Access to Success: A Guide for Employers

BMO Financial Group: Attracting and Retaining Top Talent by Breaking Down Barriers

By Joanne Maver

Forging the link between strategy and people steers BMO – Bank of Montreal Financial Group’s human resources’ mandate. Forging the link means that BMO’s people strategies must clearly result in outcomes, which enable BMO to successfully execute its customer-focused business strategies.

BMO’s people strategies focus on the importance of talented, engaged and high performing employees. Developing an equitable and supportive workplace, which reflects the diversity of the communities in which BMO lives and does business, are objectives that are explicitly aligned with strategic initiatives from the top. “The correctness, in every sense, of an equitable workplace and a representative workforce has embedded itself in our corporate culture,” says BMO Chairman and CEO Tony Comper. “We believe in it, we’re committed to it, and we know how to make it happen.”

The commitment to becoming a leader in establishing and sustaining a diverse workforce and an equitable, supportive workplace was first articulated in 1989’s Corporate Strategic Plan which cemented the drive to achieve this goal. In 1992, BMO initiated a Task Force on Employment of People with Disabilities to clearly identify the barriers facing employees with disabilities. The report led to innovative action plans, which continue to provide direction and focus to BMO’s efforts in creating an equitable and supportive workplace.


A major goal identified by the Task Force was workplace accessibility. The report recommended that to create a positive work environment, BMO provide workplace modifications, alternative work tools and individual assistance, which would enable people with disabilities to contribute equitably and effectively to the business. Since the goal was articulated in 1992, BMO has made significant progress in workplace accessibility.

An example of this advancement is found in its innovative workplace accommodation policy created to ensure the provision of support to people with disabilities from recruitment to ongoing employment. The policy covers the cost of individual accommodations such as JAWS software, workplace modifications, technological support for the learning disabled, and ASL interpreters.

BMO’s dedication to workplace accessibility is also evidenced by leading-edge standards – set in 2002 - called “Beyond the Code.” These standards, which meet or exceed Canadian national and provincial building codes, guide BMO’s nationwide efforts to accommodate its customers and employees with physical disabilities in the workplace.

Diversity Councils and Affinity Groups – made up of employees at all levels, working in all of BMO’s lines of business – provide feedback to the enterprise on its success in creating an accessible workplace. These groups were created to raise awareness, foster dialogue, and model inclusive behaviour. They are actively involved in increasing awareness and advocating for diversity and workplace equity. Working in partnership with BMO’s leadership, these groups are fundamental to creating a fully inclusive environment.

The Diversity Councils have two fundamental roles: to bring the voice of the employee into goal-setting discussions and to act as grassroots champions of change. In doing so, they function as ambassadors for diversity and workplace equity—providing advice and support to the business unit’s executive team on issues related to the advancement of diversity and workplace equity. Councils meet regularly with employee groups to generate awareness.

Affinity Groups allow BMO employees who feel passionate about a specific issue or group to come together and not only discuss points of view, but also maintain and increase the level of employee engagement within BMO. Employee Affinity Groups are a catalyst for transforming BMO’s culture to a more inclusive and open environment. They provide resources for personal growth for participants as well as education and awareness for all employees.

BMO’s Diversity Councils and Affinity Groups (Deaf, Deafened, and Hard of Hearing; Blind and Visually Impaired; Step Ahead-People with Disabilities; Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered; Lion’s Pride —the first transnational Affinity Group; and two Aboriginal Sharing Circles) hold numerous events year round to celebrate diversity within BMO and to reach out to the communities in which they serve. Examples include:

  • Mayfest – Canada’s largest celebration of deaf culture;
  • Fashion Cares – Canada’s largest and most spectacular gala fundraiser in support of the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT);
  • PCG Lunch and Learns – Designed to allow BMO employees the opportunity to hear success stories and tips from top female executives within BMO, and allow them the opportunity to ask career-coaching questions in an open environment.

As an initiative of the Blind and Visually Impaired Affinity Group, BMO established a policy to ensure the provision of support to employees with disabilities: the Adaptive Technology Services group. This group’s mandate is to create a technically inclusive, barrier-free environment by establishing standards and implementing systemic technical solutions. In addition to coordinating specific assessments of adaptive technology for employees, the team provides the research and development, testing, and implementation of adaptive solutions. This support not only allows BMO employees to work at their most productive level, but also enables managers to actively source and hire top talent.

Recruitment of Top Talent

Another goal identified by the 1992 Task Force was to increase the number of qualified job applicants amongst people with disabilities.

BMO strongly believes that when preparing to enter the workforce, applicants must remain active throughout the recruiting process – starting before the interview to the orientation once hired. It has been BMO’s experience that successful candidates will have extensively researched the organization that they are applying to in order to better understand the business itself, the organization’s culture and its policies. This will enable the applicant to determine if there is a good “fit” with the organization. Once candidates have been notified that they have been selected for an interview, they should practice their interviewing skills prior to the actual event. This may entail role playing, and preparing for a variety of interview formats. Once the interview has begun, applicants should clarify not only what is expected of them by the organization, but also what they expect of the company. Most employees leave jobs because it is not what they expected it to be. Asking questions throughout the process will prevent this from occurring. Once an applicant reaches the orientation stage of the recruitment process, they should familiarize themselves with their surroundings and team members. The individuals who are most successful in this stage are those who remain flexible and responsive.

