HR Toolkit

Diversity at Work

How to build a foundation for diversity at work

It was once assumed that the labour market would become a more equitable and representative place on its own, and that over time diversity would just ‘happen.’ We now know that for change to take place, employers need to make a firm commitment and take action. This section suggests how organizations could build a strong foundation for diversity.

The role of leadership

Building and sustaining a diverse workforce is not the responsibility of one person in an organization, but rather a shared responsibility. Management has to lead by example and make a definite commitment to diversity.
Managers need a solid understanding of the various cultures represented on their team to eliminate any stereotypes or preconceptions. Open communication helps team members better understand the unique aspects of various cultures, and prompts discussion as to how these attributes can be incorporated into the work environment.

Boards of directors and senior management teams need to set the tone and ensure that their own behaviour aligns with organizational values and missions. An organization’s ability to attract, retain and support diverse employees also reflects the way an organization is able to approach diversity more broadly – with volunteers, members and the larger community.

To get started, senior management can facilitate an initial investigation of current diversity strengths and challenges in the organization. A quick assessment can be made by asking the following questions:

  • What communities do we serve? Who are our clients?
  • What are the characteristics of the community we work in?
  • How has the community changed in recent years? How is it likely to change in the future?*
  • How do our organization’s employees reflect the communities we work in and work with?
  • Do we reflect the diversity of Canadian society more broadly?
  • How do we nurture inclusion to ensure all employees work in a safe and supportive environment?

*In the Elements of a diverse workforce section, general demographic and labour force changes are highlighted. For more information, Statistics Canada Community Profiles provide regional and local information about population, labour force characteristics and trends.

The responses to these questions can trigger important discussions and help organizations identify areas where more attention is needed. Depending on the size of the organization and the scope of the work to be done, the establishment of a diversity committee can provide direction on specific priorities and actions. If the workplace is unionized, some diversity resources may be available through the union.

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Publicizing the commitment to diversity and inclusion

It can be enormously beneficial to openly share, declare and publicize an organization’s intention to be a diverse and inclusive workplace. While all good intentions need to be supported by action, a declaration by itself can be quite powerful for both inspiring and instigating a shift in organizational culture. By declaring such a commitment, the tone is set, expectations are made known and others are invited to be part of the work. A clear message is sent about the organization’s values and priorities to all its employees, volunteers, clients and members, and makes the workplace more inviting to a variety of people.

Organizational materials, website and internal communications can all be used to declare a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The organization’s Code of Conduct is a valuable tool for sharing the culture and practices of the organization – including diversity and inclusion. It can reinforce an organization’s culture of inclusion by emphasizing each individual’s responsibility to observe its principles and requirements. 

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Commit with a policy

Good intentions must be supported by sound policies and procedures. One of the first ways to make an organization’s commitment to diversity explicit and shared is to have clear policies that communicate the values of the organization and provide employees with a consistent processes to follow.

Policies should be accessible to all employees and address how complaints will be handled. A clear chain of communication for concerns, zero tolerance for reprisals for issuing complaints and a proper investigation process are all vital. The board should receive regular updates on complaints and be immediately advised of any that cannot be resolved by, or that involve, members of the management team.

A policy on workplace diversity and inclusion:

  • Makes a commitment to anti-discriminatory practices and fosters equal opportunity through the removal of systemic barriers
  • Reinforces compliance with human rights legislation
  • Is a statement of an organization's values

Link to Related HR Management Standard 4.4

Standard 4.4
The organization promotes an inclusive workplace.
The HR Policies and Employment Legislation section of the HR Toolkit includes sample Diversity policies

Workplace harassment

It is important to understand what harassment is and to address it when it takes place at work. Harassment can be sexual, racial or based on personal characteristics. It can also take the form of abuse of authority. While not all incidences of harassment stem from a diversity issue or lack of inclusion, there is a recurring link between workplace harassment and diversity. For example,  many GLBTTQ employees report that they have experienced harassment and/or bullying due to their GLBTTQ identity. Similarly, employees from ethnic or racial communities experience harassment based on ethnic stereotyping, cultural biases and racism. The HR Policies & Legislation section of the HR Toolkit includes more information on harassment.

Link to Related HR Management Standard 4.3

Standard 4.3
The organization ensures a work environment free of harassment.


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Review all policies and procedures to ensure they are accessible. Example: Are your employment and pension benefits inclusive and relevant to a diverse workforce?

Do the employment and pension benefits acknowledge and extend benefits to same sex couples? This could include:

    • Bereavement leave
    • Medical and dental benefits
    • Emergency leave
    • Group life insurance
    • Maternity/parental leave
    • Pension plans

    Consult the employment standards for specific provincial or territorial information on the legal requirements regarding the extension of benefits to same-sex partners.

Next section: Legal Considerations

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