, members of visible minorities and people with disabilities is far from finished – a recent study found, for instance, that employers in Canada’s three largest cities were 45 per cent more likely to call back a candidate with an English name over those with Chinese or Indian names.

But is there room to expand our definition of diversity to include body modifications and the previously convicted?

Workplace diversity is heralded as a cornerstone of the modern office. A recent study out of Ryerson University found that when employers weave inclusivity into their corporate culture – from recruitment and selection, to mentorship and communications – employees are happier, more loyal and more productive. Perhaps eager for these benefits, some companies are reviewing the very definition of inclusivity.

We recently had dinner with the head of diversity for a midsized Canadian financial institution and enjoyed a thought-provoking conversation. She told us her company is exploring hiring practices for ex-offenders and people with body art or piercings who may struggle to find employment in a traditional environment.

Companies such as Target and Wal-Mart have started shifting their hiring strategies to avoid immediately disqualifying candidates with criminal records. Questions about run-ins with the law are asked later in the interview process instead of on the initial application, to allow those seeking a second chance to make a good first impression.

“The crime isn’t who they are, it’s what they’ve done,” says Larry Hicks, an employer featured in a video by Correctional Services Canada that’s meant to encourage companies to hire ex-offenders. “I believe a man having spent his time in incarceration deserves a chance.”

Meanwhile, a 24-year-old Edmonton woman with 22 piercings above her neck has launched a petition to ban job discrimination based on personal appearance under the Alberta Human Rights Act. Forbes magazine reports that piercings and tattoos are among the top three physical attributes (along with bad breath) that limit career potential. But last year, an arbitrator struck down one Ottawa hospital’s policy that forced employees to cover their tattoos at work, arguing that the employer could not prove a connection between personal appearance and job performance.

It’s crucial for companies to hire good cultural fits. Are some workplaces better suited to clean-cut folks, and others reserved for piercings, tattoos or prior convictions? Should career paths be limited by body modifications or past mistakes?

This week’s question: Where should we draw the line when defining workplace diversity to ensure everyone has equal opportunity within reason?

THE EXPERTS:

Sonia Kang, assistant professor at the Rotman School of Management in Mississauga

“Any discrimination shrinks the pool from which companies select the best talent. However, diversity initiatives should prioritize groups facing systematic discrimination (e.g., women, racial and sexual minorities, persons with disabilities).”

Blaine Donais, president and founder of the Workplace Fairness Institute in Toronto

“Employ people based upon their skills and ingenuity rather than their outward appearance. This way you will get the best society has to offer. The more inclusive the better.”

Andrew Langille, labour lawyer and founder of YouthAndWork.ca

“What’s acceptable will vary depending on the specific industry. Tattoos and body-modification are commonplace for young people, so it’s poor practice to let antiquated prejudices impact hiring decisions.”

Matt Wood, executive director of First Work in Toronto

“Many small business owners say they can’t find the right person with the right skills. But they should determine the real qualifications for the job, examine their own biases and ask whether they are placing unnecessary barriers in front of potential workers.”

Have your say in the comment section.

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