Planning Inclusive Meetings and Special Events


ImageEvelina Silveira, President, Diversity At Work in London Inc.  Publisher of the Inclusion Quarterly

Recently, I was perusing a business magazine that had a section dedicated to meeting planning. It was written by a professional in the field yet I could have sworn that the article was at least 20 years old. There was no attention to the new realities of planning business
meetings that host a wide range of guests from different cultures, religions and abilities. It was the same old same old. Someone reading this article may have thought that they had all of the information they needed to make their next event a success — but they didn’t.

No doubt, the business world is more complicated these days. It can be very intimidating, especially if you feel forced into thinking outside the box for the first time.

Don’t fret. Guess what? A lot of the ideas won’t cost you much or nothing at all, but they really make a world of difference when it comes to making your staff, co-workers and guests more comfortable with participating. Before you know it, it will become
just a regular way of doing business.

1. CROSS-CHECK THE PROPOSED DATE OF YOUR MEETING.
Does it coincide with any religious or cultural events? Are the dates of your meetings scheduled on days when children are off from school?  Tip: Keep a religious/ cultural calendar handy along with elementary school calendars.

2. INVITE ACCOMMODATION REQUESTS.
Ask participants well before the meeting to place their accommodation  requests in by a certain date.

3. CHOOSE AN ACCESSIBLE LOCATION.
Your venue should be equipped with ramps, elevators, accessible bathrooms etc. However, you will also want to consider having your event or meeting in an area that is easily accessible by public transportation.

4. CHOOSE A CATERER/MENU PLANNING.
Depending on your group of participants you may want to consider halal or kosher catering if you know that you will be having Jewish or Muslim guests. If in doubt always ensure that you have lots of vegetarian options.  Sit down meals are best if you are expecting guests with mobility challenges. If you choose to have a buffet, assign a volunteer to assist the participant with getting their meal.

5. IF POSSIBLE PROVIDE MEETING MATERIALS IN ADVANCE.
By doing so, you give participants an opportunity to ask any questions, obtain translations if required or just give them more time to absorb the information if they have challenges with reading comprehension.

6. PROVIDE CLEAR SIGNAGE AND NAME TAGS AND MATERIALS.
Use large print contrasting colour signs and high contrast name tags. Each  participant should have a name tag if there is a new member to the meeting. Consider the above with your PowerPoint presentations and handouts. Opt  for a larger font size like 18 and fonts like Verdana and Arial that are sans serif.

7. ALLERGY ALERT.
Ensure that your promotional materials indicate a scent-free environment. If you are planning to use balloons , choose a non-latex brand. Food allergies should be taken care of early on in the planning stages when you invite requests for accommodations.

8. CHAIRING THE MEETING.
Remember to indicate any changes in topic, break times and adjournments. Whenever possible, try to stay on schedule as some of your guests may have medical issues that they need to take care of during a break at a certain time.

9. KEEP ISSUES ABOVE BOARD.
While it is nice to get support for your position, trying to create a lobby group outside of the meeting spells exclusion. As a practice, strive to keep all related discussions within the meeting to avoid some members having an unfair advantage over others.

10. ADDITIONAL GUIDELINES.
While it is sometimes difficult to do, challenge participants who are trying to “pull rank in the room”. Remind meeting participants of simple rules like speaking one at a time, attentive listening, respect for different opinions and for confidentiality.

While these suggestions may not seem like a lot, by following these tips you will have opened the door to many more people to participate and enjoy your event more freely.  Creating inclusive events requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of many other people and look at the barriers that might be present and seek solutions.

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Generation Y


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Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity At Work in London Inc.  Author of Diversity and Inclusion On A Budget:  How to have a more engaged and innovative workforce with little or no dollars.

Hey there, Evelina!”, the e-mail salutation reads. Do I know this person? It seems that they must know me, right? Because they are so familiar? Nope. I never met them in my life! Probably a Generation Y’er  I figure, who is sending me this in their casual and unassuming way.

