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About systemic barriers

Many people policies and practices were designed for homogeneous workforces and were created without benefit of a range of perspectives during their development.

A systemic barrier is an aspect of a policy, procedure, or process that might appear neutral on the surface, but which has a different impact on some groups of employees. When this impact is negative or exclusionary it can make it more difficult for people who are in the minority to contribute fully in the workplace. Systemic barriers often arise unintentionally.

Many written policies and procedures can have a different impact on people from different backgrounds and with different lived experience such as women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, newcomers and persons with a disability, and others.

A black woman with braided hair, an asian woman, a plus sized woman, and a latino man work together on a glass wall to brainstorm ideas.

Common systemic barriers include:

  • Recruiting and hiring: If the promotion processes give disproportionate weighting to years of experience or emphasize characteristics such as “has shown dominance in the work,” and do not equally consider other skills and variables, then women are less likely to get promoted and companies will miss out on the benefits that come with having a variety of perspectives and management styles.
  • Onboarding and developing: If the rewards and recognition policy focuses on attendance, an Indigenous employee who attends many cultural and community commitments during the year could be disadvantaged.
  • Engaging and retaining: A person with a disability may participate in several available workplace flexibility options to balance work and individual needs. If the organizational culture does not truly support individuals using flexible options, this could be reflected in how they are unconsciously treated by others.

Other unintended barriers include:

  • Language that is not gender-inclusive (e.g. “tradesman” instead of “tradesperson”; “husband or wife” instead of “spouse”).
  • Assumptions about skills required for a job (e.g. requiring a driver’s license when the incumbent doesn’t drive for the role, but needs reliable transportation to a remote location).
  • Work-life balance (e.g. promoting work getting done effectively and efficiently, over visible extended working hours).
  • Criteria for hiring or promotion (e.g. “ability to lead complex, multidisciplinary projects” instead of “ten years of experience”).
  • Facilities and materials that do not recognize the differing needs of some employees (e.g. documents that do not account for colour blindness).

Questions to guide an equity review of your practices:

  • Does it comply with the latest legislative requirements and current norms and expectations, including human rights, accommodation and accessibility, labour and employment laws?
  • How consistently and fairly is it applied? Does the organizational culture support this (e.g. is it accepted when one group of people use it, but not another group)?
  • What impact has it had on different groups of people in the workforce, both positive and negative (i.e. diverse talent groups)? Some ways that various talent groups might be affected differently include:
    • Financial impacts: total earnings, benefits, pensions or insurance eligibility.
    • Health and wellness, safety and personal risk.
    • Ability to manage work-life balance.
    • Access to training and career opportunities.
  • If any barriers exist, are they valid? Is accommodation possible?
  • In terms of both wording and implementation, what changes to it could make it more equitable, inclusive and effective for all talent groups? For emerging needs?

Even “little things” make a difference–they add up. A company’s written policies, processes or procedures shape a workplace. When policies seem to make good sense and yet they unintentionally create barriers, then it is harder for qualified individuals from diverse talent groups to feel they belong in this industry, affecting their willingness to stay in the organization.