Connex Staff |

Some organizations are losing steam on their DEIA initiatives, negatively impacting both business performance and the employee experience. The same can’t be said for the Connex Community thought leaders successfully folding DEIA principles into the very frameworks of their enterprises.

Our Think Tank sessions on the subject are some of the most well and consistently attended – so much so that Connexion 2023 had to divide the conversation across multiple breakout rooms on top of dedicating a whole panel to it. However, taking a broader and more critical look at the corporate landscape paints a very different picture.

According to LinkedIn’s reporting, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers had the fastest hiring growth of all C-suite titles in 2020 and 2021, but that’s begun to decline as of 2022. Glassdoor surveys indicate that DEIA program access is seeing the same downward trend, and as reported by SHRM, DEIA departments and programs are imploding entirely at some organizations, particularly in the technology sector. Twitter is one such example, albeit a chaotic and extreme one, given that Elon Musk saw fit to completely dismantle the company’s ERGs following his takeover. Critics of these concerning trends view them as both unfortunately expected and evidence of the disingenuous, reactionary approaches many companies took following George Floyd’s murder and the civil unrest that followed. DEIA was never really part of those organizations’ corporate culture, and in their eyes, it outlived its utility once the right optics had been achieved.


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Laying the foundation took their culture team the better part of nine months, resulting in an aligned organization with a greater sense of purpose and inclusivity, as well as better engagement by leadership and colleagues in Webster Bank’s eight Business Resource Groups (BRGs) – their internal name for ERGs. “Our colleagues are always encouraged to bring their true, authentic selves to work each and every day, and our recent organization wide engagement survey shows it’s working,” said Evans. “Over 87% of our colleagues participated, and the results indicated Inclusion was one of our top three strengths. Colleagues confirmed that their teams are a place where their diverse perspectives are valued.” Cultivating those diverse perspectives is vital to financial success according to Webster’s executive team. As Evans framed it, “DEIB is a critical component of how we support not only colleagues, but our clients and communities.


Achieving a Global Perspective

The fundamental link between having diverse perspectives and being able to service diverse needs is even more readily apparent within global organizations. These employers must take a much broader and nuanced approach to how they focus, plan, and deliver their DEIA strategy. Such is the experience of Pact, a DC-based international nonprofit organization that specializes in a range of development and community support initiatives throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Zewud Debebe, Pact’s Chief Human Resources Officer, has spent the last two years supporting their efforts across more than 40 countries, many of which are subject to major domestic and regional crises on a regular basis. “How DEIA is approached here in the US is very different from the scope it has to have in other countries,” Debebe explained. “It isn’t just race and gender, but religious beliefs, deeply rooted cultural practices, and different modalities of thought. As a result, we’re consistently looking for ways to customize our programs based on the unique circumstances within each locale.”


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Performance management is an excellent example of this customization in action. “Our performance management system includes a section on our company’s three values: integrity, inclusion, and respect. We’ve provided a broad outline of what those mean in spirit, but,” Debebe clarified, “it was the voice of our Cultural Champions at each country’s office that defined what those values look like in daily interactions and competencies.” Their local input gave Pact a direct line of sight into the cultural norms, expectations, and realities of each country, empowering them to create a common performance language that was truly representative of their global community.

“That localization process holds true for every HR system and program we roll out,” Debebe continued, adding that their GEDI (Gender, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) Council recently – and eagerly – helped Pact review their interview questions for inclusivity and cultural sensitivity. “We’ll introduce the core concept in our monthly meetings and source input from each country office so we can properly refine it into something that works for everyone.”


Coupling DEIA and DNA
Pact was very careful to avoid having a DEIA “program” disconnected from the core functions it was intended to amplify. As Debebe rationalized, “It’s paramount that DEIA isn’t thought of as a standalone subject someone is just trained on. We can do that for a day, or once a year, but that doesn’t mean it has structurally and fundamentally addressed what it should. Success is ensuring employees can experience all the systems within the organization in a consistent, equitable, and transparent way.”

