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It’s not hard to understand why, more than a year after Black Lives Matter protests, Canadian firms are spearheading new ways to support diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.

Recent surveys have found Canadians not only believe systemic racism exists in the country, but that local institutions and businesses should do something to combat it.

For example, a 2020 Ipsos poll found 60 per cent of those surveyed see systemic racism as a “serious” problem and a majority believe more needs to be done to ensure equality for all Canadians, regardless of race and ethnicity. While the same poll couldn’t come to a consensus about the role businesses should play in tackling racism, almost half said that companies weren’t doing enough to address it.

Stephanie Bergman, a consultant at human resources company Bright + Early, isn’t surprised the public wants to see institutional change in society and that companies are implementing new processes to spotlight diversity and inclusivity as a response.

“There’s been a broader awareness brought to companies and individuals that this is something that people are looking for and want,” she said. Companies are exploring it “because they want to ensure that everything and everyone they interact with is kind of operating in best practices and, ideally, with diversity in mind.

At BenchSci, a Toronto-based artificial intelligence startup, co-founder Liran Belenzon and his team have implemented changes to support diversity at the growing company, which employs about 150 people.

Last year, company leaders hired a diversity consultant to review internal practices, and in January hired its first diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) adviser. In what some may consider an unusual move, the startup’s DEI adviser reports directly to Mr. Belenzon and works alongside the company’s human resources department. Usually diversity advisers report directly to human resources, which handles diversity and/or staff issues and then decide what to relay to the chief executive or other company executives.

“Some companies will hire someone in a DEI role and think that solves the problem, but it’s much more than that. It needs to come from the top, systems need to be changed, there’s learning and unlearning to be done, and priorities might need to shift to make room for this work,” Mr. Belenzon said about his company’s approach to diversity.

“When the DEI adviser reports to the CEO, it signals that there is executive buy-in, that buy-in is crucial to achieving true diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The company’s move isn’t all that common in younger businesses, but one that could yield positive results, said Tana Turner, a professor at York University, long-time DEI consultant and principal at Turner Consulting Group. “I think it’s brilliant,” she said. “It starts at the top and research shows that diversity really is the smart thing to do because of the impact it has on the business overall.”

For Mr. Belenzon, improved diversity at BenchSci is a boon to his team and to the bottom line, especially if the company aims to be a global player. “DEI doesn’t touch only team members,” he explains. “It touches your product, your vendors and what we are doing externally.”

Bigger, more traditional companies are also coming up with new ways to support diversity, equity and inclusivity within their halls, too.

KPMG Canada – the domestic arm of the global accounting and professional services firm – recently created a unique initiative that will have employees act as “Bias Challengers” in performance or employee evaluation meetings to tackle subconscious bias.

“I think in any organic organization there is bias – KPMG is certainly not unique to that,” said Robert Davis, KPMG Canada’s chief inclusion and diversity officer and board chair, about why it was important for the company to be pro-active in fighting internal bias.

The Bias Challenger role isn’t limited to any department, which means anyone in the company can volunteer for it, but it is likely to be fulfilled by senior employees who have a history of supporting DEI efforts and feel comfortable speaking up about these issues.

Employees who take on the role are expected to participate in national training sessions and then join one of the company’s regular performance review meetings known as “calibration meetings” that take place in every department. In these meetings, managers or supervisors who work with the employee evaluate and assess the individual’s work and performance. The employee being evaluated is not present.

The outcome of these performance review meetings can affect everything from an individual’s pay to career progression, so having a third party who will point out biases or inconsistent evaluation metrics is important, Mr. Davis said.

The overarching goal is to eventually stamp out bias at the company altogether and work toward all employees becoming Bias Challengers to make sure all workers across the country feel they are treated fairly.

“On the surface, that sounds like a great idea,” said Ms. Turner, who explains that inviting all employees to play a role in DEI initiatives, participate in training and learn how bias unfolds in different ways is important for lasting change. To increase the chance of long-term success it will be important for the company to ensure Challengers sit in on meetings for everyone, not just those for BIPOC and other marginalized groups, in order to compare employee reviews, pay increases, roles as well as how assumptions are made.

It’s an important point, and the reason KPMG’s Bias Challengers will attend meetings for all employees, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Additionally, the firm has also eliminated self-ratings for workers since BIPOC and women are mostly likely to underrate their contributions.

For Ms. Bergman, who works with a variety of companies, it’s important that companies creating their own initiatives not lose sight of DEI learnings gleaned from the pandemic. As workplaces reopen and workers return, offering custom approaches for staff, such as flexible hours, can be helpful.

“One of the things that I really enjoyed about virtual facilitation and virtual training has actually been that it provides a little bit more space for people to show up where they’re at,” she said about the ability for workers to take a step away from difficult conversation while remote working.

“I think that with a return to the office after remote work, one of the opportunities will be to find a way to maintain the things that have been built in a remote workplace and worked.”

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