Over the past 12 years, Dalhousie University’s Custodial Services has seen a significant increase in the overall diversity of its workforce. In that time, the team has shifted from approximately 20 percent international workers to well over 50 percent, largely thanks to Michael Campbell and the partnership he and his team have formed with ISANS. “Having a diversified workforce – it’s phenomenal,” says Michael. “You get a very eclectic, very knowledgeable staff.”
Since 2014, ISANS’ Intercultural Workplace Program (IWP) has engaged Dalhousie Custodial Services with various virtual and in-person workshops, discussion sessions, and consultation support. IWP aims to help Nova Scotian employers understand the benefits of hiring international talent and the importance of immigrant experience in the workplace.
Dalhousie’s Custodial Services is an essential team at the school that oversees the upkeep of a little over 6 million cleanable square feet between the university’s three campuses in Halifax and Truro. Michael is the manager of custodial services, overseeing seven supervisors, 11 general foremen, and roughly 230 full-time staff.
Initially, Michael reached out to ISANS to find people that could become long-term employees. Then the partnership evolved into a language program in which new immigrant employees received training onsite. But with every new employee they hired from around the world, cultural differences among staff became pronounced.
Michael and his team realized they needed a way to bridge cultural gaps to help their staff understand that differences should be celebrated and met with respect, so they took a leap of faith with the help of ISANS’ Intercultural Workplace Program. “We started sharing stories and sharing ideas, and talking about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and had this kind of open forum,” says Michael.
ISANS Intercultural Workplace Program has helped Dalhousie’s Custodial Services team in many ways, but Michael recalls the staff’s lunch break as a good example. Canadian-born and immigrant employees were spending their time in separate lunchrooms because, as Michael discovered, Canadian-born employees were uncomfortable with the practice of eating with one’s hands, which is commonplace in many global countries.
It was only through the kind of open and honest conversation IWP teaches that the two groups came to understand each other. Newcomers on the team learned about Canadian social norms, and Canadian-born team members learned about new culture(s). “I think sometimes people are so fearful of having these conversations that they avoid them,” Michael explains. “And the one thing is, once we just opened it up, people became more comfortable. It was easier having those difficult conversations.”
Jade Wang, who immigrated to Canada from China, has worked as a custodian for the Dalhousie Custodial Services since 2017. “Early when I started here, some things really shocked me – so different from my country. Here they focus on the teamwork and how to help each other.” Wang has learned a lot about Canadian ways and, like her colleagues, has had the importance of respecting other people’s cultures ingrained into her work thanks to the help of ISANS’ Intercultural Workplace Program.
For those considering implementing the program in their own organizations, Michael admits it is hard work, and there might be obstacles along the way. But at the same time, he emphasizes that, through the program, employers are able to help people find work, educate staff, and create a team of loyal employees.
“It takes a lot of effort, but it’s worthwhile,” says Michael.