Diverse Perspectives, Unified Goals: Embracing Diversity in the Workplace

BY Mary Pieper | February 06, 2024

Kristin Taylor, executive vice president of workforce solutions at Avenica, knows what it is like to have an identity that is often misunderstood.

During From Day One’s conference in Atlanta, Taylor shared that she is bipolar. “That does not mean that I’m unpredictable,” she told panel moderator Ernie Suggs, race and culture reporter for the Atlantic Journal-Constitution. “I just get really sad sometimes, and I struggle with things like public speaking and networking.”

At Avenica, Taylor feels supported. For example, if things are too much for her while attending a conference, she can always ask a colleague at the event to step in for a bit, she says. “How fabulous is it that we can all be our authentic selves, and really feel like we can articulate our needs and our preferences?” Taylor said. “We are really welcoming that conversation [around] diversity of thought but also diversity of preference.”

Taylor’s story illustrates why it isn’t enough for companies to simply invite people of color, women, and others who traditionally have not been part of the dominant culture to join their team.

The executive panelists discussed the topic “How to Embrace Diversity of All Kinds in the Workplace” at From Day One's Atlanta conference at the Georgia Aquarium (photos by Dustin Chambers for From Day One)

Karlene Gordon, senior vice president and diversity and inclusion officer at Ameris Bank, said she once heard Creative Artists Agency global DEI speaker Nzinga Shaw say at a conference: “If you’re inviting people into a dirty house, they’re not going to stay.”

“If you go to someone’s house and it’s filthy, do you sit down? Do you take a glass of water from them? Or are you trying to find your exit real quick?” Gordon said.

Many people of color already have imposter syndrome, says Gordon. If the leader of the company that hires them is unaware of this common issue, “they’re not going to perform.”

Kitty Chaney-Reed, chief leadership, culture and inclusion officer at IBM said the company has eight communities for employees with various identities, including veterans and neurodivergent folks.

“It helps in terms of giving people a place to fit in,” she said. “And there’s intersectionality. People can belong to more than one community. For us, that has been a huge game changer.”

IBM also ensures that a college degree is not a necessity for entry, says Chaney-Reed. Over the past three years, only 50% of the available jobs with the company required applicants to be university graduates.

Making the Case for DEI

The highest performing organizations worldwide are those that focus on building a strong culture based on diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies, according to a recent partnered study between Fortune magazine and the Institute for Corporate Productivity.

Liz Pittinger, VP of customer success at Stork Club, a family building and reproductive health company that helps employee groups design benefit packages, says that’s something she emphasizes when working with HR leaders.

“One of the things that we do whenever we’re partnering with our customers or prospects is help arm their teams with the data points they need to go in front of the decision maker who controls the budget,” she said.

Part of Pittinger’s job is to explain why Stork Club has certain benefits, like its doula program, and how they can impact company culture. Research shows that having a doula in the room with the person who is in labor can save lives.

This is especially crucial for women of color, who have a far greater maternal mortality rate in the United States than their white peers, says Pittinger.  “A wealthy, highly educated Black woman with access to great care is still three times more likely to die than a poor white woman in a rural community,” she said.

Getting to Know the Workforce

An important step toward fostering a workplace that embraces diversity of all kinds is to build relationships with the employees, says Cheryl Kern, vice president of DEIB at MillerKnoll.

“As I came into our organization three years ago, the first thing that I wanted to do was understand our people, because through understanding you truly get to know the culture and identify the areas that need to be transformed,” she said.

Another advantage of this approach is “when people see you are about them, they will care about the work you’re doing,” Kern said.

Now that DEI efforts nationwide are experiencing pushback, Kern’s relationship-building efforts are paying off. “While the external waters are really choppy, we have brought along advocates and allies that have said, ‘I’m on this journey with you,’” she said.

Mary Pieper is a freelancer reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.


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Well-Being at Work: Creating a Culture That Truly Cares

