Helping businesses achieve workplace equality
2007-05-31 15:38:20 -
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In the latest instalment of Metro Eireann’s Meet The Boss, SANDY HAZEL speaks to Dil Wickremasinghe, founder of Diversity and Equality Works

Dil Wickremasing-he’s parents are Sri Lankan, but she was born and brought up in Italy. “My mother moved to Italy with her first husband when he took a UN position in Rome. My first language is Italian. I am at the moment applying for citizenship in Ireland.”

So why did Wickremasinghe choose to settle in Ireland, seven years ago? “I was working in the Middle East and I fell in love with an Irish citizen. We decided to come back to Ireland. I am more accustomed to living in Europe rather than Asia so it was okay for me to make that move. I am not exactly an economic immigrant; I suppose I would be a romantic immigrant.”

Initially, Wickremasinghe studied. “I enrolled at the National College of Ireland to study Human Resources,” she says. “While I was at college I worked for a recruitment agency, Three Q Catering, for finance and for experience. When my studies finished the agency offered me a fulltime contract. I have done all the jobs possible. I started at reception and worked my way through to recruitment consultant responsible for eighty temporary staff. I also devised and delivered in-house training around many themes, including induction and health and safety.”

Last year Wickremasinghe decided to step down from her job as temp manager, taking on a part-time role as business development manager with the agency. Wickremasinghe’s reasons were clear: “Over the years working in Ireland and dealing with so many organisations and companies, both public and private, I realised that most of the personnel we were placing were immigrants. They would tell me about issues they had around integration into the workforce. I heard many cases where employers just did not care about integration. The employees felt they were working full-time yet were not ‘part of the team’. It was a problem and I felt well placed to help rectify it.”

Wickremasinghe saw problems arising in the healthcare industry in particular. “Many workers in healthcare are immigrants and yet there was no policy of positive integration, no awareness or highlighting of issues and concerns,” she explains. “You could go into a hospital and not even see a single poster on a wall indicating awareness of a multinational workforce. Not a peep about diversity in the workplace.”

This gave Wickremasinghe the idea of promoting diversity through training and giving workforces the language to confront even their own prejudices. “During some of our training days I see people come in and I can read their minds,” she says. “They are thinking ‘Not another training day, I’m not prejudiced.' Then, as the day progresses you can see the change as they realise that maybe they do have some prejudice. We give them tools and vocabulary to help them recognise and deal with these feelings.”

While ‘diversity training’ seems to be a buzzword at the moment, Wickremasinghe still feels that there is plenty of room for improvement and that more companies should avail of the service.

“This is not just about making people feel good about themselves and others; it can seriously affect the bottom line of a company,” she notes. “When there is friction, productivity suffers. Profits are affected when there is hostility or issues not being dealt with. Often, managers just do not know how to handle a small situation. Then it escalates and becomes a big situation, it can end up in the Labour Court.”

There is a huge need for this type of training, according to Wickremasinghe: “Organisa-tions will think nothing of sending their staff on training days for sales or team building or marketing. Yet 10 per cent of the workforce here are immigrants. Many of those are unhappy and feel excluded.”

There are other trainers offering diversity training, but Wickremasinghe feels that her company, Diversity and Equality Works, has an advantage – she has had first-hand experience as an immigrant herself. “I recognise the obstacles that are faced daily by some immigrants in the workforce,” she says.

The target market for Diversity and Equality Works is mainly private companies. Wickremasinghe spent many months during her start up period knocking on doors and calling contacts.

“Hustling for business is part of running your own business, no matter what you are selling,” she says. “Small to medium-sized businesses will benefit most from my training; bigger companies already have induction and various training. Employees spend nearly 40 hours a week in each others’ company; companies cannot afford to ignore diversity, cultural mediation and conflict management.”
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