Want post-pandemic business success? Don Oliver says start with diversity

Posted on March 21, 2022 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments

Nearly 20 years ago, Canada’s first Black Senator was asked by a bank president in Toronto for proof the company was discriminating against Black people or was not valuing Black talent. Was the bank really not valuing diversity? Prove it, was the demand, unfairly shifting the onus while making reference to Don Oliver’s work as a lawyer.



It marked the start of an extraordinary personal effort by Oliver that produced what stands, even today, as a seminal guide for building a diverse business and achieving success.

Oliver agreed to return to it all when contacted recently by Atlantic Business Magazine, saying he believes diversity is the path for more rapid post-pandemic business recovery and long-term success for Atlantic Canadian companies.

“They’re going to have higher profits if they diversify. They’re going to outperform their competitors, there’s going to be less turnover or what I call revolving door syndrome of the good people leaving because they’re not being recognized. They will stay. It’s going to be a more positive corporate culture. You’re going to be a better company,” he said.

He highlighted the idea of different worldviews, experiences, languages. A more diverse workforce at all levels is going to allow you to better understand and capture what you need from the labour pool, supplier base and prospective markets, he suggested, offering up the business case for diversity one more time in a way that tells you he’ll never stop pointing it out. “All in all, it just means more money on the bottom line, more profits and more profitability.”

In 2003, the now-retired Oliver was, among other things, a member of the Senate’s committee on banking, trade and commerce. In his memoir A Matter of Equality: The Life’s Work of Senator Don Oliver (Nimbus, 2021), he recalls the challenge of the bank executive mentioned at the start of this piece, in a meeting that ended cordially, and what followed.

He had personally long advocated for equality for Black people and for diversity in corporate Canada but knew he was running up against a threshold. “Prove it” was a barrier that was – and he says still is in some cases – keeping some of the largest, most prominent and best companies in the country from seeing, truly understanding and achieving their full potential.

The response to his promotions of diversity from the bank executive and others he’d encountered also carried echoes of arguments heard in cases in the United States, where corporations were being taken to task on issues of prejudice and racism, apart from any specific diversification efforts. Oliver referred in his Senate speeches and his book to legal cases involving Texaco and Coca-Cola. In the case of Texaco, a discrimination suit launched by a group of company employees in early 1994 claimed systemic discrimination affecting promotions and a hostile work environment resulting from racism. It was unclear at first where that case was headed, Oliver says, “until someone put a tape recorder under a table in a board room.” The Texaco tapes made headlines, including page one of the New York Times on Nov. 4, 1996. After reviewing the transcript, the Times reported the tapes appeared to have senior Texaco officers conspiring to destroy documents subject to discovery in the lawsuit and captured an executive referring to Black employees as “black jellybeans.” As was later reported, the company had a diversity program where jellybean colours had been used as an analogy. The argument was that extended from a conference speech given by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity. At the time, Roosevelt told the Times he used the idea of jellybeans as an image but certainly not the phrase “black jellybeans.” Regardless, Texaco settled the suit in 1996, agreeing to pay $115 million in damages and pay raises for about 1,400 Black employees (the value of the settlement was about $176 million total, Oliver writes). In 1997, action was taken against some of the senior people caught on the tapes, with the dismissal of one senior executive, a suspension and end of benefits for two others who were now retirees. The Coca-Cola case was filed in 1999 by Black employees who accused the corporation of a hierarchy that had Black employees at the bottom of the pay scale and making less than white workers. In 2000, the company agreed to pay more than $156 million to the employees in what was described as the largest settlement ever in a racial discrimination case (with other actions required, Oliver writes the whole was valued at $193 million).

“I said to corporate Canada, to Bay Street, Hey, you better pay attention to these,” he recalls, but it was being considered ‘over there’ or rare, overt examples. In Canada, so the argument went, you didn’t see the same issues, certainly not to the same degree. Companies here were doing what could reasonably be done. …How to crack that shell, pondered Oliver.


Breaking barriers

“I needed a non-political, highly respected think-tank with recognized, excellent researchers. I needed evidence that barriers kept Black people out of those (senior) jobs, and I needed this think-tank to create practical guides to removing the barriers,” Oliver recounts in his book.

The guide had the potential to be of particular value. The Conference Board of Canada agreed to the work. But it wasn’t free. And Oliver was left to find $500,000 to cover the cost.

Undeterred, he fundraised. He says he never doubted his ability to reach his goal. He thankfully had connections throughout the upper echelons of Canadian business. He’d been a judge for the TD scholarships and had lunches with the bank president. He knew Galen Weston, with Weston having contributed to an earlier fundraising effort, for an educational endowment in the name of Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first Black MP and Cabinet minister, on the occasion of Alexander’s 80th birthday.

