Fostering workplace diversity

9 best practices for developing a more inclusive workforce

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Back in the late 20th century, businesses thought of diversity in terms of quotas and goals. In the still emerging 21st century, they are beginning to think more broadly about the business benefits and necessity of both diversity and its sometimes forgotten companion — inclusion.

Whereas quotas focus on punishment for not reaching numerical goals, the new thinking focuses on the business benefits and rewards of diversifying your workforce and developing more inclusive corporate cultures.

Marketing expert Nigel Dessau is the author of Become a 21st Century Executive: Breaking Away from the Pack, which contains a chapter on diversity and inclusion. He says diversity is really about two things: reflecting your customer base and improving your business operation.

“Having a diverse workforce is best achieved by looking like where you live or where you do business,” Dessau explains. “If you live in a certain area or you reach a certain market, your workforce should look like that market. Your mix of ages and races and religions and colors and creeds should look like your market because you want to understand your market.”

A diverse workforce is something that a diverse collection of customers picks up on and is likely to reward, and it can completely change the way you go about your business. Dessau used the example of a health club where the tendency might be to hire young, fit, and attractive people to encourage other young, fit, attractive people to patronize the business. The reality, however, is that one of the biggest markets for such a club could be retiring baby boomers who prefer to join a health club with a diverse mix of members.

“By hiring some people who look more like the rest of the population in your area, by age or by color or by creed, you’re more likely to have them think about things that make sense to their generation or their race or their group,” Dessau notes. “That might encourage new business.”

In Dane County’s increasingly tight labor market, diversity and inclusion are becoming a business necessity, according to Thomas Osting, director of human resources for Environment Control of Wisconsin. After experiencing a growth spurt, Osting says the company is going through a rebuild of its diversity efforts and has hired a bilingual (Spanish and English) recruiter.

The company believes an improved diversity program can be a differentiator in terms of recruiting and retention. “There was a time when I started 24 years ago when about 40% of our company was under 20 years old and that number has dropped dramatically,” Osting says. “We are looking to get a better mix.”

To help your organization “mix it up,” we interviewed several diversity experts on how they diversify their workforces and they offered the following nine best practices tips.

Best practice #1:

Don’t delegate everything to HR

Since diversity and inclusion must be viewed as a long-term, constantly evolving initiative, it must be directed and supported from the top, not delegated to a department like human resources. Unless HR is very powerful within an organization, Dessau believes its only tool is to set quotas; in contrast, organizations that make diversity a line-management practice tend to be more successful because a quality management team understands and appreciates the value of having a diverse workforce.

In so doing, “D&I” becomes a strategic goal. According to Angela Russell, manager of diversity and inclusion for CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, incorporating diversity and inclusion as parts of your corporate strategy is important because that means they have high-level support. She notes that one of the first things CEO Robert Trunzo did when he took over in January 2014 was add D&I as one of CUNA’s corporate values. “That sent a very, very strong message,” Russell states. “He wanted to make sure that CUNA Mutual is a place where all employees can contribute, advance, and build value, and we have that not only with Bob Trunzo but also his executive team.”

Rather than farm it out to his department (HR) and perhaps create a divide, Osting says Environment Control of Wisconsin will have its recruiters work hand-in-hand with operations managers in order to “feel their pain” and add that level of motivation to the recruiting process.

Dr. Ruben Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, suggests that numerical goals have a place in holding members of the executive suite accountable for diversity. “If companies are seriously trying to diversify their workforce and they really want to make it happen, the leadership at the top has to be committed to making it happen,” he states. “When the president of that organization says we want a diversified workforce and they hold different divisions or different parts of their organizations accountable, with a metric (for diversity), they can make it happen.”

Executive leadership is important but so is embedding diversity throughout. Even though Russell and a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultant are the primary diversity staff people at CUNA, people throughout the organization are making it work. A D&I Council, comprised of executive leaders, sets the tone and the agenda for diversity and inclusion, and they take it back to their business units to infuse it and embed it throughout the company.

In addition, a D&I Employee Advisory Committee, which is more of a grassroots group, “bubbles up” ideas for consideration. “You’ve got a D&I Council pushing things down and the Employee Advisory Committee pushing things up,” Russell notes. “I call that the big squeeze in terms of cultural change.”

Best practice #2:

Revamp recruiting

If you always recruit from the same place, you’re always going to hire the same kinds of people. Whether it’s trusted employment agencies or a LinkedIn network or the same colleges or universities, companies define their workforces by where they find employees. They need to broaden their horizons by taking stock of the demographics of the communities they operate in and diversifying their recruiting accordingly.

This means broadening the publications where company job openings are posted, expanding advertising markets, and having each employee diversify their social and professional networks. “Don’t always think the same way; otherwise you end up with the same type of people,” Dessau advises. “The number one thing that organizations can do [to diversify] is change the way they recruit.”

