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Inspector Riyaz Hussein of the Toronto Police Service is seen inside a Toronto Police Service patrol car.

Jennifer Roberts for the Globe and Mail/jennifer roberts The Globe and Mail

When Inspector Riyaz Hussein joined the Toronto Police Service 22 years ago, both the force and the city had very different complexions.

The young South Asian officer, who immigrated with his family to Canada from Tanzania, says he didn't see the cultural diversity - or support for it - which he finds today.

Back then, looking to move forward in his career, develop a sense of teamwork on the job and to enjoy some camaraderie after hours, Insp. Hussein played hockey with fellow staff and sought out mentors for advice and help.

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Things have changed. Today, Insp. Hussein is a founding member and advisor to the South Asian Internal Support Network, or ISN, one of six such groups set up by employees of the force in the last two years.

The networks - there are ISNs for South Asian, East Asian, Black, Filipino, women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender staff - are intended to encourage support, networking and camaraderie among co-workers and supervisors. They help members of the 8,000-strong force integrate and advance, as well as bringing them together for social occasions.

"Teamwork is essential in policing," says Insp. Hussein, who works at the main headquarters of the Toronto Police Service, one of the GTA's Top Employers for 2011. "There's great value and merit in helping others."

Encouraging teamwork and esprit de corps among staff should be the goal of every employer, in the interest of a more effective and satisfied workforce. For the Toronto Police Service, these connections are particularly important. They range from the bond between two partners who face life-and-death situations on their beats, to the ties among the force's 5,600 uniformed and 2,400 civilian staff, to the links between the police service and the wider community.

"Promoting a teamwork approach is going to provide a safer community," says Deputy Chief Mike Federico. Ensuring teamwork is behind everything from the service's recruitment and promotions to how it recognizes achievement and encourages wellness is also key, he adds. "Teamwork is always the subtext," he says. "We select for it, we train for it, we nurture it."

The ISNs are an example of a mechanism to create a "more fluid and organic exchange" among staff, he says. They take informal connections between employees with shared characteristics or backgrounds and make them more robust and predictable, he adds. For instance, the force oversees the groups' charters and gives them meeting space and access to the internal intranet and email system for their communications. "We're a police force, we formalize everything," Deputy Chief Federico says.

Mark Pugash, director of corporate communications with the force, says ISNs are a resource for people to draw on as the organization quickly becomes more diverse. Today, 20.3 per cent of uniformed officers are visible minorities, compared with 16.7 per cent in 2008 and 9.5 per cent in 2000. Women make up 18.2 per cent of uniformed officers, compared with 16.7 per cent in 2008 and 12.9 per cent in 2000.

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The change in demographics is especially dramatic given there is little turnover in the force, Mr. Pugash says. The service was "overwhelmingly white male" in the late 1980s, he says. "The city has changed dramatically and this organization is changing along with it."

Other initiatives that build connections and motivate staff range from internal newsletters and intranet articles about team efforts to awards that recognize teamwork, he says.

Kristine Kijewski, the civilian director of corporate services who has been with the service for 27 years, is one of the founders of the Women's ISN. Teamwork has always been part of the force's culture, Ms. Kijewski says, but is now even more critical because the organization is so large and spread around the city. "You can't work together if you can't work as a team."

The Women's ISN is involved in a range of initiatives around career mentoring, orientation for new staff and social activities. "We have a common goal and purpose, everyone pretty much understands that," Ms. Kijewski says.

Concerns have been raised that ISNs may lead to factions and divisiveness, Ms. Kijewski notes, but the groups are careful to ensure they are inclusive.

Another benefit of the ISNs is that they build understanding between the uniformed and civilian sides of the service. "There's always an opportunity to better explain the complementary roles we play for one another," Ms. Kijewski says. "Everyone's got a piece of the puzzle This brings people together."

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The groups also draw together people from all cultures, lengths of service and rank, Insp. Hussein says. Boat cruises, pub nights and fundraising drives mean staff can "meet people in a less formal environment away from work."

Membership of each ISN and all of its activities are open to the whole force. The South Asian ISN held a professional development lecture for people applying for promotion, Insp. Hussein says, and "people from every walk of life and background attended."

Ross Coyles, a principal in talent management at the Toronto office of Mercer, a human resources consultancy, says police services are looking to promote cohesion as they get larger and become focused on community-based policing.

"From the finance to the forensic people, they're coming together by degree," he says. "That old blue network is difficult to permeate and change, but the successful police services are putting special emphasis on community within."

The Toronto Police Service's initiatives are applicable to any large organization, Deputy Chief Federico says. For employers, providing peer networks and common approaches will enable staff to grow and develop on the job, ensuring a more satisfied and effective workforce.

"We want to make sure the human experience is somehow enriched by being at work," he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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