5 steps to building a more inclusive workplace

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 law firm—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.”

The Top 5 stories that warmed our hearts in 2015

Each and every day, we’re touched by remarkable stories of personal transformation and possibility in the places where we live, work and raise our families.

Although it was tough to narrow down our choices, here are the top 5 stories that touched our hearts in 2015.

1. Support for Syria: Samantha Jackson and Farzin Yousefian made big headlines this past November when the Toronto couple announced they were cancelling their upcoming wedding party to host a smaller fundraiser with all the proceeds going to sponsor a Syrian refugee family of four. “We felt we had an obligation, in light of the humanitarian crisis, to contribute, and we thought this was the perfect opportunity to do that,” Farzin told the Toronto Star. Their story went viral and inspired hundreds of people to donate to this worthy cause that has raised $51,500 to date. This incredible young duo tied the knot in a smaller ceremony at City Hall last October. We wish them well on their journey ahead!

2. From homeless to Harvard: Tonika Morgan reminds us of all that is possible with lots of passion and hard work. After dropping out of high school at 17 and spending her teenage years in and out of homeless shelters, the now 32-year-old decided to turn her life around. Determined to attend university, Tonika managed to cobble together several part-time jobs—including a support worker at a United Way agency—to help put herself through school. After graduating from Ryerson’s diversity and equity studies program in 2008, she set her sights even higher: Harvard. “I applied and I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t think I would get in on the first try,” Tonika told CBC News. She was shocked when an acceptance letter from the Ivy League institution arrived in the mail last spring and turned to the Internet to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help make her dream a reality. Hundreds of people were inspired by her story and came together to help her cover 100% of the $71,000 USD price tag. This past fall, Tonika headed south of the border with an entire country cheering her on!

3. The gift of life: We couldn’t help but be inspired by the remarkable story of “miracle twins” Phuoc and Binh Wagner who were adopted from Vietnam by a Kingston, Ont., couple in 2012. Both girls desperately needed liver transplants—but the twins’ father, Michael, could only donate part of his liver to help save one of his daughters. The Wagner family turned to social media to appeal for additional organ donors and their story sparked international media attention. But what happened next was truly remarkable—demonstrating the power of a compassionate community to help strangers in need. Nearly 600 potential organ donors from across North America contacted Binh’s doctor in Toronto offering to help save her life—and the lives of countless other recipients on Ontario’s organ wait list. The four-year-old is now happy and healthy after receiving a transplant from an anonymous donor last April and joined her sister this fall for their first day of kindergarten. This holiday season, the Wagner clan plan to celebrate the best gift of all—each other!


4. A birthday to remember: Odin Camus had a birthday he’ll never forget earlier this year. The 13-year-old Peterborough, Ont., resident has Aspberger’s syndrome and sometimes struggled to make friends. After none of his classmates RSVP’d to his birthday party, Odin’s awesome mom Melissa turned to social media for help. The response from the online community was absolutely incredible. More than 20,000 people—including athletes, actors and politicians—took to Twitter to wish Odin a Happy Birthday. Hundreds of friends, family and even complete strangers also rallied together to throw Odin a party at a local bowling alley bringing cards, gifts and well wishes to celebrate the special occasion. We love Odin’s story because it demonstrates what a community is capable of when it rallies together for a common cause. It’s also a wonderful reminder of how a simple act of kindness can have a transformational effect on someone’s life.

5. A future that works: Angel Reyes spent years working in precarious, or insecure, temp positions and dealing with the daily, harsh realities of living on a low income. When he was laid off from his most recent job earlier this year, he worried about making ends meet. But there’s a happy ending to this story. After sharing his journey with the Toronto Star, the 61-year-old was inundated with messages of support. The Star reports Angel has since found a permanent, unionized job and a new, subsidized apartment. The best part?  Angel is using his hopeful story to shine a spotlight on the issue of precarious employment and to help spark a larger conversation about the need for labour reform in the province. “My intention is justice,” Angel told the Star. “Not just for me. It’s for the many, many workers in Ontario and Canada and the world who are living in circumstances like me.”

And you’ve probably heard about Walter, but if not, here’s a story we just couldn’t leave off our list!


6. A story for the ages: Walter Decker inspired hundreds of people last month when he became the oldest person ever to climb the CN Tower for United Way. When the 91-year-old retired, he made a commitment to stay healthy and active. The Hamilton, Ont., resident walks, completes 60 pushups every day and climbs the Hamilton escarpment at least twice-a-week. Impressive, right? But when Walter conquered Toronto’s most-famous vertical landmark in just over 45 minutes on November 8, 2015, he also stepped up on behalf of thousands of people and families across Toronto and York Region. “It makes me feel good to know I’m helping people that need United Way’s support,” he says. Way to go, Walter!

Want to get inspiring stories delivered straight to your inbox? Subscribe to Community Matters and see all the good work you make possible.