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Binnu Palta Hill can identify which work environments are inclusive through clues that may go unnoticed by others.
“When you walk into a place, you feel the difference,” said Palta Hill, who is assistant dean for diversity and inclusion of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “For example, one of the first things I notice is how open are people about asking questions? I remember one time, at an organization I worked with, a person asked me very quietly almost like a secret, ‘I don’t know if I should be saying African American or Black.’ And I thought, ‘Well just ask the person you’re talking to: Do you want me to refer to you as Black or do you want me to refer to you as African American?’”
Diversity and social justice issues were again thrust into the national spotlight just over a year ago, when the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer ignited demonstrations and unrest in communities across the country, including massive marches in Milwaukee and Madison.
Every corner of society is affected by these issues, including the business realm.
Many companies have been thinking about how to create diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces for some time, even before the events of the past year. Such initiatives are often referred to as D&I (diversity and inclusion), DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) or DE&I for short.
Yasir Kamal, inclusive excellence vice president of Madison-based American Family Insurance, said these efforts are part of the company’s DNA, and their benefits to companies and workers are clear.
“What we know is diverse teams are more productive and innovative in an inclusive environment,” he said. “Our goal is not only to have a diverse workforce that reflects the demographics of our customers, but we want to create an inclusive environment where employees feel like they can be their authentic self, and they can be in a place of belonging.”
But creating such an environment in the workplace requires more than a generic promise by company leaders. Businesses and organizations need to be intentional and honest, say experts on workplace diversity.
Palta Hill’s example of the way people talk is just one quality she looks for. Another is if leaders make themselves visible in a company’s DEI efforts and whether they’re open to feedback. Both are tied to removing fear of making mistakes.
“I think there’s an openness to having real assessments of the company culture, which makes your leadership vulnerable. It makes them examine their own behaviors,” she said. “There’s more openness, however, there’s a lot of fear too. So, I think that’s where, in order to move forward, we have to create safety to make mistakes.”
Another sign that companies are committed to inclusive workplaces is that their DEI efforts are woven into their operational structure.
Green Bay-based Associated Bank started its DEI efforts about 10 years ago and has worked to make those efforts a part of the company identity.
“When we launched this back in 2011 it was very much an HR initiative,” said Angie DeWitt, executive vice president and chief human resources officer. “That’s how these things get started a lot of times. And (what) we’re evolving to, at least within the last year or two, is making it not just an HR initiative. And that’s why we start to see more people within the business lines and the footprint that are involved. I think that’s how we do this. Otherwise, it just feels like HR is pushing this. It really needs to be across the business line.”
Associated has several colleague resource groups, which are made up of Associated employees and focus on specific areas of diversity and inclusion, DeWitt said. The CRGs come together to form a DE&I Council, which is co-led by Associated’s chief executive officer and its director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The company measures its workforce demographics and sets specific goals. DeWitt said 65% of Associated employees are female, nearly 16% are people of color (an improvement since 2011), 1.9% are protected veterans and nearly 12% are people with disabilities.
The goals it set 10 years ago have been raised as Associated meets or exceeds them. For instance, the bank initially set a goal that women make up at least 30% of its senior vice president roles. Last year, it raised the goal to 40%.
American Family, for its part, has an Inclusive Excellence division that is tied to the chief of staff and president and CEO. It also has an Office of Community and Social Impact, which focuses on closing equity gaps in the community and investing in startups.
“When you have your CEO, your president and CEO-elect, your board of directors and your leaders who are committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, you are taking those intentional actions with accountabilities around what this means to the long-term success of our enterprise,” Kamal said. “This is very intentional in a way that we created this multi-year structural and cultural journey on how we want to operate as a company.”
And instead of CRGs, it has business resource groups. The name is different, but the makeup and objectives are similar to that of Associated Bank. American Family started those in the late 2000s, Kamal said. They are led by employees and sponsored by executives and aim to “create space for our people,” he said.
Palta Hill emphasized the inclusion aspect. Without it, a company’s DEI initiative may not be more than looking at worker demographics on paper. This doesn’t work, she said, because diversity alone can cause conflict in the workplace.
“I think where a lot of organizations have a challenge, is they start to just count heads,” she said. “If you just start counting … and you don’t measure inclusion, that becomes problematic. Because even though you’re bringing in diversity, you’re giving them the message either they assimilate or they leave.”
One of the biggest challenges companies face in DEI efforts is that discussions around race and gender have become “super-charged and hard to navigate,” said Bill Korinko, a women’s and gender studies professor at St. Norbert College and director of its Cassandra Voss Center.
The Cassandra Voss Center explores questions of identity and inequality, Korinko said. It also helps businesses, especially those in the Green Bay area, coordinate internal education on issues of diversity and inclusion.
“We try to do work that’s scholarship driven, welcoming, innovative and fun,” he said. “From a content perspective, we tailor it to the specific needs of an organization, but in terms of our methodologic approach to it, we’re always tied to those four core values.”
Associated has put a special emphasis on diverse hiring efforts in the Milwaukee market the past few years, DeWitt said. To achieve those efforts, Associated recruiters work with local colleges and other organizations to build the pipeline of applicants.
“We do look at some of our major metro markets within our footprint, with Milwaukee being one of them, where we’re focused on the diversity makeup in that community, and then we really focus our hiring and recruitment efforts to try to mirror our colleague base to be very close to the demographics in those communities,” she said.
Companies may also consider making their boards of directors more diverse.
Korinko participated in a board diversity working group for the Greater Green Bay Chamber, which created a list of suggestions to help organizations increase board diversity. The suggestions include widening recruitment reach, creating a support network for new board members and establishing opportunities for board skill development, among others.
“At any level of leadership, it’s important that organizations reflect the communities they serve,” Korinko said.
It is also important that colleagues can openly share perspectives, rather than put each other down for having different opinions or making mistakes, Palta Hill said. Scientific research has shown that people respond much better when they can engage and share ideas with others, she said.
“When we engage in curiosity, we know there are chemicals in the brain, like dopamine, that are released,” she said. “That literally makes us feel good. And so, this whole exchange, it’s almost like manipulating our physiology. There’s a lot of evidence that that creates connection. What it does is in exchange, it evokes the person to be more vulnerable, which in turn evokes more empathy. When we’re talking about inclusive cultures we’re talking about compassionate, empathetic cultures.”
Kamal encouraged other companies in and outside of Wisconsin to find ways to cultivate an inclusive work environment.
“At the end of the day, this is not only good for the community, it’s good for our business,” he said. “That’s what we want to look at as a competitive advantage, and I think we’re really doing a great job in positioning our employees to continue to thrive and bring our authentic self to work.”