There is actually a way of “getting” diversity right and for an organization this requires the same high standards of preparation, intensity and implementation as any other business initiative. As this author describes, one of Canada’s leading financial institutions got it right, and in the process set a best-practice example.

The quest for cultural competence

Canada, like most advanced industrial Western societies, is being transformed by new immigrants from around the world. This demographic revolution will unquestionably change the way most companies, large and small, conduct business.

BMO Financial Group (BMO) has been at the forefront of this marketplace transformation for many years, spurred initially by the challenge to make our workforce more diverse, inclusive and representative of the many communities that comprise the Canadian population. That drive for diversity itself dates back to the mid-1980s when a famous royal commission on Employment Equity, chaired by now Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella, demanded Canadian businesses do a better job reflecting the realities of the country, by including Canadians who historically have been disadvantaged in employment, namely women, visible minorities, Aboriginal people, and people with disabilities.

Fortuitously for us, such a transformation of our workforce was already well under way when it became apparent that there were also compelling changing realities in North America for a more multi-cultural approach to our employees, customers and the marketplace. Simply stated, cultural competence at BMO is about fostering effective and productive working relationships in cross-cultural situations. In this article, I would like to outline our journey towards first achieving a diverse workforce and then a more culturally competent organization.

A diverse workforce

First just a few statistics that illustrate how pervasive the demographic changes under way are in this nation. By 2017, half the population of the Greater Toronto Area will be members of a visible “minority;” by 2025, over 20 percent of Canadians will be over the age of 65; one in five entrants into the Canadian workforce, right now, are Aboriginal people; and by 2017, 7.6-million of our fellow Canadians will be allophones, having a mother tongue that is neither French nor English.1

When asked to provide a rationale for our commitment to the cultural transformation of our organization, demographics alone provide reason enough. At our Corporate University, where one might think we are simply offering courses on customer service, lending and management, we are also talking about changing demographic realities. Diversity Workshops are available to members of our Human Resource Division and to all other levels of the organization. BMO is committed to continuous learning, since understanding demographic or cultural shifts is fundamental to transforming the “look” and “feel” of this organization internally, and how we conduct our business with a rapidly transforming customer base.

Some argue that the demographic and cultural changes under way in North American society are akin to a “paradigm shift,” to borrow the famous phrase used to describe the historically transformative impact of new technologies on previous economic societies. From our perspective, such a phrase likely understates the case. The tectonic demographic shifts will impact every aspect of how we conduct business—big or small; what was once global is now local. It may seem like a small thing, but I think it is very important for example, that our account managers know about Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, or Eid, which marks the end of Ramadan, so they don’t make cold marketing calls at inappropriate times to clients who observe these traditions. Likewise in the workplace, our managers are encouraged to use BMO’s On-Line Multicultural Holiday Calendar to avoid holding meetings on dates that have religious or cultural significance, such as Yom Kippur.

Journey towards cultural diversity and employment equity

So how did this journey to diversity and cultural competency begin at BMO? As noted earlier, back in the late 1980s, four groups who had previously been disadvantaged in employment were recognized in the new Employment Equity Act. The four groups were women, visible minorities, Aboriginal people and people with disabilities.

Though Canadian legislation does not have quotas, it does have goals about removing barriers and creating access and opportunities for these historically disadvantaged groups. And the government monitors how companies are performing on these issues and reserves the right to impose external solutions on companies who are employment equity laggards.

From the get-go, under the leadership of then-President Tony Comper, BMO was keen to assume a leadership position on diversity in the workplace, enthusiastically embracing the challenge of Employment Equity. In 1990, BMO leaders from around the world met to develop a corporate strategic plan which included our vision for creating a diverse workforce and an equitable supportive workplace. For our employees, the message was a ringing endorsement of both equity and diversity.

*We will create an equitable workplace in which all employees have an equal opportunity to enhance their careers.

*We will create a diverse workforce that reflects, at all levels and in all groups, the communities that BMO serves.

*We will create a supportive work environment in which equity and diversity inform and influence all our business goals.

These were brave words and ambitious goals. To realize them, BMO demonstrated both resolve and smarts by commissioning a series of Task Forces [Women (1990), Aboriginal People (1992) and People with Disabilities (1992), Visible Minorities (1995)] that would thoroughly examine the status within the bank of the four groups identified by the Abella Commission, and then begin the process to create the appropriate policies to launch BMO on the road to full inclusion. These employee driven task forces were rigorously fact-based and resulted in over 100 changes to human resource policies and practices which helped to make equity and workplace diversity a reality.

One of the reasons why we have been so successful in driving equity, diversity, and now cultural competency within our organization has been because of the unwavering support of our executive leadership. We have been supported by visionary board members and leaders, who championed change. Our current President and CEO, Bill Downe, is making a very clear link between the diversity and cultural competency of our workforce and our financial success in the marketplace.

Our previous leaders did great foundational work at BMO and the findings from our task forces serve as a weather vane and continue to lead us into new and exciting directions in our inclusive journey. Building a culturally competent organization is not simply about being in compliance with legislation. More importantly, it is about making an experiential shift in values, attitudes and behaviours that will result in a fully engaged workforce creating lasting customer relationships.

Creating the culturally competent organization

As we began this journey we focused on non-discriminatory policies and practices which supported flexibility and work life balance but increasingly, becoming a culturally competent organization became a strategic business priority. We soon learned that we could leverage our diverse workforce to access new and emerging markets.