“The role of the employer is expanding,” said Matt Legere, the SVP of employee benefits consulting at brokerage firm Brown & Brown Insurance. “You have to be relevant to what employees are talking about and what they’re stressed out about at their kitchen table. Are you as an employer offering something that’s relevant in those moments?”At From Day One’s Manhattan conference on building a culture for workers and companies to thrive in times of change, Legere and his colleagues in employee wellness gathered to discuss how employers can use company culture to demonstrate their commitment to well-being. Crucial to success, the group agreed, are making well-being a centerpiece, respecting individual boundaries, and localizing policies and benefits to the people who use them.Make Well-Being an Ordinary Topic of Conversation“We’re humans, we’re all at work, and we’re here to be productive, of course, but our humanity doesn’t leave us just because we get to our desk,” said Morgan Bass Roper, director of inclusion and belonging at financial services firm BNY Mellon.Leaders must set this example openly and consistently. Some companies are making mental health and personal wellness a centerpiece for discussion, hoping to make it an ordinary part of the employee experience. BNY Mellon invited Maeve Duvally, author of Maeve Rising: Coming Out Trans in Corporate America, for a fireside chat with the company’s corporate affairs chief.“They had a conversation around authenticity in the workplace, allyship in the workplace, and about the coming-out journey. But in particular, they talked about Maeve’s mental health journey and how the resources and the allyship she received allowed her to feel comfortable to come out at work,” Bass Roper said. “Bringing Maeve to our company–a financial services company that’s been around for over 200 years–sends a message to folks who were listening to that, that ‘Maybe I can feel comfortable sharing a little bit more of myself and my journey, because it’s being put on this big stage at work.”Set the Example for Work-Life BalanceNobody but you can draw the line for world-life balance, says Chuck Abramo, the VP of human resources at hospitality company Delaware North. “Make sure you understand where your boundary is, both on the professional side and the personal side. Be able to say, ‘This is where I need to close the laptop today.’” It’s imperative that leaders do this in full view of their teams.Abramo says that he might prefer working late at night, which some might perceive as an imbalance. However, this approach enables him to work more flexibly. “I think that flexibility, and knowing that I can do that without somebody looking at me sideways, is incredibly important. Creating that culture is key. You could never put a dollar amount on it, I could never get X amount of comp at a different organization to replace that flexibility.”In conversation moderated by Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, the speakers discussed the topic "Does Your Company Genuinely Care About Well-Being? How to Show It Through Your Culture"Alyson Watson, founder and CEO of employee healthcare platform Modern Health, sets aside time in the work day for therapy and coaching sessions, and every evening carves out an extra hour or so to spend with her son–absolutely no work interruptions allowed.Everyone will balance the portions of their life differently, and the balance will certainly shift over time. For Watson, whose position puts her on call at all hours, wellness and high-performance are not mutually exclusive. “A lot of life is sacrifice. There may be moments in my life where I need to prioritize my family, and maybe the way I show up at work slips a little bit. Sometimes it’s the opposite, and I’m really focused on work because we’re raising around a funding or we’re launching a big new client,” she said. “I think there’s a world where we can do both: We can take care of ourselves, prioritize our mental health, prioritize our physical health, and support people to reach their potential.”Localizing Well-Being for All WorkersJust as work-life balance is best judged by the individual, so are the benefits workers use to achieve that equilibrium. That’s why HR leaders must commit to soliciting employee feedback and taking advice with an open mind. “We don’t know what they need until we ask them,” said Legere.He’s become quite keen on localizing wellness benefits and policies too. “You can look at your plan from a wellness perspective, physical, emotional, financial, and social,” Legere said. “But you can’t apply broad-based philosophies to every single location.”Legere pays close attention to communication and language. There’s little value in providing benefits and policy information to a predominantly Spanish-speaking workforce only in English, for instance. “Do they feel valued if we can’t communicate something that’s really complex in a way that they can understand?”In order for everyone to uphold a culture of well-being, and reinforce it consistently, Abramo says it begins as soon as workers walk in the door. “As HR leaders, we have defined it in our values so that we can tell people as we’re bringing them on board, so that we can take this to the other side and say, ‘Hold people accountable to those values.’”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the Economist, the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | June 21, 2024

