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Support Diversity in the Workplace

We are all individuals. Every one of us has our own story created or coloured by circumstance.

These circumstances include when and where we were born, and the body, family, and culture we were born into. They include the opportunities and misfortunes we experience. They also include the decisions we make, and the people who influence us along the way.

Diversity is a fact. It is everywhere and it is something to celebrate.

Diversity is about our differences

Being human makes us similar in a lot of ways. Diversity refers to the many ways in which we differ from one another. It refers to the qualities that influence who we are and make each of us unique from those around us.

Examples of diverse qualities include:

  • Ethnicity
  • Skin colour
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Place of birth
  • Citizenship
  • Language
  • Religion
  • Education
  • Social background
  • Economic standing
  • Marital or family status
  • Sexual orientation
  • Body type
  • Age
  • Physical or mental ability

Why diversity matters

We tend to take the things we have in common with others for granted. We often focus on the ways in which we differ from one another because that’s what make us stand out. Here are a few reasons to embrace diversity.

Diversity makes life interesting

If we all ate the same food, spoke the same language, or enjoyed the same music, our lives would lack variety. Sameness can be boring, while variety can add excitement.

The opportunity to try food from a different country, study a second language, or dance to different music has a positive effect on our quality of life. It enriches our lives as individuals and energizes our experience as members of society.

Diversity promotes growth

Our similarities naturally draw us together. There’s comfort in hanging out with people with whom we share things in common.

But growth of any kind requires going beyond what makes us comfortable. It demands that we add to what we already are, have, or know.

Being exposed to, understanding, and developing respect for people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives help us grow.

Diversity adds value in the workplace

A diverse workforce brings a broad range of experience, ideas, and expertise.

People with diverse backgrounds often think about and do things differently. They might have grown up with different perspectives. They may have had access to different resources.

Diversity at work provides opportunities to learn from others’ experience. That can help us to get things right more often. It can also help us avoid repeating our failures.

Diversity invites collaboration. It pools creativity. It fuels innovation.

Diversity is recognized and protected within Canadian law

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, together with the Alberta Human Rights Act [PDF] entrench certain rights and freedoms into our laws and Constitution. This includes the right to freedom of expression and the right to be treated as equals.

The Alberta Human Rights Act bans discrimination based on race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation. This list has evolved over time. It will continue to evolve as courts and lawmakers recognize other kinds of discrimination and as Albertans come to appreciate more aspects of diversity.

How you can support diversity in the workplace

As more employers try to diversify their workplaces, you’ll likely encounter coworkers who look, think, or behave differently from what you are used to.

Here are some things you can do to help make a diverse workplace a great place for everyone to work.

Challenge your personal biases

Bias or pre-judgement can settle into our belief systems. It may come from our upbringing or the influence of our social circles. You may have unconscious biases that you’ve never questioned. It’s time to question them.

Hidden in plain sight

Julia looked up and noticed an older man sitting on the edge of the stage at the music festival. How nice that seniors could still come out and participate in an event like this, surrounded by youth and energy, thought Julia. How nice for them.

As the band settled in for the musical jam session, the man picked up one of the guitars and started to sing and play. The crowd applauded enthusiastically.

It turned out that that man was the main attraction—a beloved and talented Canadian folk artist with songs that Julia’s parents used to play in the car on family road trips. The lyrics were warmly familiar. The moment for Julia was humbling, and magical.

Set aside any preconceived notions of what to expect from someone when you first meet them. Give everyone a chance from the start. That way you will get to know people for who they are. Not as young or old, gay or straight, settler or Indigenous, but as individuals.

Keep an open mind

Remember, your employer selected every employee for a reason. Trust that your coworkers have what it takes to do their jobs successfully.

Focused on what matters

Sporting dark glasses and a white cane didn’t hinder Brandon from applying for work at the local garden centre.

With three years of horticultural schooling before becoming legally blind, Brandon’s knowledge of plants, trees, and garden ecosystems is solid. His sense of touch and smell, together for his meticulous organizational skills, more than make up for his impaired vision. And he’s a natural when it comes to customer service.

“When people first meet me, I can sense their confusion,” Brandon says. “But then I show them the best, healthiest plants of their choosing, and they are sold.”

Take advantage of the opportunity to learn from the diversity around you. View that diversity as a job perk. Broaden your understanding, knowledge, and network.

Be respectful

The workplace is no place for prejudice, bullying, or harassment. You may not always understand, agree with, or even like your coworkers, and that’s okay. What matters is that you respect everyone’s right to be there, and to be themselves.

Even small comments or actions can be hurtful to others, especially when they hear them all day, every day. Consider the term microaggression. It refers to small things people do or say, often without realizing they’re causing pain.

Here are some examples of microaggressions:

  • Telling a sexist or racist joke
  • Telling someone they’re “too sensitive”
  • Saying “that’s so gay”, “that’s so retarded”, or “that’s lame”
  • Saying “I’m not racist / sexist / homophobic but …”
  • Telling a person they don’t “look” or “seem” gay, autistic, or anything else they identify as
  • Assuming someone should or shouldn’t do a certain type of work because they’re female or male
  • Commenting on the food choices of a person with obesity

Most often, people don’t realize they’re committing microaggressions, and that’s the problem. The pain of small wounds can add up for a person who hears them every day. It can make it hard for people to speak up and say how they’re feeling.

The most respectful thing you can do when someone finds the courage to mention a microaggression is listen. Then promise you’ll try to do better.

Be inclusive

Whether you’re hashing out key project goals or organizing a potluck lunch with your coworkers, be inclusive. Your communications and actions should be inviting. Assume everyone on the team might want to contribute or participate.

Some may choose to opt out, and that’s fine. What matters is that everyone be given the opportunity—every time.

Be curious for the right reasons

In a diverse workplace there may be many unknowns. The best way to get to know someone is to ask questions, share stories, and draw comparisons that can help you relate. Ask questions with the intent of gaining genuine insight and understanding.

When getting to know someone you should:

1. Focus on whonot whatsomeone is

Ask questions about little things like hobbies, sports, and pop culture. Sharing interests and experiences connects us and builds trust. It makes us want to learn more about each other.

2. Avoid fact-checking

Questions that can be answered with a “Yes” or “No” do little more than confirm or deny what you think you already know about a person. “You’re not from here, are you?” feels more like judgement than interest. When we feel judged we tend to shut down. Instead, perhaps you could say, “Tell me about yourself.” That’s more like an invitation for the person to share according to their own comfort level.

3. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes

How would you feel if someone you don’t know very well asked you a bunch of personal questions at work? You might wonder why they want to know, or what could happen if they did. You may lack trust in their ability to understand. Respect people’s boundaries. Show genuine interest, but don’t pry.

Your respectful curiosity may lead to a new appreciation for your coworkers. It may expose you to new ideas and opportunities, and it might lay the groundwork for valuable, unexpected friendships.

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