Born during 1981- 2000, Generation Y’s unique characteristics have stirred up a lot of turmoil in the workplace especially when it comes to their Baby Boomer bosses and co-workers. Whether it’s their tattoos, piercings, flip-flops, self-care or their need to be wired, connected and  informed  — the workplace will never be the same. Sorry Boomers! Laden with labels like: “disloyal”, “uncommitted”, “self- serving”, “techno-savvy”, “fun-seeking”, “lazy”, and “immature”; these children of Baby Boomers have  experienced more freedom, less responsibility, little in the way of criticism, and some would argue too much praise.

Consequently, employers complain that they don’t take work seriously, can’t handle criticism and feel they are entitled to privileges and rewards that others do not get and that they do not deserve. The disconnect begins here. After all, how do we get four generations to work together for the first time?

As a Generation X’er, I understand the harsh criticism bestowed upon Generation Y’ers; but at the same time I think that our generation understands them better than the Boomers. Generation X’ers were the first generation to dispel the myth that getting a university education will automatically land you a “good job”. We were working in call centres, as clerks and service jobs with our university degrees when the first recession hit in the 1980’s. But Generation X’ers approach to this phenomenon was a little bit different. Because of fewer jobs, our “latch key” socialization meant that we looked for solutions within ourselves. We decided to make our own jobs, creating the largest generation of entrepreneurs ever.

Generation Y’s solution to the shift in the economy is different. Strategically, Generation Y put their cards on the table right at the beginning with their prospective employers letting them know what they need from them, instead of what they can offer. Taking a completely different approach from previous generations, the Generation Y’er can come across as self-serving. That is where some of the conflict and misunderstanding begins along with many other disconnects in workplace values.

I am not a big fan of theories of generational differences although I believe there are some merits to the observations about various age groups but I don’t think they are absolute. I strongly believe that social class, birth order, and cultural differences play larger roles than age. The research in this area is arguably centred around privileged white youth who live in the suburbs, so it could be unrepresentative.

Despite the criticism lodged against Generation Y’ers, when it comes to diversity they really get it. Parented by those who lived through civil, women, and gay rights movements, Generation Y’ers have had a strong initiation into equality. Attending inclusive schools with children who have disabilities, exposure to more cultural and racial differences as well as a variety of family  compositions: this generation is more socially and environmentally aware. Of all the generations, they will have more of a propensity toward social justice and want to know the impact of their work.

When it comes to helping your organization develop a diversity strategy, ask a Generation Y’er. You can bet that the strongest supporters of diversity and inclusion in your workplace are Generation Y’ers. Not only have they been more exposed to a
rapidly changing diverse world —it is natural to them and they embrace it.

So, before you reprimand your Generation Y’er for not wanting to work overtime hours for free: relax; let your hair down; plug in your iPod and put on a pair of your favourite flip-flops and recognize the positive attributes of this deeply misunderstood  generation.

Signs the Political Correctness Police Has Taken Over Your Workplace


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity At Work in London Inc.,  Author of Diversity and Inclusion on a Budget:  How to have a more engaged and innovative workforce with little or no dollars.

 

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“When I grow up, I’m gonna marry a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer or Indian chief”.

In the 70′s, this was the skipping song we chanted as little girls. The goal was to land on the “rich man” or the “doctor”. Any other kind of a husband signaled a doomsday marriage. Fortunately, a lot has changed for the better and our evolving language has captured the humanness, equality and the need for all people to be included.

In this effort to restore equity to groups which have been on the margins forever, have we in the process gone too far with creating other inequities in the workplace? I think that we have. We are a long way from having a balanced workforce. Let’s take a look at some typical examples you find in the workplace. Is your workplace guilty of any of these?

• You don’t have a Christmas celebration in the workplace even though over half of Canadians identify themselves as Christian and even those who don’t still celebrate some aspects of Christmas.
• You appease the demands of one group in the workplace at the expense of the other, because you don’t want to be labelled as a _______.
• You withhold information that could advance social change or contribute to the betterment of the community because your findings shed a negative light on a group or groups of people.
• You allow behaviours from certain groups of people who you would never allow from others.
• You ignore performance issues from people of designated groups because you don’t want to ruffle any feathers.
• Diversity of thought and politics are not permitted.

