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5 steps to building a more inclusive workplace

September 02, 2020 by United Way Greater Toronto

Nikki Gershbain, Chief Inclusion Officer at McCarthy Tétrault, and Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities & Mobilization at United Way Greater Toronto, highlight the work McCarthy Tétrault has done to build a more inclusive workplace—and how its partnership with United Way is extending this commitment beyond the office. 

During a summer of hard conversations about structural and anti-Black racism at all levels of society, businesses in every sector started having conversations about building more inclusive and diverse workplaces—but at McCarthy Tétrault, one of the country’s top law firms, these conversations aren’t new.

The firm launched its Inclusion Now initiative in October 2018, committing $5 million to five local United Way Centraides across the country to promote inclusion among five different groups, including women, members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, newcomers, Indigenous peoples and people with disabilities. This donation, the first of its kind for a Canadian law firm, is aligned with its ongoing inclusion initiatives, including a commitment to gender diversity (women make up 47 per cent of the leadership team), mental health (they’ve spoken publicly about the need to reduce mental health stigma in the legal profession) and racial diversity (the firm is the founding sponsor of an Indigenous human rights clinic, and is a signatory of the BlackNorth Initiative Pledge).

McCarthy Tétrault believes in doing the right thing, but there are also business reasons for focusing on diversity and inclusion. “We have decades of credible, rigorous academic research showing that inclusive organizations are better positioned to solve complex business problems. They are more profitable. Diverse teams have a higher collective intelligence. And employees who work in inclusive environments tend to be more engaged, productive and loyal,” says Nikki Gershbain, McCarthy Tétrault’s Chief Inclusion Officer.

Here’s what the firm has learned so far.

1. Come up with evidence-based goals—and follow up on them 

The first step to building a more inclusive workplace is figuring out what your current workforce looks like. At McCarthy Tétrault, the firm conducts a regular demographic data census. They invite all employees to confidentially share the demographic categories they belong to and to answer a series of inclusion questions. “We ask people about their experiences of the organization, along many facets. Then we cross-reference those inclusion results with the demographic data, which gives us a sense of who feels included in the organization, and importantly, who does not. We look at what functional group and role those people are in, and whether there are any patterns along the lines of gender, race, sexual identity, and so on. Slicing and dicing that data in this way tells us a lot about where our opportunities are and what we need to do to move forward,” Gershbain says.

“Disaggregated data is an important part of this work,” says Nation Cheong, Vice President, Community Opportunities & Mobilization, United Way Greater Toronto. Demographic information that has been split up into categories like race, gender or location can reveal trends (especially around inequality) that are otherwise hidden. But since this information is also so sensitive, “data collection has to be done ethically and with the protection of people’s safety and privacy in mind. The potential for abusing information can’t be an excuse not to collect disaggregated data. There are ways to collect and use it responsibly.”

2. Stop conducting “fit” interviews 

McCarthy Tétrault uses a “behavioural-based recruitment approach.” Instead of judging candidates based on the subjective—and potentially discriminatory—concept of “fit”, interviews are focused on the qualities, competencies and skills required to do the job.

“Hiring for fit can hide unconscious bias and all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes about who people are,” Gershbain says. “Often, you end up just hiring people who remind you of you. It’s the concept of ‘like likes like’. By contrast, our process digs deeper into specific skills, competencies, and values, and our interview questions and process are designed to overcome appearance, presentation and stereotypes.”

The firm also does something quite unique: they’re upfront about their commitment to diversity. “This is something we started doing last year, and I’m so proud of it,” she says. “Many firms will prepare in advance for the diversity question, but they’ll wait for a law student to raise it: ‘so tell me about your diversity and inclusion program.’ We believe that putting the onus on students, generally diverse students, communicates that diversity isn’t one of our core values. Because in fact it is, as part of the interview process we now ask every single student who walks through our door, regardless of background, to share some thoughts on diversity and inclusion, and we make a point to proactively share what we’re doing in this space with all students. As an organisation, we deliberately wear our inclusion values on our sleeve.”

