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Protesters gather near the U.S. Embassy during a Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa, on June 5, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

I learned early in my career where I rank in Canada’s racial pecking order.

A former boss had no compunction about expressing relief that I wasn’t Black. And then came the kicker: “Everyone knows Indians make good coolies.” It was meant to be a joke, but it wasn’t funny. I was horrified.

While it’s easy to dismiss that anecdote as an isolated incident, let me assure you that I’ve witnessed colleagues, including Muslims and Indigenous people, suffer worse indignities over the years. And dear readers, if you’re truly honest with yourselves – no matter your background, profession or where you live in this country – you have, too.

No one likes a whistle-blower, which is why many people, including highly educated professionals, hesitate to call out both overt and systemic discrimination in the workplace. That silence stalls the career advancement of Black people, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, women, the disabled, members of LGBTQ2+ communities and other minorities.

Whether it’s an offhand remark uttered in a meeting, inequitable pay or outright bullying, otherwise decent people will turn a blind eye or even guffaw because speaking up can derail their own careers. The transgressions vary in severity – from tone-deaf remarks such as the kind from Stockwell Day this week to the systemic discrimination alleged by McDonald’s executives in a lawsuit – but offer insight into who counts, and who doesn’t, in the corporate world.

That brings me to Canadian chief executives. They’re hardly a diverse bunch, so it was heartening when many spoke out against racism this week in solidarity with ordinary folks around the world protesting police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death. “At a time when we are all fighting COVID-19, we must remember that racism too must be eradicated,” Toronto-Dominion Bank CEO Bharat Masrani wrote in a statement on the lender’s website, adding that violence against Black communities “is the reality of life for millions across the communities we serve.”

While those CEO statements were nice gestures of support, we need business leaders to do more than timely public relations. We need more than empty talk.

A good place to start is recognizing that diversity, albeit an imperfect term, needs to be an intrinsic part of corporate strategy rather than an addendum to it. Telling employees to be themselves – “Bring your whole self to work” is a familiar refrain during Pride Month – won’t dismantle systemic discrimination. It’s about more than just CEO memos, glossy brochures, employee events and corporate philanthropy; it’s about risk management. A company’s commitment to workplace parity is directly correlated with its ability to mitigate risks that damage its brand and erode profits.

Case in point: Look at the embarrassment that Mr. Day caused telecom company Telus Corp. and business law firm McMillan LLP. Mr. Day, a former politician, stepped down as a director from Telus and as a strategic adviser to McMillan on Wednesday after making comments denying the existence of systemic racism in Canada.

“Yes there’s a few idiot racists hanging around, but Canada is not a racist country and most Canadians are not racist and our system, which always needs to be improved, is not systemically racist,” Mr. Day told CBC News Network’s Power & Politics on Tuesday evening. To make matters worse, he compared his own experience of being teased for wearing glasses to minorities disadvantaged by racial discrimination.

Yes, he’s since apologized, but Mr. Day’s comments caused reputational risk for his employers by alienating directors, executives, employees, customers and investors.

Both Telus and McMillan should be analyzing how Mr. Day was ever seen as the “right fit” for their respective businesses, and how they plan to do things differently when they vet his successor.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who bills himself as pro-business, retracted similar remarks denying systemic racism exists in Canada. Although he reversed his position, the denial undermined his efforts to attract foreign investment and promote trade. After all, some of the capital he’s chasing comes from people of colour.

Quebec Premier François Legault, meanwhile, on Monday urged Quebeckers to fight racism but denied systemic discrimination exists in his province.

“I think that there is some discrimination in Quebec, but there’s no systemic discrimination, no system in Quebec of discrimination,” Mr. Legault said, according to a story by The Canadian Press.

Mr. Legault’s aversion to the words “systemic discrimination” was bizarre. Last fall, he admitted Indigenous peoples face exactly that. Moreover, under his leadership, Quebec banned some public servants from wearing religious symbols and created new French-language and values tests – moves that clearly target Muslim women and other religious minorities.

What Mr. Legault is overlooking, despite his background as an airline executive, is that such policies drive away skilled immigrants and youth, who speak French perfectly well and are desperately needed to address future labour shortages. Voters should question whether Mr. Ford and Mr. Legault have the acumen to attract investment and fuel economic growth.

So what can Canadian companies do to create inclusive workplaces? Have a social conscience, according to Wes Hall, Executive Chairman and founder of Kingsdale Advisors, a shareholder-advisory firm. “When companies use ‘diversity,’ they use it to catch and hide things," said Mr. Hall, who wrote an op-ed on anti-Black racism this week. "Diversity doesn’t include Black people. They think it does, but it doesn’t.”

Companies, he added in an interview on Friday, need to stop using diversity as a “catch-all” when referring to the composition of their boards and management teams. Doing so, only deflects from the fact that Black people are rarely considered for those roles.

“If you say ‘we are against anti-Black racism, and our organization reflects that,’ take that statement and look at the members of your management team and see if that statement is true," he said. "Take that statement and put it against your board and see if that statement is true. And you’re going to find that 99 per cent of the companies in this country are not walking the talk.”

CEOs need to take a hard look at who is hired and promoted within their companies, including who ends up responsible for the bottom line versus those who hold lower-level jobs. You can’t create workplace parity without first knowing how many Black people and other minorities are being groomed for advancement in profit-and-loss roles, and how many are underemployed because of nebulous issues around whether they “fit.”

When employees face barriers to advancement, it depresses compensation. University-educated, Canadian-born visible minorities earn, on average, 87.4 cents for every dollar earned by their Caucasian peers, according to a report by The Conference Board of Canada based on 2017 data.

Levelling the playing field means corporate boards need to determine whether CEOs and their inner circles are part of the problem. Do they only promote their buddies, yes men and people who look like them?

Executive compensation should be tied to measurable outcomes of a company’s hiring and promotion practices. Variable compensation, such as bonuses, should be awarded contingent on meeting and exceeding aggressive hiring targets. As for corporate boards themselves, shorter term limits for directors is one way to ensure fresh blood and lateral thinking.

There also needs to be consequences. Not all forms of discrimination are as apparent as name calling. It can be just as harmful to continually have your resume discarded because of a foreign-sounding name, face routine exclusion from emails and meetings, deal with regular undermining by subordinates or be constantly ghosted by superiors when you need support. Such patterns of behaviour create legal risks, increase absenteeism, destroy productivity and cause top talent to flee.

Part of the solution lies with HR departments. They need to be truly independent from management, so they can thoroughly investigate accusations of discrimination, and reprimand employees when warranted. But governments also need to fix human rights laws. It should be incumbent on companies to prove they’re in compliance with the rules, rather than on victims to speak up.

The notion that everyone gets a fair shake in the Canadian labour market is a fallacy. As Mr. Hall said to me, his experience as a Black man and mine as a Brown woman are two very different things. While I’ve faced discrimination in my career, I also recognize that I have an advantage over others because I was born in Canada, have no accent and my complexion isn’t that dark.

In the wider corporate world, hiring those who trace their origins to Asia for management and director roles is a form of diversity, but it certainly doesn’t address anti-Black racism. Any honest discussion of workplace diversity must include an acknowledgement that some people are routinely ignored because they’re different and not because of their credentials.

As my dad says, all too often merit-based hiring really means something different – M for money; E for encouragement; R for recommendation; I for influence; and T for tail wagging.

Now is the time to change all that. Inclusion isn’t antithetical to capitalism. In fact, as experts point out, it’s about ensuring market forces truly prevail.

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