In these cases, we are talking about “Fear” which seems to be the norm in organizations that have swung too far on the left of the pendulum when it comes to political correctness. Legislation for sure makes people scared; there is more of it now than ever before. Many organizations let too many behaviours slide because of the fear of law suits and complaints. It is better to take proactive steps at creating workplaces that everyone can work in, instead of trying to police everyone’s thoughts, words and actions.

 

Is Your Team Building Inclusive?


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By:  Evelina Silveira, President,  Diversity at Work in London Inc, author of Diversity and Inclusion on a Budget:  How to have a more engaged and innovative workforce with little or no dollars.

Imagine. What would it be like to be escorted into an auditorium en masse to spend endless hours listening to speeches from your leader? Maybe the leader is feared or respected. The theme of his/her talks emphasize the importance of collaboration, discipline and commitment to collective values. You have no choice but to attend or you might be penalized in some shape or form.   For many people who were raised in communist countries they have had these experiences of attending mandatory events to demonstrate their solidarity with the mission and values of the State. They were given updates on the progress that had been made, the work that still needed to be done, and what they could do as a group to advance the State goals.

Could any comparisons be made to our Western-style of team building? You might say that it is not possible:  How can you make the comparison? While not all leaders are feared nor are the penalties for not buying-in so harsh, there are definitely consequences if you don’t “tow the Party line”.

I have been told by many people who grew up in communist countries, that aspects of our North American team building remind them of some of the unpleasant experiences of their country of origin where there was little opportunity for individual expression. The retreats or games, border on superficial and stressful because of the endless amount of small talk in a culture that still seems new. Team building is challenged if you have people in your group who feel that this is yet another exercise in “group think”.

Rock climbing, boot camps, bowling and a whole load of other physical activities that may be on the list for  team building.  I recall one of my workshop participants telling me that her husband dreaded their annual team building event because it involved all kinds of physical competitions and he used a wheelchair. The company never considered his feelings or tried to figure out a way that he could participate. You cannot build a team by excluding some of its members.

What about events that involve drinking alcohol and partying? I once had a client who confessed that now that his team was comprised of more women, people of other faiths and cultures, he was not so sure that the yearly drinking and partying fest in Las Vegas would be such a great reward for everyone! I had to agree. I encouraged him to look at other ways to build his team and consider more inclusive rewards programs like gift cards, cleaning services, and a monetary bonus.

Do you feel like playing Ker Plunk on a Friday afternoon to build a stronger team? Or does playing video games sound like a better idea? With four generation working together for the first time, we need to choose activities that everyone will enjoy or be willing to try.

Team building organizers must consider: cultural perceptions, accessibility, gender, religious obligations, and generational differences. It  is not a single event each year but must be cultivated on a daily basis. One of the easiest ways to build an inclusive team is to ask the individual members for feedback and ideas. Be prepared to implement them and show the progress of their ideas along the way.

 

Communicating Over the Telephone When There Is A Language Barrier


Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London

Talking over the phone can be hard enough when you cannot analyze the body language; but what is it like when you have a difficult time understanding English? The stress, frustration and feelings of helplessness can be magnified, unless you have a patient person on the other end of the line who is willing to go the extra mile to be attentive.

Sometimes both “fluency” and “accent” can create barriers over the telephone. In the first case the person may have an inadequate vocabulary to express themselves and in the latter they may have an accent but be very fluent. Quite frequently, you will get both an issue of fluency as well as accent.

Eliminate distractions like background noise.

In any case, when you are dealing with someone over the phone that you cannot understand you will need to eliminate as many distractions as possible where you are and where they are. This call will require a lot more out of you so you will have to “hyper-focus” on what the person is saying.  If you have any background noise where you are, move to another spot to take the call. If the noise is coming from the other person’s place say: “I am sorry, but I am having a hard time hearing you. I hear noises and I cannot hear you very well. Would you please move to an area which is quieter?” Usually this works, or if they cannot move to a quieter place they will call you back when things have settled. Or you may find that you have to make the best out of communicating with background noise.