3. Go beyond talent management

True inclusion isn’t just about hiring diversely; it’s about shifting company culture, and that requires holistic change, Cheong says. “Policies and frameworks within organizations are the necessary structure to move intention to action and to help support leadership,” he says. “And in issues as complex as systemic discrimination, anti-racism, anti-oppression and misogyny, which are so embedded in our culture, our mindsets and our language—to the point of normalcy—you absolutely need structure and policy to support transformation.”

That has been the case at McCarthy Tétrault. Gershbain is a member of the firm’s leadership team and has a “small but mighty” department devoted to promoting inclusion across all facets of the firm and its business. She says this structure helps legitimize her work, allowing her to touch different groups within the organization—and that’s critical. “In many organizations, diversity and inclusion is often housed within HR departments. Of course, a huge part of the work is definitely about talent management. But if you only focus on talent management, you leave a lot on the table. You marginalize the issues, and fail to treat diversity as a business driver, a leadership issue, and a cultural issue,” she says.

4. Don’t place the burden of promoting inclusion on BIPOC employees

Gershbain is wary of allowing any McCarthy Tétrault employee to pay the “diversity tax,” the idea that people from marginalized groups are disproportionally expected to take on the work of diversity and inclusion, whether that’s speaking on behalf of their ethnic or cultural group or brainstorming solutions for the organization. “Our view is that the task of dismantling structural barriers should not fall solely on the shoulders of the people who experience those barriers,” she says. “This needs to be work that everyone is committed to.”

That’s why the firm has created “Action Groups” focussing on race, gender, sexual identity and ability, and invites all employees to participate, regardless of whether they belong to a marginalized group. And many people do—of the firm’s 1,500 employees, over 500 lawyers, students and staff members have volunteered. “It’s really remarkable. A lot of people you may not expect to be interested in this work are actually really invested in these issues. The take-up we’ve seen for our Action Groups also reflects the importance that we place on inclusion, the profile this work enjoys in our organization, and quite frankly, the authentic commitment of our leaders—right up to the top of the house,” she says.

And that’s critical. Gershbain points to another adage (“what interests my boss, fascinates me”) as an argument for a top-down focus on inclusion. And according to Cheong, that means looking above even the CEO.

“I think it starts with boards of directors and your various committees,” he says. “They have to have a fundamental understanding and appreciation of equity as a critical success factor for your business. Because the CEO answers to the board; the board sets the tone for most major companies.”

5. Think beyond your own organization

McCarthy Tétrault’s trailblazing $5-million Inclusion Now investment in local communities across Canada through United Way Centraide is a natural complement to its in-house work to build a more inclusive company—and according to Cheong, that’s what makes it so powerful. “The United Way/McCarthy Tétrault partnership is a good example of how community organizations and corporate organizations can work together to share expertise, which goes a long way toward building more inclusive workplaces and communities,” he says. “And that reflects what’s going on in the world. There’s a huge social transformation afoot, including a shift in demographics of racialized folks from different parts of the world who are coming in with the education, the skills and the buying power that are important to your company. So, you have to be relevant to them, you have to understand the things that matter to your customer or client, and you have to understand that these are the folks you are going to employ.”

In fact, Gershbain says, working with United Way shows McCarthy Tétrault’s own people that its commitment to diversity and inclusion is real. “Aligning our United Way Centraide investment with our diversity values has created greater engagement among our people, because they can see that the communities we are able to support reflect, in many cases, their own communities, as well as our values as an organization. It’s made the entire program so much more impactful,” she says.

As a law firm, that is also why McCarthy Tétrault has supplemented its charitable giving with a robust pro bono program. As Gershbain explains, “lawyers are a member of a self-regulated profession, and as such we have an obligation to our very specialized skill set to give back to the community. When we say inclusion and corporate social responsibility are core values, that doesn’t mean much unless that’s a commitment we activate and make meaningful on the ground.”

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