To recruit employees ranging in age from high school students to retirees, Environment Control of Wisconsin is going into high schools, many of which have students from a mix of cultures, and it’s reaching out to churches of all denominations because religious leaders are looking to help members of their congregation find employment. That includes people who have made a move and are willing to take a “transitional” job to start their local careers. “It’s really just being more proactive with our recruiting and going out and finding people rather than putting up advertisements and postings online and on job boards and waiting for people to find us,” Osting says.

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Best practice #3:

Face facts

In the process of building staff capacity and training staff to operate in a diverse environment, employees must be “willing to be vulnerable and humble about going into this space,” Russell notes. “Sometimes there is a tendency for people to say, ‘I know about diversity because I have this friend who is a fill-in-the-blank,’ and that’s not what diversity is all about. It’s about much more than that, so there must be a humbleness and a willingness to learn.”

One of the things people need to know is how subtle, even unconscious biases enter into their thinking at various decision points in the recruiting process. Part of CUNA Mutual Group’s diversity program will involve developing steps to mitigate bias. “We have had three sessions doing a deep dive on that,” Russell says, “and we’re developing recommendations from those sessions.”

To evaluate personal biases, Russell recommends taking Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test. The free, online test can help uncover your biases regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status. It’s not necessarily easy for someone to acknowledge implicit bias, but once the implicit becomes explicit, “you’re able to make better decisions,” Russell says. “If you don’t acknowledge it, you can’t work on it.”

Another safeguard against bias is diversifying the panels that consider job candidates. “It’s always good to have a diversified panel when you interview people because a lot of times people might come in and present strong credentials but there are inputs and biases operating on those different panels,” Anthony notes. “One way to get away from those inputs and biases is to be sure that you have diversified panels with women and minorities and people of different ages to make sure you have different perspectives.”

Best practice #4:

Collaborate collectively

Another key best practice is collaboration and alignment with other efforts because many organizations are trying to raise their diversity game. CUNA Mutual Group is a member of the Madison Area Diversity Roundtable, a group of organizations that meets monthly to network on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their workplaces, and YWCA Madison, which works to promote racial equity and develop women leaders. Russell says 35 CUNA Mutual employees have gone through the YWCA’s racial justice training, and several came away believing it was the best training they ever received.

According to Jim St. Vincent, vice president of human resources for American Family Insurance, it’s important to engage other organizations that have had success — not to copy but to adapt. “I can find out what others in our community and nationally are doing and just really understand the global marketplace that we operate in,” he says. “If we don’t diversify our talents, we’re missing out on a lot of great talent that’s available to us.”

Best practice #5:

Establish ERGs

Another way to produce ideas is to form employee resource groups of like-minded champions who promote inclusion. CUNA Mutual Group has such groups for veterans, Asian Americans, Latinos, African Americans, young professionals, and women in leadership. Sometimes the connections can stir emotions, as Russell discovered recently when attending a meeting of the African-American ERG. “There were a couple of women who were nearly in tears because they have been here for 20 years and they didn’t know the other African-Americans who worked here,” she recounts. “Being able to create those communities of connectedness, where you feel you’re not alone, has been really incredible.”

Jamie Suchomel, sales consultant and co-lead of American Family’s ONE Family business resource group for LGBT employees, says group members are energized by their task and understand that creating an inclusive environment is a constantly evolving process.

“We’re always working on new things,” she says. “We have a mixture of things that are evolving and some that will take a little bit more time when it comes to our D&I training strategy. As new things come up with our research, it’s really important for us to stay alert to the challenges we might face.”

It’s also much more fulfilling, she notes, to work with an organization that places such a strong emphasis on diversity. “It’s got to be a business driver for us,” Suchomel notes, “because people in the LGBT community will want to do business with any company that takes diversity so seriously.”

Best practice #6:

Be direct with skeptics

There are bound to be employees who are uncomfortable with diversity concepts, but organizations can bring them on board with education and directness. St. Vincent has no illusions that every employee at American Family agrees with its approach to diversity and inclusion, and they have to be dealt with straight on. They should not be addressed in a punitive way, but take the high road in a “teachable moment” way. “You just have to be direct and talk about why,” he explains. “Get back to people that say, ‘Well, that’s fine if you want to be that way and if you choose to be that way, but be that way outside of work’ and explain that’s what people were saying in the 1950s about African-Americans. That’s what people were saying in the 1970s about Hispanic people. It goes back to doing the right thing from a human rights standpoint.”

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Best practice #7:

Practice patience

Making diversity, equity, and inclusion a long-term commitment is practical for several reasons. First, the lack of diversity did not happen overnight and successfully addressing it does not happen quickly. “What happens with a lot with these types of initiatives is that they become the flavor of the day,” Russell states. “If you are only doing it because it’s the trendy thing to do, you are not going to do it right and it’s not going to be sustainable.”