Remember to speak slowly.

While you are speaking the other person may be trying to translate what you are saying in their head. They could also be trying to write things down. It takes time to make the mental transition, so give them time. Even though you are speaking slowly, try not to be patronizing, people can tell when they are being disrespected even over the phone. Just because someone has a language barrier doesn’t mean they lack intelligence.

Speak at a normal volume.

It always surprises me that when we are faced with language barriers there seems to be an almost automatic response to speak more loudly.  That doesn’t work, and could actually backfire on the phone making the other person agitated.

Speak in short sentences.

If you speak in short sentences you will likely pause more and speak more slowly. This will help the other person interpret what you are saying more easily.

Enunciate clearly.

If you are sloppy with your enunciation, this is the time to speak very clearly. Make your consonants shine! It is easy to say: “Whad’ya wanna do?”; But it will be hard to understand. Instead you will want to say: “What would you like to do?”

Get rid of the jargon.

Choose words carefully. But also remember that abbreviations, acronyms and others can be very culturally specific and confusing. Say the whole word and not a short version of it.

Take the call in steps.

Sometimes people will ramble on especially if they are emotional. You may find that they are giving you lots of information and you are feeling overwhelmed. If you can find a break in the conversation say something like this: “Can we stop here for a moment? I would like to make sure that I understand what you are asking?” Repeat what you believe you have heard and clarify. What you are doing is paraphrasing what was said. This allows you to check in every so often to make sure that you understand before you ask the caller to continue with what they are trying to communicate. It also shows your caller that you are interested in his/her message because you are checking the message. If you have only understood part of the message than you can ask more questions to obtain the information that you need.

Try again.

If you think that the person on the other end of the line does not understand what you are saying, instead of repeating what you said in the same way, try different combinations of words or descriptions. I usually find that this helps. Similarly, if you don’t understand what the other person is saying on the other end of the line you can say: “I am sorry but I do not understand, could you explain this again to me in a different way?”

Seek Help.

In the worse case scenario, when you don’t think you are getting through and if a face-to-face meeting is impossible you may want to get another person involved who is familiar with one of the languages. It could be someone that you work with or alternatively, you could ask the caller if he/she can have a friend or family member call you back that you can speak to.

It is important at all times to convey to the person with the English language barrier that you want to help them and want to give them good service. For most English as a Second Language Speakers they find the telephone to be a huge barrier and communication can be very stressful. Having a patient person on the other end of the line, who is willing to go slowly with them, and communicates a sincere interest in wanting to help them, goes a long way in making the call smoother for everyone involved.

The Bachelor: Language Barrier Is Not An Excuse


Written by: Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity at Work in London Inc.

I hate to admit it, but like 10 million other viewers around the world I became hooked on The Bachelor reality program and saw it for the first time this last season. After a long hard day’s work, watching scenes of beautiful people and places and with absolutely no intellectual demands on my brain – The Bachelor was actually a relaxing way to unwind.

For the last 20 years I have worked with New Canadians so I have grown to learn a lot about second language acquisition. Most of the people who I have worked with would be at the Canadian Language Benchmark of 5 or over so their English is good enough for a survival job – at the very least. For the first few weeks, I was trying to figure out whether the bachelor, Juan Pablo really had a language barrier or were they referring more to his accent. I came to realize that while he might not know all of the slang and idioms like “the little package” he was referring to, but he could not blame his rudeness on his language barrier.

First of all, Juan Pablo has studied in the United States and worked in English television programming,obviously he would have had a very good command of the language. When he spoke he did not make a lot of the usual grammatical mistakes you would expect someone with a language barrier to make. He used articles and pronouns appropriately. Sharleen, the opera singer hit the nail on the head when she said she was looking for someone who was “more cerebral”. She was looking for someone who she could have an intellectual conversation with and it wasn’t him. Juan Pablo did not have a language barrier that prevented him from having an intellectual conversation: he simply lacked depth.