Manager Effectiveness: Defining It, Measuring It, and Improving It

Companies frequently promote employees to management positions because of their technical skills but find they need help with leading people.When they were in their previous roles, these individuals thrived because they had the correct answers, says Gretchen Jacobi, SVP and head of enterprise at General Assembly. Jacobi spoke on a panel about “Manager Effectiveness: Defining It, Measuring It, and Improving It” at From Day One’s Chicago conference.Once you’re in a leadership role, “it’s about how you guide your team to find the right answer, as opposed to giving them the right answer,” she told moderator Alex Maragos, anchor and reporter at NBC 5 News. “I think we need to focus on helping managers define the outcome they want from the team rather than telling their team how to achieve the outcome.”Preparing employees to become leaders is the key to their success, says Nicole Poole-McGill, senior VP for talent development for Digitas North America.“I’ve been in positions where we had the opportunity to prepare managers, or we saw that potential and their interest, and then put them in positions to manage people before they became managers,” she said. “It’s so helpful for them to come in just having some of that skill and getting the training so they can apply it as soon as they become managers.”New managers need specialized training in giving feedback and communication styles, says Poole-McGill. She also said one-on-one coaching can help them build relationships with their team and manage their performance. How to Measure Management EffectivenessAn organization’s culture plays a key role in how it measures the effectiveness of its managers, says Steve Holder, VP of solution advisory at Visier.  “Different management skills, different attributes and different measurements are going to be driven by what your organization thinks is important,” he said.Visier builds manager effectiveness scorecards and dashboards that allow people to not only measure their peers, but also understand what they’re doing, says Holder. “The big one that always comes up is retention,” he said. “That’s a really easy one to throw on your management effectiveness card.”Executive panelists discussed manager effectiveness at From Day One's Chicago conference Diversity is a frequently overlooked metric for measuring management effectiveness, says Holder. “We know that diverse teams have better outcomes, productivity and collaboration," he said.Jaison Williams, the senior VP of talent management capabilities and culture for Expedia, says it’s crucial to understand how performance and productivity go hand in hand.“We’ve taken a look at how much we are spending in meetings as an organization,” he said. “We’ve been able to identify that we spend a large amount of time in meetings overall. And then similarly, we have found that people are collaborating and engaging with way too many people.”As a manager, “you are probably role modeling some of that behavior,” Williams said. “But being able to make a concrete change in how and where your team is spending its time using some type of business and organizational data can lead to much stronger manager effectiveness and organizational effectiveness.”Improving Manager EffectivenessThe manager of a team is much like a basketball coach, says Kristy Callahan, who leads the learning and development team at GE Healthcare.“If you figure out how to tap into the strengths of each individual, how do you string that together to make that collective pool stronger?” she said. Every player on a winning basketball team might not be a star, “but together they are bringing out the best in each other.”When there’s one outstanding player on a team, "How do you bring others up?" she said. “What is it that we all bring? We all have our superpowers. How do we tap into that?"Only 31% of managers have experienced formal development for upskilling or reskilling, says Jacobi. “The people who are now reporting to them need to make time for synchronous or asynchronous training opportunities that are going to make them more productive.”Managers must be clear that they are on a learning journey themselves, says Jacobi. “They are role models for the people below them,” she said.Being an effective manager is challenging in a hybrid workplace, says Poole-McGill. When employees were in the office all the time, connections occurred naturally as they gathered around the water cooler and chatted about their lives outside of work.With so many employees working from home at least part of the time, it’s harder to build connections. It’s possible to revive that sense of connection in a hybrid workplace, “but you have to be very intentional about that, and even strategic.”Williams said he finds it easy to connect with his direct reports as a senior leader, but his extended team, which is spread worldwide, is a different matter. Connectivity in the hybrid remote world is all about creativity. His executive assistant developed the concept of ‘Cups and Conversations With Jaison.’ “Once a month, she just blocks out my whole day and asks people on the team to sign up. It’s just a casual conversation about whatever you want,” he said.Mary Pieper is a freelance writer based in Mason City, Iowa.

