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Chief Human Resources Officer, RBC Financial Group

By: Carolyn Patricia Grisold

Zabeen Hirji is passionate about making efficient use of our human resources. Born in Tanzania, Hirji immigrated to Canada at the age of 14. Under the strong female influence of her widowed East Indian mother, Hirji grew up with a take-charge approach to breaking down barriers.

After joining RBC in 1977, Hirji pursued her MBA at Simon Fraser University, and held progressively senior roles in Retail Banking, Operations and Credit Cards. Prior to joining Human Resources in 1997, Hirji was regional manager, Credit Card Operations for Central Canada.

Appointed senior vice president, Human Resources, in 2001, her responsibilities expanded to support RBC’s growth and business strategies.

Hirji reached her current role as chief human resources officer in 2007. In this position she is responsible for human resources as well as brand, communications and corporate citizenship on a global scale.

As a member of RBC Group Executive, she manages over 10 direct reports, contributes to organizational growth, and is one of nine executives responsible for setting the overall strategic direction of RBC. A believer in acknowledging and mentoring strong candidates early in their career, Hirji seeks to fill corporate roles with the best person for the job, no matter their sex, ethnicity or any other perceived “barrier.”

Canada is widely regarded as a country whose people reflect the world’s cultures. Our human resource pool is talented, highly educated, multilingual and connected. Our communities are respected for encouraging a mosaic rather than a melting pot of identities.

While other Western countries cut back on immigration during the recession, the Canadian government kept legal immigration levels high, and in 2010 Canada attracted the highest number of immigrants in 50 years. However, failing to recognize the qualifications and experience of our immigrant population costs the Canadian economy between $3.42 to $4.97 billion per year. There is both a social and economic motivation for inclusion.

Diversity and inclusivity are central to RBC’s success, and in the last few years since Hirji became chief human resources officer, RBC has had a Diversity Leadership Council, chaired by the CEO with membership from senior leaders all across their North American businesses. Within RBC in Canada, almost 40% of the executives are women, over half of all management positions are held by women, and 27% percent of management positions are held by visible minorities.

RBC was honoured with the 2010 Catalyst Award for Diversity because of its innovative organizational approach to increasing the representation of women and visible minorities and other diverse groups at the management level. Both Hirji and her employer know that having a diverse workforce and leadership enriches the organization and the community as a whole. Hirji is constantly interviewed as an expert on diversity – such as by Matt Galloway on Metro Morning this past February – because of the actions RBC is taking but also because of Hirji’s work, outside of the office.

Chief human resources officer Zabeen Hirji’s community leadership and advocacy for inclusion extends beyond her role at RBC – although clearly she and her employer have similar values in this regard – and she currently serves on three boards, as co-chair of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council (TRIEC), director of the Mosaic Institute and member of the DiverseCity Steering Committee, an initiative of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance.

Accrediting her mother and grandmother for her sense of confidence and focus on achieving her dreams, Hirji has said these influential women taught her by example to include a spirit of compassion as she strives for success.

As vice-chair of The Campaign for Women’s College Hospital, Hirji is able to contribute to another cause that is near and dear to her: women’s advancement. At the inaugural Women for Women’s Annual Luncheon in October 2011 in Toronto, the Campaign raised funds for the Women’s College Hospital’s new, state-of-the-art health care facility Inspired by the hospital’s rich history, Hirji is part of a group of strong and passionate leaders in business and our community that are shaping the future of women’s health.

In 2005 Hirji was named a Fellow of Centennial College in recognition of her international leadership in diversity, highlighting her leadership in building cultural competency and championing the advancement of women, visible minorities and new immigrants.

Hirji was also named Corporate Executive of the Year by the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce in 2010.

Zabeen Hirji stands behind the business case for inclusion – that women and newcomers to Canada are a large and under-utilized source of human resources, and one that plays an integral role in Canada’s future economic growth.

According to RBC Financial Group’s “The Diversity Advantage: a Case for Canada’s 21st Century Economy,” there could be 400,000 more people employed in Canada if immigrants had the same likelihood of employment at the same average income as people born here. If we achieved identical labour market outcomes for men and women regardless of their birthplace, that figure would rise to 1.3 million. And personal income would rise for Canadians as a whole by 21 percent.

Clearly, being able to fully and effectively incorporate inclusion into human resource strategies, as Hirji does, is a pressing issue in today’s economy.

So much so that the Ontario Liberal Party used this clout in their recent provincial election campaign. Controversial to some, a small step to bridge the existing gap to others, McGuinty promised a one-time 10% wage subsidy to entice businesses to hire and train skilled immigrants. Connecting the dots between newcomers and the economy may seem obvious for large, top-level corporations like RBC, but inclusivity has its rewards in small business as well. Local employment councils like TRIEC, which Hirji co-chairs, aid in the integration of immigrant populations into the workforce.

Being able to empathize with the multicultural citizens she seeks to empower has enabled Hirji to live and breathe her role as a proponent of diversity in the workplace.

Promoted within the last year, Zabeen Hirji demonstrates the success that can be achieved by a determined woman, or a man, who comes to Canada for a better life. Remembering the wisdom imparted by her own mother and grandmother, Hirji pays her success forward by contributing to the growth of those who follow in her footsteps. Like her daughter Aliya, who has been volunteering since the age of 9.

Hirji is no doubt as great an influence in her daughter’s life as her foremothers have been in hers.