Even with New Canadians with low levels of English like a 5 or lower, they can often make connections, analysis and evaluations of events although with grammatical mistakes. However, if you listen, you can hear the depth of their logic. A language barrier does not make you self-centred. Juan Pablo’s lack of insight and ego-centrism has nothing to do with his language barrier.

He cannot use his language barrier to make excuses for his derogatory comments about gay people and those with cognitive delays. He has lived in the United States long enough to know that these comments are unacceptable.

Furthermore, when his parents said that he was often rude that was very revealing. Although Juan Pablo says he “likes to be honest”, this type of directness is sometimes even too much for North Americans. But according to Edward T. Hall’s theory of high context communication among Latin’s, Juan Pablo’s communication style would be highly inappropriate for a culture that likes to handle conflict in a more indirect way than spelling it out the way he did. I gather his style would not be a big hit among Latin people who are known for their exceptional politeness.

And by the way, Juan Pablo, you cannot blame your language barrier for not knowing how to say: “I love you” or “Will you marry me?” But blame it on something else. Sometimes, “it’s not easy” but it’s not “okay”. I have two pieces of advice for you: seek a therapist and get a thesaurus.

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Cultural Reflections on the Sochi Games


Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work in London Inc.

Before the Sochi games even started, the Putin government was internationally chastised for Russia’s anti-gay legislation, its toileting facilities, corruption and delayed construction.  All of this caused a media frenzy reminding me in many ways of the Cold War propaganda machines that were ever so present in the 198o’s.  I wonder if things would ever change between the East and the West? It seems at times that it hasn’t.

Throughout the games, it was hard for me to take off my diversity hat.  CBC reporter  Ian Hanomansing whose sensitivity I usually admire, appeared surprised by his “Hilton hotel” equivalent, remarking how the plumbing was working and his room was clean.  I asked myself:  Is there any reason why Sochi would provide dirty rooms without adequate plumbing in their hotels for its visitors?   Ian, you let me down!

Don Cherry never shocks me.  He said that when he came to Sochi he was expecting to see old ladies sweeping the streets and was remarkably surprised to find out that it was a lot like Mississauga! Presumably he was referring to Sochi’s modernity.  Then he went on to talk about how Russian players having no character.

All in all the games were a huge success and a real testament to the reason why cultural exchanges are important.  While there were some blips with cultural sensitivity from the CBC standpoint, my Russian friends said they did a much better and balanced job than the American reporters.   We need more exchanges.

In any case, my diversity lens was with me through the closing ceremony.  Noting what seemed to be a lack of racial diversity in the performers despite some very significant minority populations living in Russia. I could not help but surmise that the “New Russia” does not include minorities.

D&I: “They Just Don’t Get It”


By: Evelina Silveira, President Diversity at Work in London Inc. Author of Diversity and Inclusion on a Budget.

A common phrase we hear as diversity practitioners is: “they just don’t get it”, referring to the leadership team. With the right conditions, “they do get it”. Before you dismiss your leadership as old, patriarchal, stagnating entities read this. A change in approach could make a big difference.

If you feel like you are speaking to a brick wall, perhaps it is time to rethink how you are communicating your message. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out that your leadership team is actually on your side, but you just haven’t given them any compelling reasons to change.

Getting buy-in from the top involves the: “who”, “what”, “when”, “why” and “how”. If one of those pieces is missing, they might “just not get it”!

Who – Who is/are the designated spokesperson(s) to represent diversity and inclusion in your workplace? Are they well respected by their colleagues and the leadership team? Are they known to be balanced, fair and pragmatic? Do they have an “agenda”? Outspoken about selective issues while silent about other inequities? Does this person have a history of bringing people together or pulling them apart? Do they have a good understanding of the competencies in the organization and know how to use them? The person(s) in this role can have a huge impact on the success of your diversity and inclusion strategy.