“Are we giving everyone the same level of career opportunity, and the same information,” Debebe offered as an example. “Are they able to grow within their time at Pact, and do they have the tools and resources they need to overcome any barriers to actualizing their full potential?” Sometimes that actualization process will have employees transferring to new roles on the other side of the world; beginning in 2024, Pact will be mining a global database of internal candidates when openings become available. Other times, however, it involves preparing employees for new and fulfilling opportunities outside the company.


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“We’re a project-driven organization,” Debebe clarified, “so we’ve been very intentional about building a robust offboarding process. After all, our former employees are our best community ambassadors, and we want to honor the human experience inherent to the complexities of their lives.” Pact’s offboarding includes robust resume writing courses, access to resources to help them find new job opportunities, sample interview questions and how to effectively answer them, and even continued EAP support. It also includes a personal “goodbye discussion” with Pact’s CEO and a certificate of program completion. “The feedback has been phenomenal,” Debebe said.

Webster Bank has taken a similarly integrated approach, electing to work DEIB strategy into every aspect of the business. That includes a robust Supplier Diversity program that’s administered by their Corporate Social Responsibility department. All managers are required to complete supplier diversity training to bring awareness to the value a diverse vendor network brings, which Webster’s BRGs support through vendor outreach and by showcasing diverse vendors across their programming.

Webster’s DEIB strategy is also represented in how they approach career development, talent acquisition, training, and succession planning, and Evans hopes to take that even further in the coming months: “We recently partnered with the Conference Board to conduct a pilot program on how biases affect an organization and how each colleague can play a part in interrupting those biases.” The program consists of collecting metrics via survey, and using those responses as a primer for training courses that explain to staff what patterns of bias the business has identified. Webster hopes that this will make colleagues


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Keeping it Grounded
“You also have to set realistic, transparent goals,” entreated Evans. “These goals shouldn’t be easy to achieve but should be attainable given the proper resources and attention.” Webster has developed their own, internal DEIB scorecard to that end, providing them a handy tool for tracking how far along they are with specific goals, such as the percentage of BIPOC individuals in management roles. The scorecard is shared with their DEIB Council and their Executive team, which Evans believes has helped keep these initiatives top of mind. “The most important piece of advice is to be persistent in securing buy-in from your Executive Leadership team – if they aren’t behind DEIB, it won’t go anywhere.”

Debebe agrees that realistic goals are a must, and to that end, she cautions against the notion that there needs to always be some new program going live for DEIA progress to continue. “One thing we want to avoid is always trying to do more and more,” Debebe explained. “We want the many improvements we’ve made to really take root so we can monitor them and ensure they’re working correctly before we expand.” She added that this process could take the better part of the next few years, but that Pact was committed to seeing it through.

Never Throwing in the Towel
Dedicating time, energy, and ever-shrinking resources into DEIA can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. However, they can be relieved, at least in part, by introducing its core concepts to employee groups and helping them understand why it matters. This is particularly effective when you can demonstrate what diversity of thought and internal biases look like in a psychologically safe, team-based environment. Jeff Reid, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for BOK Financial, sought to do exactly that using nothing more than a towel.

“The goal of the activity was for team members to reach consensus on how to do something the ‘right’ way,” Reid explained. “Participants were split into three teams, with one getting a towel, another a T-shirt, and lastly a pair of socks, all unfolded. They’re then asked to collaborate and determine the ‘correct’ way to fold the item.” Teams quickly realized that what “right” meant to them was deeply personal and informed by their backgrounds, upbringing, modalities of thought, and sometimes even just pure necessity. For example, one participant told the group they only fold towels the way they do because it fits within their specific cabinets better.

“The benefit of an exercise like this,” Reid clarified, “is that it encourages people to see and appreciate the many different points of view individuals can bring to a task. There are often many ‘right’ ways to do something and helping them understand that adds a different dimension to the DEIA conversations they go on to have.” Activity facilitators worked with each team to help highlight that the outcome wasn’t any more important than the process itself, stressing that true, open-minded collaboration should be an integral part of the employee experience.

As Reid summarized: “When you allow yourself to see things from a different perspective, ideas flourish, contributions increase, and you’re able to reach a better and more informed outcome than you could have ever accomplished alone.”