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Canadian business leaders need to take "courageous" actions to make sure their companies are more diverse and inclusive in order to remain competitive amid demographic and technological changes in the workplace, according to a new report released on Wednesday.

"Actions taken by many firms to date in the areas of diversity and inclusion have delivered more optics than outcomes," says a Deloitte study advocating the benefits of building more inclusive organizations.

After decades of progress, the country has been stuck in neutral, struggling to advance traditionally underrepresented groups such as women, visible minorities, those with disabilities and Indigenous people, especially to the most senior levels of organizations, it said.

Deloitte Canada chief executive Frank Vettese described it as a "perfect storm of forces."

Global competition, disruptive technology and powerful demographic change are pushing companies to do more to maximize the impact of their people in the workplace.

"We see inclusion as not only something that is critical for the individual … but it's actually the smart thing to do for business," Mr. Vettese said.

The professional-services firm had lengthy conversations with 25 senior Canadian executives – about half of whom were women or visible minorities. It found that business leaders view Canada's diversity as a competitive advantage for companies and the country.

Deloitte said a 2016 survey of 1,300 business leaders linked superior financial performance with retaining employees of different backgrounds, skill sets and mindsets.

But fundamentally changing the business culture to become truly inclusive is hard to do and can be frustratingly slow, the 44-page report says.

Only 11 per cent of Canadian companies could be considered courageous and Deloitte is not among them, although it outlined efforts taken to improve its ranking.

Canadian women account for 35 per cent of managerial positions and much fewer board directors while the disabled, indigenous people and immigrants are underrepresented in the work force. Visible minorities held just 4.5 per cent of director positions in the top 500 Canadian companies by revenues.

The report called for companies to be bold and move beyond "colourful window dressing" and pursue real outcomes. That's especially attractive to millennials, who will account for 75 per cent of the Canadian work force by 2025. About 47 per cent of millennials consider diversity and inclusion as important job-search criteria, said the report. That compares to 33 per cent of Gen X and 37 per cent of baby boomers.

"We're in a very critical war for talent," Mr. Vettese said. "We need everybody involved and included in our business environment for us to have a chance to succeed and moreover a chance to truly be prosperous."

Hadiya Roderique is a former lawyer in Toronto. As a PhD candidate studying organizational behaviour and human resources, she discusses her own work experience and ways to improve diversity and retention in the workplace.

The Globe and Mail