Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau’s choice of cabinet ministers (in particular their gender) has raised the controversial and age-old debate of Employment Equity to the limelight once again. As somebody with who has experienced the impacts of Employment Equity policies firsthand, I thought I would take this opportunity to share my perspective as well.
When I was 19 years old, like everyone else I was looking for a summer job. I didn’t have any experience and I was still in the middle of my education so I wasn’t qualified for very much either. As the spring semester started, most of my friends were able to gain employment but I had not. I did get a few interviews with which I had varying experiences including:
getting interviewed in a separate room from my counterparts
inappropriate interview questions related to my disability
inaccessible interview locations
Don’t get me wrong, I did get some interviews where I clearly wasn’t qualified; but there were also others where I felt I wasn’t treated the same as everyone else. That summer my parents were trying to sell their house and we had a last minute showing. I wasn’t able to leave the house as it was raining that day so I just stayed in my dad’s office and continued working on building a personal website. The gentleman looking at the house saw me and started making small talk. He asked me if I had found employment over the summer and I recall my bitter response indicating that I hadn’t (and something along the lines that equal opportunity was a bunch of baloney). To my surprise, he decided not to buy the house but put his business card on the desk and asked me to phone in on Monday morning to set up an interview!
I looked at the card – he was the GM of a large aerospace & defense contractor. I phoned his office first thing on Monday morning and had an interview that Tuesday. I still remember it as one of the most intimidating interviews of my life – a 3 panel interview in a very large boardroom. I was asked a series of questions (approximately 20) and I remember I could only answer a few (I’m serious, only 2 questions). I left the interview knowing that I didn’t get the job… With my responses, I wouldn’t have hired me! But to my absolute amazement, I received a phone call at the end of the day indicating that I got the position! I couldn’t believe it! Were they that desperate? Why would they hire me?
On my first day of work, it became pretty apparent as to why I was hired. I was there to meet some quotas for their employment equity program. In the US it is referred to as affirmative action. To those of you were not aware, employment equity is defined as giving preferential treatment to minorities in admission to educational facilities, government or businesses. I was a sure bet because I was:
a visible minority
a person with physical disability
The job that I was so looking forward to became my nemesis! But I was determined to show everyone that I wasn’t just another statistic. I worked long hours and took minimal breaks to get over the steep learning curve. I was hired for three months to design their intranet, and to everyone’s amazement, I completed the assignment in six weeks! I used the remainder of my time there to take on additional tasks and responsibilities. Although I was successful, I felt that it was labeled as result of employment equity rather than my hard work, persistence and achievements.
The following year, I began my pursuit for summer employment once again. Unlike the previous year, I now had work experience under my belt. I interviewed with a recruitment firm that was shortlisting candidates for an IT services company. Their screening process included an interview with the recruitment firm and three rounds of testing. Out of 50 applicants that were shortlisted for the position, I was rated as one of the top three candidates! I was presented to the client for a personal interview. At this point in time, I didn’t even care if I got the job. I was ecstatic because I was finally being recognized for my abilities, not how many quotas I could fill! I ended up getting the job and subsequently, that term position turned into a permanent one where I worked for 7.5 years. Since then, I have worked for an additional two companies where I obtained employment for my ability and not to meet a quota (at least as far as I know) 🙂
My thoughts with Employment Equity are bittersweet. I believe quotas are wrong, condescending, and insulting to minorities as it implies that we cannot achieve our goals through hard work and ability. But at the same time, the policies were developed to correct discrimination and to give disadvantaged minorities a boost. Diversity is desirable but it may not occur if left to chance. Because I was given this opportunity, I was able to educate my first employer and subsequent employers on how easy it is to support people with physical disabilities so that they can be just as productive (and sometimes even more) as their “less diverse” counterparts. The program fulfilled its promise despite the additional problems that it created for me in the process.
Although I firmly believe that an individual should be hired for merit, I also think that employment equity will be required until the word “minority” is no longer pertinent.