Within this frame, BMO has already enjoyed considerable success. Take, for example, our expanding relationships with Canada’s surging Aboriginal population. As part of our commitment to fostering economic and cultural self sufficiency of Aboriginal peoples, BMO is addressing the great need for quality affordable housing on First Nations reserves in Canada. We created the BMO On-Reserve Housing Program, which enables qualified members to obtain housing loans without government assistance. To date the program is providing home ownership opportunities in 21 Aboriginal Communities across Canada.2

Further, China and Chinese-Canadians are another part of the cultural mosaic that BMO has identified as a growing market segment. BMO has deployed significant resources to provide financial services, including establishing a distinct Chinese-speaking banking division, on-line Chinese services, automated banking machines with Chinese language options and call centres that have Cantonese and Mandarin queues.

Distinct “cultural” groups are not merely linguistic, matters of race or about specific ethnicity. Distinct demographic cohorts such as “baby boomers” continue to have a significant impact on the market as they move through different life stages. BMO’s Retirement and Regeneration initiative has targeted Canada’s exploding senior and retirement communities with great success.

Each of these markets is different, and their unique cultural, psychological and economic personalities demand subtle, tailored responses. And that is why we believe our commitment to integrate diversity and cultural competence into our organization will increasingly pay big dividends in the coming years.

Integrating diversity and cultural competence into a large corporation does not happen by accident. BMO’s leadership has prudently invested time, effort and money to develop an infrastructure that supports Canada’s new vibrant and culturally complex marketplace. Cultural competence at BMO is evidenced in a broad range of areas including our human resource policies, donation policies, principles of behaviour and conduct and our Corporate Values, which define what is important to the organization as well as the behaviours expected of our employees in the workplace. Corporate governance, communications, infrastructure, learning and development, and of course our employees are all key components of a culturally competent organization.

It is true that what gets measured gets done, and as such, BMO’s leadership is held accountable for making progress towards cultural competency and the creation of a diverse workforce. Monitoring and measurement tools include a suite of reports that track our workforce demographics and employment decisions including missed hiring and promotion opportunities as well as any disproportionate opportunities. Additionally, BMO conducts an Annual Employee Survey that measures numerous attributes including employee engagement. A component of the survey called the Diversity Index is used to measure our progress to date on the creation of BMO’s supportive and equitable workplace. Survey outcomes empower BMO’s leadership to be proactive in refining their efforts towards achieving cultural competence.

Cultural competence is a business imperative of the enterprise, it is measured with the same integrity as we measure financial targets. We are measuring our executives against ‘momentum’—their ability to drive sustainable change.

Developing the culturally competent employee

At BMO, we often say: “First we must get it right with each other, which will allow us to get it right with our customers and then in turn with all of our stakeholders.” But how can you get it right with the person in the next cubicle, if you have only the vaguest sense of their cultural background, what religious holidays they observe, their family status or if disability impacts their lives? And if that’s true of our relationships with our work colleagues, there is no question that it is equally true with our customers.

Cultural competence means having the ability to recognize and respond to our diversity and to make better decisions based on that understanding. If BMO’s reality, going forward, is an intensely multi-cultural, multi-lingual, inter-generational, multi-everything workplace and, even more importantly, situated in a culturally complex marketplace, corporate success hinges on all of us parking any “biases” at the front door.

At BMO we do our very best not to walk into any relationship with any cultural assumptions. We look beyond someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, family status, or disability to find out who they really are. This capacity to look beyond is at the centre of culture competence. Ultimately, becoming culturally competent is more than recognizing and understanding our biases; it is about being able to harness different perspectives that are useful in the workplace and the marketplace.

At BMO, managers are provided with tools – workshops, seminars, leadership development programs – where diversity and cultural competence training are embedded in the curricula. The real goal of such exercises is to make people aware of their “blind spots,” i.e., when their best intentions do not align with their actual behaviour. Affording individuals opportunities to grow will prepare them to achieve their full potential and represent BMO effectively in the marketplace.

Another useful tool is the 360° Review which offers robust feedback, providing individual employees with comments from all the colleagues he or she interacts with on a regular basis (peers, bosses, subordinates) on their attitudes towards diversity and managing for inclusion. The 360° Review again affords individual opportunities to address their blind spots.

BMO’s Affinity Groups and Diversity Councils also play an important role in developing cultural competence at a grass roots level. These groups are about learning, promoting awareness, removing barriers, providing support, and networking opportunities and learning how to work more productively and effectively together. They are a sounding board for leadership and meet quarterly with senior executives from across the company.

Both affinity groups and diversity councils emerged out of the Task Force process of the early 1990s and are one of its most enduring legacies. The inheritance we all share from our Task Force work is the profound transformation BMO has undergone and the emergence of the culturally competent employee.

In this article, I have tried to make the point that there is a business case for diversity. But in truth no one has to make a case any more to justify, explain, or rationalize BMO’s ardent embrace of cultural and commercial inclusiveness. Of course, there are those with a rehearsed diversity mantra who don’t “operationalize” this aspiration into their business. That’s a pity and they’ll pay a steep price. At BMO our diversity journey has revealed that cultural competency is all about attracting and retaining the best talent who have the ability to build lasting relationships with our customers. We firmly believe that embedding it in our people and business strategies will earn us the business of tomorrow’s customers. Companies like BMO who are ready and understand that cultural competency and diversity are fundamental to business success will be the true winners in the culturally complex Canada of the 21st century.


This article is for your own, personal use. To order reprints for any other use, please go to

1 Statistics Canada Study: Canada’s Visible Minority Population in 2017 – Released Tuesday March 22, 2005.This report is the result of a project initiated in 2004 by the Multiculturalism and Human Rights Program at the Department of Canadian Heritage. Its goal was to prepare a portrait of the ethno-cultural diversity of the Canadian population in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

2 BMO Financial Group Corporate Responsibility Report and Public Accountability Statement 2005 and 2006

Leave a Reply

Please submit respectful comments only, including full name, professional title, and contact information (only name and title will be posted). Required fields are marked *