It should be noted that BMO encourages people to understand their own barriers around disclosure. It is important that accommodation needs be carefully articulated. It is also critical that applicants focus on their abilities, not their disability.

In order to recruit talented employees, BMO engages in specific outreach and recruitment activities to attract applicants with disabilities. BMO works in partnership with community agencies such as the CNIB, the Canadian Paraplegic Association, the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work, and the Canadian Hearing Society.

In addition, BMO participates in job fairs and campus recruitment. It also sponsors and supports many organizations and events. In 2001, BMO was the Gold sponsor of the international conference “Inclusion by Design,” which was a first for a Canadian company. The movement is based on the concept that all products, environments and communications should be designed to accommodate the greatest possible number of users. In 2003, BMO was an official corporate sponsor of the Abilities Fair hosted by FACE. Other sponsorships include Mayfest – the annual event of the Ontario Association for the Deaf, NEADS, the Terry Fox Hall of Fame and People in Motion.

In partnership with Career Edge, BMO launched the Ability Edge Program to provide work experience to graduates with disabilities. After graduating from York University in Toronto with a degree in business and economics, Rachel Ho was having difficulty getting her career started. As a person with a disability, specifically dwarfism, Rachel found the career search daunting. “I had little work experience, it’s true,” says Ho. “However, I suspect that part of my trouble was due to my short stature. Unfortunately, some people equate ability with size.” Last year, Ho became an Ability Edge intern and subsequently joined BMO full-time as a national assistant administrator at BMO’s employee-run charitable foundation: the Fountain of Hope.

For those students who have recently graduated from high school, this program offers several tools to help ease the transition into the work world and allows the students to build a solid base for future careers. Students are able to forge relationships with a mentor who will be able to assist them throughout the program and after. Students also gain insight into proper job seeking strategies and learn the importance of networking in addition to receiving valuable work experience.

This program is seen as a “best practice”, with high permanent placement rates. The program facilitates the transition from high school, college and university to the workforce for people with disabilities, in a manner that is mutually beneficial to both employers and Ability Edge interns. In 2002, BMO received the Ability Edge Award for employing the largest number of interns in the program of any company in Canada.

BMO Financial Group is also involved in a program that was an initiative of the Canadian Council on Rehabilitation and Work (CCRW). It was launched in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in collaboration with the other “Big Five” banks. The program is aimed at training people with disabilities and offering them employment once training has been completed. The 12-week training program involves courses in the classroom and job shadowing. The curriculum is personalized to each candidate, so they receive information on the specific products and services offered at their financial institution. Upon completion of the training program, candidates become full time BMO employees as Financial Services Managers. BMO’s ability to take the leadership role with this program is facilitated by the integrated support they are able to provide in accommodating individuals with disabilities in the workplace.

There have also been efforts to facilitate the hiring process for managers looking to recruit people with disabilities. In conjunction with BMO’s B.C. HR Division, the British Columbia Diversity Council created a Hiring Guide for use within the division which details awareness tips for interviewing candidates with disabilities and sources for further information regarding BMO’s Accommodation Policy and diversity initiatives.

Changing the Corporate Landscape

Since 1989, BMO has come a long way in creating an equitable, supportive workplace. BMO’s strategies are informed by the belief that diversity initiatives will be more successful if they are sponsored and led from the highest levels of the organization. Despite its progress, BMO carefully monitors its success on a regular basis. “Our commitment to create a diverse workforce and equitable, supportive workplace is part of the fabric of our organization,” said Rose Patten, Executive Vice-President Human Resources and Head, Office of Strategic Management. “Basically,” she added, “we’re trying to be a leader in creating a new corporate landscape – a landscape that is equitable and accommodating to person with disabilities so that BMO can attract and retain top talent, at every opportunity. We insist on respect for everyone and encourage all to have a voice.”

As BMO builds on their reputation as an employer of choice – one committed to equity, diversity and fairness; the importance placed on these beliefs has become ingrained into BMO’s day-to-day culture. The company has developed Corporate Values, which represent BMO’s core beliefs. They stand as BMO’s collective commitment - to each other, to BMO’s customers, to BMO’s shareholders and the communities of which BMO is a part.

According to the Canadian Bankers Association, BMO Financial Group is leading all of its competition in the overall representation of people with disabilities. Since 1992, the percentage of BMO employees in Canada with disabilities has risen from 1.8 per cent to 3.2 per cent.

BMO continues to be acknowledged for its leadership in the advancement of people with disabilities. In recognition of demonstrated commitment to removing barriers for people with disabilities, BMO was the 2002 recipient of the annual Daimler Chrysler Corporate Award presented by the Canadian Foundation for the Physically Disabled. This award was initiated in 1991, to recognize Canadian corporations for their contributions toward assisting people with physical disabilities in the community, as well as special efforts in aiding integration into the work place.

BMO was recently found in compliance with all twelve of the statutory segments of the Employment Equity Act during their Audit conducted by the Canadian Human Rights Commission. This was accomplished during Phase One – the only bank to accomplish this to date. No additional undertakings were required of BMO, a testament to its leadership and success in creating a diverse workforce and an equitable, supportive workplace.