Ladies and gentlemen,
I am honoured to be here today to celebrate Diversity Month at Owens Corning. At the outset, I would like to commend your company for addressing the issue of diversity. Diversity can be a contentious issue in certain workplaces, and many companies simply adopt a diversity policy and don't go any further. However, Owens Corning is encouraging its employees to have a free exchange of ideas on this subject, which is very admirable.
Today, I am going to speak about the value of diversity in the workplace. Let's start off by looking at the term "diversity". What does it mean? I think your company's diversity policy offers a pretty good definition:
"Diversity recognizes, respects and values individual differences to enable each person to maximize his or her own potential and that of Owens Corning.
Diversity includes differences such as age, ethnicity, gender, language, parental and marital status, race, religion, sexual orientation, thinking style and more."
This is an excellent definition of diversity because it is broad and inclusive. By adopting such a policy, Owens Corning is sending a message that it sees diversity as an asset, not a liability.
There are two reasons why companies should put an emphasis on diversity, and I will address each of them in turn. First, diversity is good for business and the bottom line. Second, companies have a social responsibility to promote equality in Canadian society. In other words, valuing diversity isn't only about increasing profits and ensuring that shareholders get a bang for their buck. It's also about promoting socially responsible corporate behaviour.
But let's start by looking at why diversity is good for business. Over the last 10 years, it has become abundantly clear that workplace diversity is a competitive necessity. The world of business has become increasingly globalized, and Canada's population is now one of the most ethnically diverse in the world.
According to the 1996 census, there are now at least 3.2 million visible minorities in Canada, which is more than 11 per cent of the population. This number is equivalent to the combined population of the four Atlantic provinces plus Saskatchewan. In two years, Canada's visible-minority population is expected to increase to about five million people.
Visible minorities in Canada also have enormous economic clout. By the new Millenium, their share of Canada's Gross National Product will be more than $300 billion. In Ontario, this figure takes on even greater importance because at least half of new immigrants settle in the Greater Toronto Area. According to the United Nations, Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in the world. Any company that ignores these new and affluent markets is losing a massive competitive edge.
If a company has a diverse workforce, it can respond more effectively to the needs of its customers. For example, at the service level, it makes sense to use employees who are drawn from the same backgrounds and groups as their customers. A company that has Cantonese or Punjabi-speaking salespeople is far more likely to attract customers from those groups than a company that doesn't.
It's also very important to ensure that diversity extends into all levels of a company. At the product design level, a diverse workforce can help companies to design and deliver products that appeal to diverse customers. A diverse workforce can also help companies to avoid making costly marketing errors. For example, Chevrolet once launched a car called "The Nova" into Latin America. Unfortunately, the words "No va" mean "Don't go" in Spanish!
Needless to say, the car didn't sell very well. However, this marketing error could have been avoided if Chevrolet had Hispanic managers in its workforce.
The marketing of products at various ethnic communities within Canada should also be undertaken with a high degree of sensitivity. It's very important to conduct thorough research about the markets you are trying to reach. One should not assume that every person belonging to a particular ethnic group wants the same thing. For example, the Chinese community in Canada is composed of both Canadian-born Chinese and more recent immigrants who have come from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of the world. So companies who are marketing products to specific ethnic groups have to take such factors into account.
But increasing profits and maximizing shareholder returns isn't only about making customers happy. It's also contingent on nurturing a positive work environment and job satisfaction within the walls of the company. In particular, human resources policies and practices must move with the times and reflect the diversity of the workplace.
Employers have both a moral and legal duty to accommodate the needs of employees who come from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. This could include flexible scheduling to accommodate religious practices. Companies should also examine their vacation and "time-off" policies to ensure that they accommodate non-Christian holidays such as Ramadan or Chinese New Year. Companies that show a commitment to accommodating the needs of their employees will receive higher worker productivity and loyalty in return.
A successful diversity policy cannot be properly implemented without training and education. Training programs demonstrate that management is serious about diversity in the workplace. However, such programs must be well designed and should be led by knowledgeable, carefully selected facilitators. They should also be tailored to a company's individual culture.
For example, training seminars could look at the issue of racial stereotyping and how it affects advancement in the workplace. There is some good advice on how to address stereotyping in this month's issue of "A" magazine, which is a publication for Asian Americans. The magazine has a work supplement section which includes an advice column.
In one of the letters, an Asian-American complained that a high-level executive in his company often comes up to employees of Asian descent and says, "You are all nice, quiet hardworking Asians."
On the surface, this seems like a harmless comment. But is it? If the executive perceives Asians as quiet, he may also perceive them as unsuitable for management positions because they aren't aggressive enough. The executive's remark may also suggest that he wishes other minorities were more like Asians ? quiet and hardworking. So the executive's seemingly innocuous comment may in fact be loaded with racism towards Asians and other visible minorities. Training seminars could be used to as a tool to spark discussion about these kinds of issues.
I would also like to emphasize that everyone has an obligation to respect diversity, not just white Canadians. Visible minorities have a right not be discriminated against in the workplace. However, they have a corresponding obligation not to engage in homophobic, racist, or sexist behaviour. You can't demand justice for yourself but not for others. Workplace equity is a two-way street that demands respect for diversity in all its forms.
A good diversity policy also focuses on accountability. Studies show that corporate diversity policies are more likely to succeed if incentives or awards are offered to managers. At one large American insurance company, a portion of each manager's merit bonus is tied to diversity performance standards such as effective communications, creating a supportive work environment, and professional development.
A properly implemented diversity policy not only makes economic sense, it makes good legal sense as well. I'll give you one jarring example. In 1994, a group of black employees in the U.S. filed a class-action suit against Texaco. They alleged that the company failed to promote qualified black employees and paid them lower wages than their white counterparts. Of course, Texaco denied the allegations.
Then, in 1997, a senior executive at Texaco tape-recorded conversations between himself and other executives. He publicly released the tapes after he was laid off from the company. On the tapes, Texaco managers were heard making racist remarks about African-Americans and discussing whether they should shred internal documents that were being sought by the plaintiffs. After these tapes went public, Texaco was forced to settle the racial discrimination suit for $176 million. Needless to say, this did not result in a good return for its shareholders. It also wasn't very good for Texaco's public image.
But diversity isn't only about having a good public image. It's also about being a good corporate citizen. A company that has a strong diversity policy sends out a powerful message to the public that it does not condone racism.
Compared to many countries around the world, Canada has a good human rights record. However, both overt and systemic racism still exist in our country. In late May, five young men in British Columbia pleaded guilty to manslaughter for beating an elderly Sikh man to death. The police have reported that all five of these young men have links to organized hate groups. On the evening of the murder, they had been attending a white power gathering, which apparently whipped them up into a hateful frenzy.
Last month, two elderly Jewish men were brutally attacked in North Toronto. This attack came on the heels of a Toronto police report that found that hate crimes increased by 19 per cent in the first six months of this year.
There has also been an alarming increase in the number of hate sites on the Internet. According to the latest figures, there are now more than 2,000 such sites on the web.
The fight against racism must be a collective effort that involves all Canadians, including corporations. Companies should view diversity not merely as an internal policy but also as an external statement that tells the world that racism won't be tolerated. I encourage Owens Corning to establish itself as a corporate leader and a model company in this regard.
I strongly believe that we can succeed in overcoming racism in Canada. But it must be a collective effort, and we must all speak out against discrimination. Politicians must speak out against racism in government. Teachers and students must speak out against racism in the schools. Corporations and unions must speak out against racism in the workplace. As long as we all work together, I am confident that Canada truly will become a model nation in the new Millennium. Thank you.