Toronto played host last month to 6 Degrees, a conference focused on inclusion and its obstacles, the meaning of citizenship and challenges to democracy.

There were artists (Ai Weiwei, Margaret Atwood) and journalists there, and Canadian political figures actively engaged in the larger debate (Adrienne Clarkson, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau). As well as many who work on the front lines of inclusion (migrant rescuers, civic policy makers).

RBC was there too, talking to another group that’s on the front lines of diversity and inclusion: Canadian employers. If that strikes you as odd, consider that for many of us, how we are treated at work could ultimately determine whether we consider our society truly inclusive. The workplace is where we spend many of our waking hours, where we interact with the broader community, and where life-changing opportunities are extended (or not) in return for our time, effort and talents.

What we learned: Canadian firms get diversity. They hire for it, and they measure it. Inclusion is a different matter. That’s partly because, as Charlie Foran, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (which puts on the 6 Degrees conference) put it, “so much of inclusion is not intuitive.” But it is a measure of how a community—and by extension, a business—is functioning, he said. In a forum on fostering inclusive workplaces, we asked some organizations that seem to be getting it right what they mean when they talk about inclusion.

It Takes Commitment

Canadian firms admit it—baking diversity and inclusion into an organization’s culture is hard work. For many, it begins with appointing senior leaders to positions that deal with diversity issues. Our forum participants—EY, Maple Leaf Foods, Humber River Hospital—have done it. So have most of the 64 large employers we surveyed as part of a joint RBC-ICC study we conducted over the summer. It also means implementing initiatives—affinity groups, talent-development pipelines, and so on—that promote or support employees with differing perspectives. It also means being open to recognizing where you fall short, and trying to course-correct.

Joe Gorman, Humber River’s Director of Ethics and Community Relations, talked about his hospital’s initial disconnection to the area it serves: one that scores low on numerous measures of income, education and well-being. Humber River is state-of-the-art, but for many local residents it was the “Castle on a Hill,” remote and inaccessible. That led the hospital’s leaders to ask: was the hospital there to deliver healthcare, or more? Humber River decided to make people it serves a core part of every major decision it makes, asking community members what they needed and inviting them to sit on patient-care councils. The results: changes in patient transportation, adding language capabilities, to name a few.

It Takes Dialogue

For many, diversity and inclusion are visceral issues, and it’s hard to check feelings about them at the office door. Sadaf Parvaiz, Director of EY’s Americas Inclusiveness Office, said EY has made inclusion a core workplace value for years. But recently, it has become more sensitive to how events outside the workplace—such as incidents of racialized violence—are affecting employees. The firm has held town-hall-style conversations at which employees can talk about these issues—for instance, after a deadly shooting at an Orlando nightclub. To assist the firm’s partners, who typically lead these discussions, EY provides a “talk track,” or a way to guide the conversation. The point isn’t to solve these problems, she noted, but to underscore that EY understands the stress such incidents can cause.

It Takes Investment

EY’s Parvaiz said employees who required a space to pray often faced questions from colleagues about why they were disappearing for brief periods of time. The firm’s solution: installing quiet rooms in each of its offices, for prayer or reflection. She said EY started doing this more than a decade ago, and gets queries from other employers who still see it as a cutting-edge solution. Our survey uncovered many other examples of firms investing in diversity and inclusion—everything from recruitment initiatives to equipment that fits women.

Actions Bear Fruit

Luka Amona, who’s Director of Human Resources at Maple Leaf, said the food company thinks a lot about how diversity and inclusion can help it fulfill its core mission: feeding Canada, and increasing food security for all Canadians. He credits the company’s listening to employees for its foray into Halal products, which served a customer need it wasn’t previously meeting. That was just one example of how inclusion can be part of a firm’s core strategy, and drive new business while also making employees feel valued.

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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