Forum @ Kanadahaus Berlin 2014
Workplace Diversity / A long road to corporate reality


“Workplace diversity” is a popular term these days, especially in large companies. Recruitment and promotion are supposed to follow the non-discrimination rule. Neither religion, nor colour, ethnic origin, age, sexual orientation, nor physical or mental disabilities should prevent any person from getting a job matching his or her abilities. So far, so good.

More than 1.750 companies and public institutions have already signed the Diversity Charter in Germany, an initiative launched, in 2006, by Daimler, the BP Europa SE (formerly Deutsche BP), Deutsche Bank and Deutsche Telekom. Many large employers have added a paragraph referring to their diversity policies, right after the compliance section.

This development can either be shrugged off as the latest fashion – or it can be put into a bigger context. The initiators of the 5th Forum @ Kanada Haus Berlin, which took place on May 20, 2014, chose the second option. Experts from Canada and Germany discussed the impact of the diversity paradigm against recent demographic developments.

The massive aging of Western societies makes it difficult to maintain an active workforce at a high level. Fewer and fewer employed have to shoulder the social security system for more and more ageing fellow citizens. Young people need adequate training to ensure their successful transition into jobs. Adequate training? Canada has to learn from the dual education system as practiced in Germany, says John Manley, President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, as the combination of apprenticeship and vocational school prepares candidates adequately for numerous economic sectors.

While multicultural Canada relies on the integration of its immigrants and Aboriginal youth, Germany counts on the integration of women into the labor market and on promoting older workers, stresses Susanne Hoffmann of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. The instruments of choice will vary from one country to another, confirms Mark Keese of the OECD. International comparison clearly shows that flexibility is required and that there is no master plan ready at hand. Thus, older workers should be allowed to retire earlier on request. Employers should compensate older employees on the grounds of their performance and not based on the principle of seniority. In such a scenario, job changes at 50 or 55 would become the rule instead of implying the end of successful career; a vision which holds some logic in times when 50 is being hailed as the new 40.

Should we then expect political directives create the environment for diversity, or rather try finding the ideal employer ourselves? Well, a pragmatic approach seems to be in order, combining different measures. As Werner Eichhorst of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) points out, a certain extent of government activity is required to ease the burden resting upon professionals. Means may range from child care and care for dependent relatives, to tax incentives on to flexible strategies for retirement from active professional life.

Silvia Bohrisch of Siemens and Manfred Bührmann of Commerzbank, on the other hand, highlight the manifold possibilities individual companies have. Siemens, for example, invests significant resources in the continuing education of its employees. This includes special training for deaf or autistic peers, or prayer rooms to which employees of different religions can withdraw. Commerzbank has early on made diversity a part of its corporate governance and opened one of the first nurseries in a workplace in Germany. The Bank also noted that, for example, the integration of employees for the LGBTQ Community helped attracting new customers.

This is precisely the turning point for many mid-size businesses, explains Jan-Marek Pfau of Kienbaum Consultants. When diversity becomes an issue of supply and demand, companies realize its monetary dimension. At that point in time, diversity will get out of the fashionable compliance corner and start becoming a business case. Companies which recognize that diversity in the workplace means dynamism and innovative power will instantly allow for and even encourage diversity. And it is specifically in the area of sales that the customers? preference for diversity can be proven by the numbers.

Workplace diversity is part of everyday life emphasizes Noelle Richardson, Chief Diversity Officer at the Ministry of Justice of the Province of Ontario. It must be configured individually and according to different organizational needs, without single interests blocking each other. This is the only way to ensure, in an increasingly virtual workspace, the quality, dynamism and flexibility required to keep economies alive.