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Managing today’s diverse workforce

How you’re prepared to deal with diversity in your work crew and even in your family can help or hurt your farm business

Farmer walking toward combine.

If the new Canada is supposed to be a cultural mosaic rather than a melting pot, you wouldn’t guess it by attending most agricultural trade shows. From the 2011 census, we know that 72.5 per cent are men and 48.2 per cent are over the age of 55. The mother tongue of 72.3 per cent is English, and 73.7 per cent identify themselves as Christians.

It’s enough to make you think there’s nothing diverse about agriculture. But you’d be wrong, says Michael Bach, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

Bach makes his point by turning the concept on its head. “Diversity,” he says, “includes straight, white, able-bodied, middle-aged men.”

In other words, if “straight, white, able-bodied, middle-aged” describes you, you’re just part of the range that we accept and value within a modern Canada.

He isn’t playing with semantics. “Human beings are all different,” he wants us to know. “We’re all diverse.”

Nor does Bach want every farmer to run right out and hire workers because of any perceived problem with the demographics of Canada’s farm population.

“Don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Bach says emphatically. “That’s not what gets people out of bed in the morning!”

Bach insists there are really only two reasons any business owner ever needs to actively strategize for greater diversity inclusion; if their talent pool is shrinking, or if their customer base has evolved.

Yet that’s what is happening in many farm sectors, just as it is with the country as a whole, and Bach says that if you are finding it difficult to find good help, it might be time to make changes that will attract different kinds of employees.

The first step, in Bach’s two-step process, is to consider your own written or unwritten policies and procedures. “You want to make sure there are no barriers in place that are inadvertently excluding any one group,” Bach says. “People who are engaged are more productive, so if a person has to leave something at the door, if a woman has to ‘act like a man,’ or if a person who is Muslim can’t talk about their faith, or an LGBT person has to stay in the closet, then there’s no way they can be fully engaged in their work.”

Once you’ve considered the culture your business currently presents, address any weak areas by starting at the top and working your way down. “You’ve got to make sure your existing people understand why this is important.”

Bach says change is hard to implement, so a zero-tolerance stance on workplace behaviours such as making disparaging jokes need to be enforced immediately. Offensive humour makes a good example of the seemingly innocent ways invisible minorities are excluded in business settings.

“If you’re a woman, if you’re from a racialized group, if you have a visible disability, you can’t necessarily hide,” Bach explains. “For some LGBT people, the invisible minority that they are, you’re hidden in plain sight; I could be there at an ag conference, hanging with the buddies, listening to gay jokes.” Then he adds, “How connected can I feel at that point?”

The invisible minority experience

A 2012 Forum Research Inc. poll found that 5.3 per cent of Canadians identify as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. That’s one in 20.

No one really knows how many work in the agricultural industry, and Colin Druhan, the executive director of Pride at Work Canada, tells me it’s very common for people from the LGBT community to not be “out” at all in their workplace.

In fact the Out Now Global LGBT2020 study, an international report produced by a firm based in the Netherlands, found that only 41.8 per cent of LGBT workers are out professionally in Canada.

Not only is that bad for individuals who are primarily affected, but it isn’t good for their employers either. “Concealing your sexual orientation at work can actually reduce productivity by up to 30 per cent,” Druhan says.

Druhan says his organization was formed in 2008 primarily by people working in financial services to provide training and education for businesses, as well as networking opportunities for employees of partnering companies. Currently none of the 56 member companies are agricultural or even rural. But Druhan says they do still reach out into rural communities across the country, just through partners that are headquartered in Toronto like big banks and franchise companies.

“Larger cities tend to have broader support systems for LGBT people in general, so you see a lot more LGBT people who are out in the workplace,” Druhan says. “In smaller workplaces LGBT workers rely on allies for support.”

Druhan says “ally” is a term typically used to describe people who don’t identify as LGBT but are supportive of LGBT individuals. Engaging allies is particularly important in areas where there isn’t a high concentration of people who are out at work because these are the places where people may be most afraid of drawing undue attention to themselves by participating in an employee resource group.

But Druhan believes that initiating conversations with people who don’t identify as LGBT can be incredibly important. “My experience in working with people who want to learn isn’t so much they’re not interested, they just don’t know where to start,” he says. Many LGBT people don’t realize that the acronyms and terms that are common to the community can be intimidating for others. “They don’t want to do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing,” he says. “Sometimes that is the biggest barrier.”

Once there’s open dialogue, LGBT allies and employers can start to get answers to their questions about making workplaces more inclusive.

Building an inclusive workplace

The legal firm Norton Rose Fullbright is a partner of Pride at Work Canada and has a national LGBTA committee. Its Calgary representative, Lucy L’Hirondelle, also practises some labour and employment law and occasionally works with agribusinesses.

To become a more inclusive workplace, there are a number of things employers may want to look into, starting with their benefits package. There’s no requirement for employers to provide benefits in Canada of course, but L’Hirondelle says that if you do offer benefits, you must offer them uniformly.

Third-party benefit providers create the specific terms of these plans and would do so in accordance with human rights legislation that prevents discrimination. “One piece of advice for employers would be to look at their plan when they’re deciding who to use as a third-party benefit provider, to confirm that the provider allows coverage for same-sex and common-law spouses,” suggests L’Hirondelle. In most if not all cases, employers would find the terms provide very good examples of exactly how to create gender-neutral policy for their own business.

One written policy that employers may especially want to consider when hiring a diverse workforce is a dress code. “For dress codes, the No. 1 consideration is safety,” she says. “Employers are required to abide by occupational health and safety legislation, and that comes before individual style or expression, regardless of gender.” Long hair, for example, can be addressed as a safety hazard but employers may only require employees to tie loose hair back or wear a hairnet, not require specific hair lengths.

Even without safety concerns, L’Hir-on-delle says employers are still allowed to impose defined appearance standards, but the application of such codes has to be carried out in a non-discriminatory fashion. “It has to be applied uniformly, that’s the most important thing,” she explains, “and that’s the pitfall employers need to be wary of.”

Once employers fail to enforce the dress code for one individual, they begin to flirt with discrimination. L’Hirondelle says misunderstandings may still arise, where the employer and employee understand “business attire” to mean two different things when it comes to skirt length for example, but these can be amended in the policy by adding definitions if necessary. “But it has to be for a legitimate business purpose, not just because you don’t like how someone dresses, not to exclude someone,” she says. “As long as the employee meets these rules, his or her biological sex or gender identification should not even come into play.”

Accommodating employee gender identification, particularly those who are transitioning, really demands no more common sense than accommodating any other personal request, L’Hirondelle says. “I cannot point you toward a single piece of legislation that requires any employer to provide a gender-neutral washroom or change room, but the law does require all employers to make reasonable accommodations for their employees, and they cannot discriminate against employees who make such requests,” she says.

As long as the individual can communicate a legitimate reason for making their request, the employer has a duty to look into available options. But not every request can always be reasonably accommodated, she says. “What is considered reasonable will depend on the size and the structure of the workplace.”

About the author


Amy Petherick

Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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