A few years back, at a lunch during Pride month, Kate Broer had a eureka moment about the politics of language. After several lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) panelists identified themselves as "queer," an audience member stood up.
"Am I allowed to say that?" she said. "I thought it was a bad word."
The question, and the answer provided - that it wasn't fair to expect people outside of the LGBT community to know such answers - sparked conversation. "That showed me that there actually has to be a dialogue around language because everybody's worried about using the wrong words. It can potentially become a barrier to discussing the underlying issues."
The term "queer" was once an epithet, before gays and lesbians deliberately repatriated it for themselves. Such shifts make language a challenge even for someone like Ms. Broer, who engages in diversity issues regularly as a partner and national co-chair of diversity and inclusion at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP in Toronto.
Most companies advise that when diversity and language are concerned, co-workers should simply be respectful and open minded. But Ms. Broer has noted a shift.
The focus, she says, is becoming one of inclusion, rather than diversity, which emphasizes differences. It's more about accepting that we are all different. It's also about developing awareness of our unconscious biases, a minefield when it comes to discrimination in the workplace.
"As a society, Canadians are quite evolved, and we've learned what not to say, but we might not have taken on what that means at a more unconscious level," says Ms. Broer. "We all have biases, whoever we may be."
Unconscious bias can affect decisions with devastating consequences. Biases of race, culture or gender can prevent people from identifying the best talent, or unfairly influence decisions about a promotion or raise.
In its diversity "boot camp," Fraser Milner Casgrain begins by giving participants a 10-minute online Harvard survey to help them understand their own biases.
"Bias is human nature and once you understand it, you can check yourself when you're making decisions," says Fiona Macfarlane, the South African-born western managing partner and chief inclusiveness officer at Ernst & Young Canada. "You can only change if you understand the part you play."
In some ways, discrimination and biases have been pushed under a veneer of political correctness in Canada. That makes them hard to deal with, says Ms. Macfarlane.
But saying that we are all biased takes some of the sting out of it.
"If people feel defensive, they'll feel less ready to learn," says Ms. Macfarlane. "They'll spend their time defending, justifying and rationalizing - and humans are very good at doing that. If you can get it out in the open and say, 'Let's just acknowledge it and challenge each other without being judgmental,' you can take it from being underground."
Bias clearly exists in Canada, Ms. Macfarlane says; she points to statistics on the percentage of women on the boards of our public companies as proof. With 40 per cent lacking women, Ms. Macfarlane calls the pace of change "glacial." And don't even think about referring to Ms. Macfarlane as one of "the girls": She won't appreciate it, although she uses humour to draw attention to the fact that your words aren't perceived in the way you meant them.
"What it's really doing is diminishing the individual, even if it's intended affectionately," says Ms. Macfarlane. "I'll reverse it by calling them "boys" or say that I'm flattered at 51 that they think I look so young. Get your message across, but allow the person to laugh about it. Embarrassing people doesn't work."
So what should you do when people get it wrong? Ms. Broer suggests "gentle correction" rather than chastising.
"The bigger risk is not letting people know so they continue to do things," says Ms. Broer. "For example, we now say 'Asian' instead of 'Oriental,' or 'persons with disabilities' rather than 'handicapped.' If somebody uses an outdated word, you can simply say that word isn't widely used any more."
Jason Bilsky, chief financial officer and vice-president of corporate services for NorthwesTel Inc. in Whitehorse, Yukon, says he often encounters confusion about what terms to use.
The company's aboriginal work force is large and it employs many new Canadians and visible minorities as well. For Mr. Bilsky, the dialogue around diversity starts with the vision and why it's important.
"We want to represent the community that we serve and the demographics we have are very diverse right across the northern territories," says Mr. Bilsky. "Where the confusion comes in is what type of culture is it? You have to identify people specifically. For me, [the]proper terminology is 'aboriginal,' 'Inuit,' 'First Nations' versus 'Native' or 'Indian.' Our employees and people in the north are aware of that evolution, but I often hear terms in the southern regions of the country that aren't politically correct."
Like the other companies named to the Best Employers for Diversity list, NorthwesTel offers diversity training. It's the same with Fraser Milner Casgrain, where its boot camp has had a huge impact on its culture, according to Ms. Broer.
"Before the session some people said they really didn't know what the point of all this was and wondered how we were going to fill the time," says Ms. Broer. "Afterwards they said, 'Can we continue for three days?'
"Our goal was to raise the awareness of the people in the room. It looks like a tiny goal, but it's really a big thing."
"As a newcomer to Canada, people took me out for dinner to an Indian restaurant because they assumed I'd want my own Indian food. They were trying to be culturally sensitive but if they had only asked, I'd have told them, 'I would have preferred a steak,'" says Munish Mohendroo, vice-president, transaction advisory services, Ernst & Young Canada
The platinum rule
"In the diversity arena, we talk about the platinum rule rather than the golden rule: treat others as they want to be treated. To do that, you need to understand where they're coming from and what their background is," says Norma Tombari, director, global diversity, Royal Bank of Canada
Bodies speak differently
"Consider cultural differences in body language. In some Asian cultures it's not appropriate to be outgoing in a meeting. That can be misconstrued in a Canadian business meeting because they don't lean forward or do other things that we want them to do. Culturally they're in a different place," says Kate Broer, partner at Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP
Special to The Globe and Mail