To treat diversity and inclusion as a “one-off” project that has a clear beginning and end, when in fact it should be an ongoing process, is a mistake too many organizations make. “The long-term commitment is important because this is going to take beyond three to five years,” Russell states. “It’s going to take a long time and that’s good. We’re trying to weave diversity, equity, and inclusion into the fabric of who we are as a company.”

Best practice #8:

Recognize results

American Family Insurance and CUNA Mutual Group have been recognized by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation as the best local workplaces for LGBT equality. American Family earned a perfect score in the Foundation’s 2016 Corporate Equality Index. Those “wins” were proudly shared in company communications.

Russell believes organizations should recognize mistakes in the process of learning. “It’s also important that we recognize when we mess up because we’re going to mess up,” she states. “That’s the way that the world works so when we fall, acknowledge when we fall down and then get up and keep going after it.”

Best practice #9:

Don’t rest on laurels

Remember that diversity and inclusion, especially the latter point, is a constant churn. You can have all the current policies and practices in place, but if employees with same-sex partners come to work and can’t talk about their lives, it’s still not an inclusive workforce.

With 1,000 employees and more than 3,000 agents, St. Vincent realizes that not every American Family employee can be themselves at work just yet. So even though the company’s diversity program has received national recognition, and was once picketed for being among the first to offer domestic partner benefits, it remains a work in progress. “Frankly, we spend too much time at work to not be able to be ourselves, not to talk about your family, your activities, and your friends,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do to make sure people feel safe and feel comfortable being themselves at work.”

On the surface, Madison would strike many as a community that’s more willing to embrace diversity and inclusion, but the reality is there’s a long way to go and the business community can help close the gap if companies are willing to be transformed. “If you look at some of the conversations going on in Madison around racial equity, diversity, and inclusion, a lot of times it’s government and nonprofits at the table and not business,” Russell notes. “Business has a role to play in those conversations, as well.”

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Surveying a diverse landscape

MadREP, the Madison Region Economic Partnership, has surveyed south-central Wisconsin employers on diversity as part of its Advance Now strategy, and the results show there is much work to do on the diversity front.

The good news is that 75% of respondents offer domestic partner benefits; the disappointing news is that 56% do not have a written diversity statement, which is considered the first step in making progress.

While the findings confirm what MadREP President Paul Jadin and Gene Dalhoff, vice president of talent and education, already knew, it also provides a benchmark to measure future progress.

Dalhoff notes opportunities to make progress exist in the area of supplier diversification, especially when incorporating more minority-owned businesses into supplier chains. With respect to people of color, Jadin adds they represent better bench strength for local business boards.

Asked whether area businesses understand the full panorama of benefits that come from diversifying their workforce, Jadin says he doesn’t believe they do. He adds that while MadREP is sympathetic to the social justice ramifications of diversity, the organization sees it as more of an economic development issue.

“Diverse companies, nonprofits, and governments have proven to be more successful because they bring not just diversity of color and ethnicity, but the diversity of thought and creativity,” he says.

Dalhoff believes the companies that emphasize diversity simply recognize changing demographics. “The fact is, our society and our population in the state and the region is becoming more diverse than it’s ever been,” he says. “Businesses that recognize that and capitalize on that will be in a better position to profit. Those that remain in the business-as-usual position will suffer as a consequence.”

Resource allocation

Businesses looking for diversity resources need look no further than the Latino Professionals Association, the arm of the Latino Chamber that works on career issues, and the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Tania Ibarra, the LPA’s new president, wants to make it easier for area companies to find and retain Latino talent, especially those who aspire to upper-level positions. To make those connections more broadly with people of color, the LPA and the Urban League of Greater Madison Young Professionals have established a Talent Connections Career Coaching Program to bring local employers together with professionals of Latino and African-American descent.

The pilot program kicks off with its first career-building workshop this month and the workshops continue throughout the year. Initially, there will be no more than 15 participants who will receive a communications assessment, a strength-and-skills analysis, an individual development plan, and business acumen and networking opportunities.

Since not all organizations have the resources to develop such programs, the LPA and the Urban League will provide the training to career coaches on the difference between coaching a Latino or African-American professional versus coaching a non-Latino or non-African-American professional.

“We want to bring to the table that there are different ways to motivate, manage, and lead these workers,” Ibarra says. “It’s no different than adjusting your managerial style when you have different generations.”

Dr. Ruben Anthony, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, notes the organization often is called in to talk to businesses about how they can diversify their workforce. The Urban League’s job-training programs touch areas such as customer service, information technology, and health care, and are designed to create a ready, willing, and able workforce that it can connect employers with. “We have a pipeline of people who we have trained, usually from diverse communities, who are ready to be placed,” Anthony says.

The Urban League also presents featured employer seminars for organizations looking to diversify their workforces. “Exact Sciences has come here,” he says, “and so have other companies that really want to have access to a diverse pool of people.”

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