Creating our future: On Campus and Beyond

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Stephen McDonnell


Stephen is Senior Advisor, Diversity and Workplace Equity, Corporate Human Resources at BMO Financial Group. Over a twenty year career, Stephen has recruited people with disabilities and held positions in retail operations including branch management and credit throughout the Greater Toronto Area. He is a native Torontonian and has been a community volunteer for over 17 years. Stephen is former Chair of LOFT Community Services in Toronto, offering housing, outreach, and community support services to vulnerable and homeless people, seniors, youth at risk and people with disabilities. His volunteer activities have been recognized by the Toronto Chapter of the CFRA and the Canadian Red Cross Society for supporting their national strategy to provide emergency support to the homeless.

Stephen has served on the board of directors of the AIDS Committee of Toronto, Canada's largest AIDS service organization and has consulted with them on issues relevant to workplace accommodation and employment. He currently sits on the board of the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, an initiative of the Ministry of Health, supporting their diversity initiatives. Stephen's background is in pastoral care and theology, and he has worked in Ottawa and the nine northern counties of Mississippi in the United States.


The Job Search: Accommodation and Beyond

Stephen McDonnell, Senior Advisor, Diversity and Workplace Equity, BMO Financial Group

Stephen McDonnell began his presentation by emphasizing that a paradigm shift is occurring across Canada as a direct result of growing diversity awareness. This shift is not about legalities, but about changing perceptions and recognizing talent pools.

“Canada is facing a labour shortage and really needs you,” said McDonnell. “For the very first time, people with disabilities have a voice in our country and a major voice in the employment market.” He encouraged participants “to speak up, to learn how to use that voice, to be articulate.”

A new direction in the job search is emerging, McDonnell noted. Workforce diversity and inclusion have become more important. According to 126 major U.S. and Canadian companies, the top reasons for encouraging diversity include greater competitiveness in attracting talent; improved financial performance; reflection of changing workplace demographics; and increased understanding of or access to specific markets, clients, and consumer segments.

A 2004 study found that companies that had more women in senior management positions outperformed companies that had few women in such positions. Return on equity was 35% higher, and total return to shareholders, 34% higher.

Inclusive companies are better able to attract and retain talent and to scan and respond to their marketplace. Properly managed teams that reflect the diversity of the workforce engage in a stronger decision-making process.

The “talent argument” is strong. Diversity is a powerful magnet for recruitment, and the changing age demographics of the labour force argue for better understanding and mirroring of various groups. For example, in Canada, 6.7 million baby boomers will exit the workforce by 2021. Generation Y is estimated to represent 5.6 million people, creating an expected labour force shortage of 1.1 million people.

The “marketplace argument” is also clear. Companies that leverage diversity and that “mirror the market” will attract new customers and find new markets. For example, recent studies have showed that women control more than 80% of consumer and household spending and that visible minorities represent $76 billion in purchasing power; people with disabilities, $25 billion; and Aboriginal people, $24 billion.

McDonnell then spoke on accommodation in the workplace. The duty to accommodate is required both by the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Employment Equity Act, he said. Accommodation must be provided short of “undue hardship.” The entire company and its board of directors are accountable—not just the work unit. And in fact, the Supreme Court expects companies to anticipate a considerable measure of hardship in ensuring accommodation. However, emphasized McDonnell, people with disabilities must understand their own boundaries around disclosure; the only right that the employer has is to know their employees’ accommodation needs.

The business case for providing accommodations includes increased shareholder value through accessible service for all; an enhanced public image; service as a model for external organizations; ability to recruit and retain top talent; a motivated, healthy, and productive work environment; and market expansion, attracting more customers with disabilities.

Accommodation is “the obligation to eliminate disadvantage,” and it applies during recruitment, selection, training, career development, and ongoing employment. It does not affect employment decisions nor does it diminish an employee’s responsibility to carry out essential job functions. On the other hand, workplaces are expected to recognize each employee’s unique qualities, to respond to each person’s needs, and to respect each person’s privacy and dignity.

Employment accommodations for employees with disabilities include physical adaptations; human support; job modification; adaptive technologies, policies, and systems; and flexible work arrangements and scheduling.

And what about interaction with colleagues? Teamwork requires a recognition that accommodation is a joint responsibility, that no two accommodations are the same, and that accommodation is not absolute. Accommodations may involve technology or human support or both. They may evolve as technology or conditions change—for example, with aging.

BMO’s Staying in Touch program is an example of how much employers are doing to increase diversity, McDonnell said. The Staying in Touch program provides mentoring opportunities to college and university students with disabilities. McDonnell invited the participants to join this program if they feel they would like to be mentored by a BMO employee through e-mail.

McDonnell closed his presentation by encouraging the participants to stop by the exhibitors’ booths and to “help us help you find your voice for the future.” The theme of the day is “no longer about what you cost; the conversation is about what you bring.”

Celebrating 20 years