If you are the spokesperson and reaching an impasse, it may be that you are not the right person for the position, and let someone else take over. (Note: When you are selecting a D&I officer for your organization, you should ask yourself the questions noted above before you make your final selection).

What – What is the message you are presenting to the leadership team? For example, if you live in a relatively homogenous location, focusing on visible minority recruitment might not be the most effective strategy especially if there are none where you live. However, looking at retention strategies, or addressing the issues facing women leaders might be more relevant. The subjects you approach the leadership must match their strategic priorities. Concentrate on what is on their agenda by showing them how diversity and inclusion strategies can help them attain their mission. Approach them in a positive light rather than a negative one. For example, telling the leadership that the organization is racist, sexist and homophobic might not be the best lead in. However, if you have conducted a staff engagement survey and your findings support your assertions, share that information with them along with ideas on how to create greater workplace inclusion. Instead of making diversity and inclusion a separate part of the organization, show the leadership that it is part of everything that you do. Examine ways that D&I can be integrated into existing training as well as policies and procedures.

Any initiatives that you take on must incorporate:
• The mission and values of your organization;
• Create more workplace harmony leading to improved performance;
• Be very practical in nature. (Many organizations have dropped “awareness and empathy-generating” types of training because they do not encourage practical skill building).

When – “Time is money”. Training dollars have been scaled back and that is why you have to make the most out of bringing people together. The activities and the training you choose to take on do not always have to be labelled as “diversity training”. It may be better if they are not; especially if your organization’s last experience wasn’t so good. Try to incorporate D&I into the existing compulsory training. Enhance and infuse existing training such as presentation skills, customer service, health and safety with D&I. It can be done without a lot of effort, and you have an automatic captive audience. Leaders can be overwhelmed with a lot of new ideas. Starting small could be a better strategy if you are dealing with risk averse leaders.

Why - Frequently the “why’s” have not been presented in a convincing enough manner. You can refer to the results of your employee engagement survey (if that has occurred) or tie  it into policies and legislation guiding your workplace. Refer to studies on diversity and innovation. Google “the business case for diversity” and show them the facts that support a more inclusive workplace.

How – Remember that diversity and inclusion is about everyone. Choose research that focuses on all aspects of our changing workplace demographics. When you take this approach, a statistic or statistics will stand out with your leadership. If your organization embarks on strategic planning this is a good opportunity to provide staff survey results and relevant information you would like to collect and measure. Embedding it into existing work can be a little more palatable for those who may be reticent to come on board.

Mental Illness: Reaching Out Can Make a Difference


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Evelina Silveira, President, Diversity At Work in London Inc, Author of Diversity and Inclusion:  On A Budget

Growing up with a parent who suffered from a severe mental illness wasn’t easy.  My mother wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her fifties.  Sadly, the best parts of her life were lost to an illness that robbed her of what could have been her most joyous moments like the birth of her children and grandchildren.  Despite her daily battles with depression, anxiety, hallucinations, language barriers and poverty — somehow we all survived.  Recognizing that she could no longer work with groups of people, my mother built a small solo cleaning business where she could carve out a meager income to support her family.  Who would ever think that with so much going against her that she could maintained a business?  But proudly, I can attest that she did!

 Our national awareness campaign about mental illness reminds us that we can make a difference in someone’s mental health and I agree.  Along the way, there could have been many opportunities for people to have reached out to someone like my mom who was alone and struggling with two children – but they did not. Maybe they didn’t want to pry or perhaps they were scared.  Or worse yet, “too busy” to care.

 Each day there are people around us who suffer silently or openly.  Some have paid professionals helping them out and others have no one.  There will be those whose only interventions come from a professional, never hearing the kind gentle words of a friend, family member or even a stranger.

Have you ever been through a rough emotional time when the support of friends or family really made a difference in how you came through?  Sometimes people don’t get better because they have no one that shows them that they care.