“I had enough connections as the little Black boy from Wolfville to go to Bay Street and the people I knew to raise the money and I did. And as I said in the book it started with TD,” he recalls.

TD contributed $50,000. Then came BMO Financial Group, BCE Inc. (Bell), George Weston Limited, Power Corporation of Canada, Sun Life Financial, and several others. Oliver said companies he approached immediately responded to him personally or to the idea of a dive into the subject of removing discriminatory barriers in corporate Canada.

In the later stages, Oliver believes there were some contributors who may have simply thought 10 or 20 thousand dollars for anti-discrimination advice was cheap, when compared to any risk of a Texaco or Coca-Cola-style lawsuit down the line.

“There were some companies that I don’t want to mention by name that did jerk me around a bit,” Oliver said. “That… I’ve never forgotten that.”

For his part, he says he doesn’t resent the fundraising or overall task, or that he was living in a country that needed a half-million-dollar piece of work to speak to the many layers involved in systemic discrimination. It was more important that it could be done and was being done. But beyond the money, it required co-operation.

“I then needed the bureaucracy to come (on board) as well. Because the largest buying group in Canada, the largest business group in Canada, is the Government of Canada,” he said.

Early on, he’s stated, the Conference Board researchers were “timid in their language” and shied away from use of the word “racism.” Oliver had support from Sharon Ross, “one of the driving forces behind the Black Cultural Centre,” and others in pushing back.


Business Critical

There were a few outcomes in the end. One was a public action guide released in 2005: “Business Critical: Maximizing the Talents of Visible Minorities.

The document runs more than 100 pages. It includes hard numbers from government studies and surveys of Canadian organizations; there are case studies, corporate profiles, discussion of recruitment and evaluation strategies. There is the discussion of visible minorities in the context of attracting and retaining new immigrants. The report notably incorporates findings of other consultants and researchers on topics under the umbrella of systemic racism, while talking about all of the potential that can come from properly responding.



And when it comes to truly embracing diversity and improving a company’s ability to see and understand the market, the examples can be relatively simple. For instance, from the report: “At one of its Vancouver stations, Petro-Canada saw kiosk sales increase by 15 per cent and gasoline sales rise from 2.7 million to 3.1 million litres over a three-year period, when it paid attention to the demographics of its market. It knew that the community was largely Chinese and capitalized on the opportunity to modify the way it did business to reflect its clients’ needs. Petro-Canada changed the station’s signage to include both English and Mandarin, and it hired a sales associate fluent in both languages. It was this last move, using the talents of a visible minority employee, that made the biggest difference in sales.”

It wrapped up not only Oliver’s long-argued business case for diversity but offered a start on how to do pursue it, in questions for executives and corporate boards and actionable checklists.


Taking the lead

The Conference Board report Oliver funded and shepherded has gone far. It prompted speaking invitations, allowing him to talk about the business case for diversity and the Canadian experience to audiences in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and more. The guide’s tools and information hold up and are still referenced by individual businesses. A lot of other work has also, of course, come in the years since, to build on the effort.

Today, on his list of many credits, Oliver is a board member of the Black North Initiative (BNI), dedicated to ending anti-Black systemic racism. He says Wes Hall, who founded BNI and is executive chairman and founder of Kingsdale Advisors is one of the people he most admires in Canadian business today. He applauded Hall for being a champion, continuing the push to remove barriers for Black Canadians.

Hall came to Canada from Jamaica at 16. He worked a variety of jobs as a teen, from catching chickens to working as a security staffer responding to burglar alarms. He went to university and ended up in a mail room on Bay Street and worked his way into the main offices. He eventually launched his own company and gained a reputation as the one to turn to when planning a major expansion or when your company is facing a proxy battle.

At the not-for-profit BNI, his board includes high-ranking representation from names like Fairfax Financial, major banks, firms like Bennett Jones and Ernst & Young, even former Governor General of Canada David Johnston.

In late November 2021, the organization released a Racial Equity Playbook, guiding employers on being more diverse, equitable and inclusive in their business practices.

Oliver says he’s behind Hall and BNI’s efforts, including pursuit of having a minimum 3.5 per cent of executive and board roles in Canada held by Black leaders by 2025.

An early step, he suggested, for those in business unsure of what to do with all this, would be to ask about your company’s approach to diversity. And if you have a committee dedicated to diversity, he said, check to see who makes up the majority of that voice. And of course, “Business Critical” is still worth a read.


About our Book Report series

In Book Report, Atlantic Business Magazine highlights non-fiction focused on Atlantic Canada and Atlantic Canadians, and from Atlantic Canadian publishers. These short pieces will offer details from upcoming business biographies, Q&As on new releases and in some cases fresh commentary from non-fiction authors on the subject of their published works.

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