The faces of leadership in workplaces and boardrooms remain largely white and male. But as our economies and societies become more diverse, those holding positions of power are also slowly changing. As that gradual shift plays out, the discourse about diversity and inclusion will be less about “white privilege” and more about who holds decision-making power and the often-implicit biases held by any dominant group that has power or privilege in any workplace.
As the faces of business leaders change, here are four things to note in human resources management:
1. The nature of discrimination and harassment complaints will change
Most HR managers are by now sensitive to instances of discrimination or harassment against traditionally marginalized groups. And post-MeToo, they’re also keenly aware of sexual harassment.
However, as business leadership becomes more diverse, the nature of discrimination and harassment complaints will continue to change. In British Columbia, the Human Rights Tribunal found in favour of white workers who claimed discrimination from a resort business owned by an ethnically Chinese person, determining that he’d repeatedly said he wanted to reduce labour costs by replacing them with Chinese employees, who would work for less. In Ontario, a bank employee claimed he was denied a promotion because of his heterosexual orientation. The Canadian Human Rights Commission initially dismissed his complaints, but the Federal Court ordered it to take back the case, citing a lack of thoroughness in the investigation, and properly look at “the full record”.
As the above examples show, businesses should be more prepared for discrimination complaints to come from different groups that haven’t traditionally been complainants. It’s important to realize the role of underlying changing biases associated with shifts in power, as well.
2. More robust culture of inclusion
Bias is in all of us – we tend to prefer people most like us and to exclude those who are different. Such implicit biases can seem benign (I want to hire someone I can have a beer with), but left unchecked, they can easily cross the line into discrimination (She has children so I won’t promote her). Sometimes, bias results in covert micro-aggressions – less egregious but nonetheless hurtful behaviour.
Inclusion ensures all individuals feel respected and welcome in the workplace. Studies show that diversity increases business innovation and competitiveness. Being self-aware of biases can mitigate their exclusionary effects.
Leaders need to prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion in today’s business environment, not only for competitive edge, but also to mitigate against real risks of discrimination or harassment claims. To do this, inclusion practices need to be more robust, going beyond organizational policy statements to making them reality. For example, regardless of the person in power, hiring and promotion processes should start with asking the question: Are we excluding anyone based on bias?
3. Investigate when necessary, but do not necessarily investigate
Most business leaders believe they are legally required to investigate every allegation of harassment in the workplace. However, a better understanding of workplace-related law will eliminate unnecessary risk while maintaining the safety and well-being of employees.
Mediation is more uniting and healing to the parties than an investigation because the goal is a mutually agreeable solution. Conversely, the impact of investigations can be devastating to workplace culture. In fact, a whole industry has developed around workplace remediation post-investigation.
While it can be difficult to determine whether a complaint is actually “workplace harassment” as defined under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, it’s worthwhile to explore mediation as an effective alternative to investigations to avoid potentially costly legal issues.
4. Move beyond symbolic gestures
Corporate policies, cultural sensitivity and unconscious bias training, inclusion and diversity events – these all take even the most progressive businesses only so far. To be effective at countering the effects of bias, including systemic bias, policies and training have to actually be applied in practice with a concomitant shift in thinking at the leadership level. If the commitment is not put into practice, there will be no lasting impact on organizational behaviour.
A level of accountability needs to exist within organizations to not keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.
As the face of business leadership changes, so will the challenges that come with leadership in general. Employers need to be more aware of their own behaviours to reflect on the changing organizational structure.
Lai-King Hum is the founder of Hum Law, a boutique law firm based in Toronto that focuses on workplace law, human rights, professional regulation and litigation.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories here, and sign up for our weekly Careers newsletter for guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.