She won’t hesitate to admit that a big part of what makes the diversity and inclusion initiatives successful for her company is the support they get from high-level leadership. But, it’s a multi-pronged approach, including both top-down as well as bottom-up strategies, that have defined Angela Russell’s implementation of a D&I program over the last two and a half years.
In the third installment of the D&I Virtual Roundtable Summer Series, “Tapping into the Power of Difference,” Russell, who is Director of Diversity & Inclusion at CUNA Mutual Group in Madison, Wisconsin, shared the best practices she uses and lessons she has learned from her experiences.
Setting the stage, Russell opened with a review of key concepts in D&I, such as the difference between equality and equity and what it means to have an inclusive workplace.
“I can give you an example that was eye opening to me,” said Russell. “We have interns every year. Last year, we had an intern in a motorized wheelchair. We had a push button to open doors to get into the building. But, what we didn’t know was that we didn’t have one to get from the lobby to our offices.” It turned out that the setup was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). “Doing what is ADA compliant isn’t always the same as doing what is equitable. We didn’t know it had a differential impact on someone because we didn’t have that same experience.”
Russell pointed out that being inclusive is not about doing things for people who are less fortunate or disenfranchised. Rather, it is about acting collaboratively. To do this, it is important to get input from people before making decisions that may impact them. “When making policy decisions, ask the questions: Who’s benefiting from this decision? Who’s burdened? If you don’t know who’s burdened, go out and ask people who are not like you,” said Russell.
Diversity will not last if the corporate culture is not inclusive, according to Russell. CUNA Mutual Group utilizes a dozen Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, to support employees with a variety of backgrounds, life circumstances or interests.
“I would ask you to think about some of the unwritten rules that you ask people to assimilate to in order to succeed at your organization,” said Russell. “Do you ask people to give up part of their identity to ‘be like us?’” This is important to maintaining the value brought by a diverse workplace. “When we build diversity, we want real innovation, we want those new thoughts and ideas.”
Not only are ERGs a best practice in the D&I space, they can also be strategic partners for meeting business goals. Identifying that there was a growing opportunity among African American consumers, the CUNA Mutual Group team responsible for products in this market space reached out to the African American ERG for help thinking through their strategies.
Three years ago, when the current CEO took his position, one of the first things he did was roll inclusion into the corporate vision. The company has D&I council comprised of leadership at the Vice President level and above. The council helps lead cultural change from the top down. There is also a D&I Action & Change Team, a grass roots team that works to lead change from bottom up. “I call that the big squeeze of culture change for D&I,” said Russell.
In her role, Russell has also worked on helping the company attract and hire a diverse workforce. One of the first projects she did when starting at CUNA Mutual Group was analyze the recruitment process. The company had a five-page algorithm of the entire recruitment process. Her team went through the algorithm looking at each decision point, evaluating it for any potential effects from bias. Bias can be institutional, individual or systemic. At each node, the team asked, “What does bias look like, here? What are strategies to mitigate against those biases?” These strategies to mitigate bias were formulated and put into an 11-page document. Then, they were boiled down to a one-page document that was provided to hiring managers as a tool to help them attract and interview a broader, more diverse pool of recruits.
Another important part of attracting a more diverse talent pool comes from expanding personal interactions. To improve access, CUNA Mutual Group leaders are encouraged to participate with a variety of community organizations with which they partner.
“We know that, in general, getting a job is all about who you know. If you only know people who are just like you, those are the people who are going to have the awareness that a job is open at your organization,” said Russell. “We encourage our executives and leaders of our company to go out in our community to meet people and connect with people who are different from them.”
In closing, Russell shared some common themes and best practices that she has encountered in her experience:
- Success in the D&I space requires a long-term commitment
- Employee Resource Groups (also called Affinity Groups or Business Resource Networks) help build an inclusive workplace
- Training is needed to build awareness and skills for management as well as staff
- Before implementing policies, it’s important to ask, “Who benefits from this and who is burdened?”
- Collect both quantitative and qualitative data to measure progress
- Collaborate and align with other efforts
- Recognize early wins to maintain energy over the long haul