Mary Pieper | June 20, 2024

Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture

Sometimes it can take live theater to get vulnerable in the workplace. Partnering with Pillsbury House Theatre in the Twin Cities, Mortenson, a leader in the commercial construction, real estate development, and renewable energy industries, helps show employees what’s happening in the organization through different scenes.The theater’s initiative called Breaking Ice included the theater team interviewing members of the Mortenson team. “They learn your language, and they learn your initiatives, and then they actually act it out in front of you,” said Joffrey Wilson vice president of diversity, equity & inclusion at Mortenson. “It’s a way of showing to everyone what's really happening in your organization.The result? It’s been impactful. “It has been a different way to build a sense of what equity it is,” Wilson said. As one of five panelists during a session at From Day One’s conference in Minneapolis, Wilson spoke about creative ways they help break down barriers and develop an inclusive workplace. Brandt Williams of the Minnesota Public Radio moderated.Live theater is only one way Mortenson is actively creating an inclusive culture. They are also branching out and partnering with new sources for recruiting so they can reach a wider audience. They’re also partnering with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Society of Hispanic Professionals, and more to bring in more diverse talent. Ultimately, Wilson added, DEI is never a one-and-done event or training. It’s a state of mind that businesses must adopt and be consistently looking for ways to make their company culture better. Where You Are, Where You’re GoingIn an organization’s quest to cultivate inclusion, the best place to start is taking stock of where you are so you can figure out where you need to go next. That has been the case for Marvin, the century-old manufacturer of premium window and door solutions.“When we say culture, what do we mean? What does that include?” asked panelist Renee Rice, senior director of communications and culture at Marvin. “We did some pretty extensive research to identify not only where our culture was strong, but also where those opportunities were with our culture.”From there, they looked at their five-year business strategy to answer some key questions: “What does our business need from our culture? What does our business need from our people in order to be successful?”From that research and from goal-setting, Marvin has layered the two to create a roadmap that centers on getting employees to think differently and work differently, all in support of that business strategy. This has helped them to define what culture at Marvin is and what they want it to become.The panelists spoke to the topic "Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture" at From Day One's conference in MinneapolisBetter communication is one big one. “When you’re talking about establishing a DEI strategy,” Rice said “when you're talking about modeling certain behaviors, any one of these topics can have the tendency to fall flat unless there is strong communication with your employees about why we're doing this. Specifically, what behaviors do we want to see modeled?”Focusing on inclusion will help companies to retain employees, she added, as will offering coaching and mentoring to help employees develop skills. When they feel a company is investing in them, they feel included, she says. Making Space HumannessPanelist Bethany Kurbis, senior executive coach & consultant at The Bailey Group, shared her unique journey into HR. It began with her work in peaceful conflict resolution in Southern Sudan using the “Theater of the Oppressed.” This experience highlighted the importance of creating space for human messiness and complex, nuanced conversations. Later transitioning into HR, Kurbis found that the best leaders are those who make room for difficult conversations and deeply listen to their employees' motivations and needs. This approach, which she described as creating space for humaneness, has been foundational to her coaching methodology. “What we’re really talking about here is behavior change,” Kurbis said. “And behavior change is slow.” Creating the space for that change is key in helping your team feel included and get to the root of what’s going on at an organization. So, how to facilitate that behavior change?“As HR leaders, you understand how busy your schedules or calendars are,” she said. “Creating that space to have the difficult conversations to seek understanding so that we can build everything we've already heard about is a good starting point.” Employees must feel psychological safety in order to feel inclusion. “The ability to fail in front of people and have it be okay, you can still show up your job, you can still be a part of your team, you can still succeed, learn from that failure,” Kurbis said. Her advice is to help people pause, create space, take a deep breath, and allow humans to be human. Employee Resource GroupsThere are many dimensions of diversity, according to panelist Michelle Anderson, AVP, global learning, development and diversity at AmTrust Financial Services. Which is why employee resource groups help people to feel included.At AmTrust, ERG’s are completely employee led so they can take ownership and have control over where they go with them.“Anyone can come to us and say, ‘we’re interested in creating this group based on this demographic, this ability, this characteristic,’ and then they can work with us to build that,” she said. Being less formal helps employees feel more comfortable in those settings. But the groups also shed light on what her leader calls the “Diversity Wheel.” There is a lot of depth to diversity, and we tend to assume rather than seek to understand. “We bring the diversity wheel together to help people see that even if we might look the same, we’re not the same,” Anderson said. “There are different avenues of diversity. Everybody's experiences are different. So we introduce that and incorporate that in all of the things that we do from a DEI perspective as well.”As a company that has acquired companies to become what it is today, the first priority was to identify what being a leader meant to them. “We started with the middle manager layer and said, ‘as a leader, we want you to be intentional. And what does intentional mean? Intentional for us means you’re curious and aware, it means you are focused on learning more about the individual, helping them with their development, and having a clear vision, and then also being authentic and empathetic.’”Getting very clear on defining these roles has been key, Anderson says. From there they created a leadership development program so they could help new leaders, emerging executives, and everyone in between put their best foot forward for the company while also helping develop a solid company culture.  Integrating Inclusive Leadership into Daily PracticesIt takes practice to get good at anything, and while training and extra meetings about inclusion can be helpful, panelist Siham Adous, senior director, strategic accounts & partnerships at Praxis Labs, emphasized the importance of working it into everyday work.“What we’ve seen to be the most effective strategies to really drive long term impact is understanding that managers are busy,” she said. “These training moments have to be integrated into their talent development moment so that we’re not talking about inclusive leadership as standalone. We’re talking about some of the fundamental foundational skills to just help you do your job better, and ultimately drive higher engaged and higher performing teams.”The challenge then becomes how to create resources for people leaders in the moments that they actually need them in their flow of work, Adous says. It’s all about awareness, but also continual practice. “In the same way that no one here would go to the gym one time and say, I am now fit, you have to go multiple times and really build the muscle of inclusive leadership.”At Praxis Labs, they look at immersive experiences as a way to do that in an effective way. But be sure to take a data-backed approach, and also ask for feedback from your team so you get a true sense of how people feel about their work culture.“We have biannual pulse surveys. We're only an organization of 35, but it's still so critical that we hear everyone's voice and ensure that some of the challenges are addressed in real time. Even taking that data backed approach to what we're doing internally has been huge.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | June 17, 2024