 Helping people who are mentally ill is not just the responsibility of professionals but communities and individuals as well.  Mental illness is all around us, but sometimes we want to turn a blind eye.  It can look like:

  •  The woman who started drinking after her husband left her.
  •  The student who is getting panic attacks before his exams.
  •  The new mom who can’t stop crying and doesn’t know why.
  •  The dad who lost his job and can’t get out of bed because he feels so devastated.

 It is also:

  •  The veteran who has the pent-up anger from the battleground.
  • The child who slashes himself to release the pain.
  • The teacher who hears voices telling her that she is an evil person.

 If you know someone who is in these circumstances and you haven’t reached out, now may be the time to do so.  We cannot leave everything to professionals, but individuals living in caring communities can make a difference in someone’s recovery.

 Don’t you think so?

 Let’s start the conversation.

 I would like to hear your comments.

 If you have a mental illness and are reading this blog, what suggestions would you have for others to reach out to you?  Please leave your comments.

 If you reached out to someone today, who is affected by mental illness. Tell us about it and how you felt.

 

Religious Accommodations Need Limits


Dr. Grayson of York University in Toronto, Canada should be commended for the brave action he took by denying a student’s request for religious accommodation.  According to his beliefs, the student could not meet with his fellow female classmates to work on a school project.

I sent Dr. Grayson an e-mail of support and so did many others, championing his commitment to women’s equality and his respect for secularism. In his article in The Globe and Mail, Dr. Grayson defends York University noting that their decisions were based on on what was dictated by the Ontario Human Rights Code — even if  flawed.

I have a question for the Ontario Human Rights Commission: Since when is it acceptable to perpetuate sexism in the name of religious accommodation in Canada?  Let’s not forget that women in this country have fought for equality and it was less than 100 years ago that we were legally recognized as “persons”. This is a secular country, attracting immigrants fleeing theocracies who don’t want religion to control every aspect of their life.  Why are we even entertaining the idea that segregation of the sexes is acceptable when it can have such a negative impact on a huge demographic?

Dr. Grayson points out that since many elementary schools are making these concessions,  students will naturally expect the same when they attend a post-secondary institution.   Allowing this to happen in public funded institutions is wrong and problematic from many perspectives.

If we agree that the goals of post-secondary institutions are to prepare students for critical thinking, career exploration and finding employment, then we are doing these students a disservice.  Giving them the impression that we are prepared to segregate our workplaces along the lines of sex to accommodate one person; we cannot blame them for thinking this is possible if it has been done all along.

 Here are a few examples of religious accommodation that I have come across in my work with post-secondary institutions:

  • Female students with face-coverings who can only work in female groups.
  • Male co-op students who insist that they can only work in male workplace settings.
  • Nursing students who cannot follow through on in-class demonstrations that require touching students of the opposite sex.

Unless the labour shortages become extremely intense, I really doubt that the average Canadian employer would be able to accommodate the above requests. By doing so, could spell disaster for both the employees and employers in both monetary and human terms.  It tears at the very soul of this country which values equality.  And while workplaces are trying to becoming more inclusive,  accommodating one of these requests will only have ripple effects, negatively impacting many employees and ultimately the one initiating the request. Resentment and vilification will spread.  We only need to look at the reaction the York University student has received.

 Those working in employment services with religious minorities should discuss workplace accommodations.  Be very honest about the impact their request may have on their ability to obtain a job and retain one. For example, I may say:  “Yes, it is your right to not shake the hand of the opposite sex”.  But add:  “In Canadian culture, shaking hands is a standard greeting and expected business practices, it in no way has any sexual connotation”,    “If you don’t shake someone’s hand when they offer it, there is a good chance they will feel offended that you didn’t think they were worthy of this greeting.  Or, that you are arrogant”.  I also add that they have to ultimately make the decision whether they will carry on with some of their practices in public because of the effect they can have on employment and forming relationships outside their religious groups.

 I am not entirely against religious accommodations. Dietary accommodations, and days off for observance are reasonable requests which have little impact on others especially when they are anticipated.  But, the Ontario Human Rights Commission needs to have a better pulse on what is happening in our workplaces when its values conflict with those of most Canadians.

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