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At Edmonton-based Stantec Consulting, company leaders have long observed that the best ideas come from teams whose members boast diverse backgrounds.

Women make up 34 per cent of Stantec's employees and 22 per cent of management. Visible minorities make up 12.5 per cent of staff and 8.5 per cent of management.

Together, they bring new perspectives to design and technical challenges.

"It's something we really embrace because, through diversity, we are getting stronger technical solutions that really make a difference to our clients," said Peter Salusbury, vice-president for people and practice.

Stantec is not the only professional services company – where careers typically depend on promotion – to recognize that diversity is profitable. Across Canada and the United States, companies are hiring more diverse employees.

But where the inclusion of women and visible minorities gets sticky is the pipeline to the top, as programs designed to promote inclusiveness face challenges.

One recent survey on career mobility, carried out by the Harvard School of Business and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, found a troubling side effect of setting up demographically similar work groups in a major law firm.

While their purpose was to foster a sense of social cohesion among juniors of the same race or gender, instead, many left the firm, fearing that the competition reduced their chances for promotion. Essentially, the idea of being compared with people from your own peer group when being evaluated for promotion, rather than your personal attributes, was turning off young professionals.

Executives ought to reconsider the practice of "stuffing the pipeline," suggested the study's authors. Otherwise, they are in danger of losing talent at a time when "there's no ambiguity about the fact that the war for talent is going to intensify," said Raj Krishnamoorthy, senior risk services partner at Deloitte.

"Programs have to be well designed," said Wendy Cukier, who spearheads annual studies on gender and visible minority inclusion in management for Ryerson University's Diversity Institute.

"When you talk to women or visible minorities who have risen to the top, they will almost invariably talk about someone who advocated on their behalf, included them in informal networks and helped them gain visibility," she said.

But in programs where "they've tried to force-fit people together," she added, "it doesn't work."

Data indicate that, in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, where visible minorities make up almost half the population, they account for 12.5 per cent of corporate boards of directors. Women make up only 25 per cent.

A 2010 survey by the Canadian Board Diversity Council, moreover, showed that women take up only 15 per cent of board seats among Canada's 500 biggest corporations, and visible minorities just 5 per cent.

So if "stuffing the pipeline" doesn't work, what does?

Mentoring programs in which younger staff choose their mentors offer one way of straightening out the balance, said Mr. Krishnamoorthy. "We've said, 'You decide,'" he explained. "Here are a bunch of mentors available. You figure out whom you want to choose as mentors, whom you want to use to help navigate through the firm and understand some of the nuances, unlike a line-of-command reporting structure."

At the Toronto-based law firm of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP – like Stantec and Deloitte, among Canada's 50 Best Diversity Employers – mentoring programs are also individualized, said partner Kate Broer. "We love it when our young men are mentored by women," she said, "because they look at it as, 'there was a woman who helped me get to where I am.'"

The firm's philosophy, she added, is "every person in our environment is a unique individual. Everybody has something to bring to the table and we want to be able to bring the best out in everyone, leverage that in our business, and hopefully, other good things will follow."

Fraser Milner has found that with diversity, "you get more robust teams that can engage in different, more creative problem solving," she said.

In addition to its mentoring programs, Deloitte also encourages the formation of networks that bring together women, Asian professionals, black professionals and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community, among others.

"We used to ask, six or seven years ago, why create these ghettos?" said Mr. Krishnamoorthy. "They may marginalize some of these individuals."

But that thinking evolved, he added, as executives realized that these groups created a lot of energy and enthusiasm and "enable us to celebrate some of the uniquenesses that might not normally get celebrated."

They have also, he said, "opened the eyes of our executives to some of the unique needs that have surfaced, so that's there's more awareness, more appreciation of some of the nuances that exist, and how they need to be factored in as decisions get made."

Companies that want more diverse executive branches need to build that objective into their business plans, Mr. Salusbury said. Mentoring programs are only one part of a "well-rounded inclusion strategy," he said.

"It is something that needs to be natural. Make sure those young future leaders have the right mentor and not necessarily one of a certain gender or race," he said. "It's the right mentor that matters."

While mentoring programs and networks are useful, the presence of women and visible minority role models in the executive suite "is perhaps the most important thing," said Mr. Krishnamoorthy. "These right role models and mindset become magnets for attracting talent almost by default."