At the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and the national conversation on systemic racism brought on by the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, awareness and acknowledgment brings credibility to an organization, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Delta Dental of New Jersey and Delta Dental of Connecticut Claude Richardson explained during an NJBIZ webinar panel discussion on diversity in the workplace. “If you appear to be tone-deaf to what’s going on, if you appear to be tone-deaf to the plight of others in your organization, you’re going to lose credibility of your workforce that you understand what it is that they’re going through, what their needs are, and that you perhaps even have their best interests at heart,” Richardson said during the July 28 virtual event.
Richardson was joined by fellow panelists Amy Flynn, human resources specialist for HR business Insperity; Hackensack Meridian Health Director of Diversity and Inclusion Avonia Richardson-Miller; and Genova Burns LLC partner Rajiv Parikh to discuss how diversity and inclusion have become centrally important in today’s business world.
New Jersey Office of Diversity and Inclusion Chief Diversity Officer Hester Agudosi moderated the discussion.
“D&I is at the forefront of everything and at the core of everything right now, more than ever,” Richardson-Miller said, noting the disparate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, specifically Black communities; and her and other CEO’s responses to the killing of George Floyd.
Hackensack Meridian CEO Robert Garrett issued a statement on Floyd’s death, unarmed at the hands of a police officer in Minneapolis, shortly after it happened. His words were compassionate, Richardson-Miller said, and “really acknowledged what was going on and [had] a level of empathy and cultural intelligence around what the team members within the organization were feeling.” His statement wasn’t just a statement, she said, Garrett “also made a commitment to action going forward.”
Parikh noted that an organization’s leadership team should have goals with their D&I work, rather than just conversations; and that the goals aren’t one-size-fits-all.
“Everybody knows you have to have them and you should have them, but at the end of those conversations, what do you want to have as your goal? Do you want a more communicative workforce? Do you want less tension,” he asked. “There’s a question [in the Q&A] about internal staff division … Do you want to try to alleviate that type of staff division? I think that all of those goals can be accomplished just, you know, by creating kind of a custom methodology for your organization.”
Parikh chairs Genova Burns’ diversity and inclusion initiative.
Flynn noted that, with COVID-19, it may seem hard for organizations to put a timeline to the implementation of D&I policies and programs. “I know some of our clients are overwhelmed and thinking, ‘this is massive. How am I going to accomplish all of this?’” she said. Her advice?
“Be able to start with a couple of initiatives that we think, ‘OK, I can start with this’ and then … we keep growing,” she said. “But really being able to make that commitment.”
For employers still stumped on how to approach D&I, Richardson-Miller recommended reading “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” a book by Ibram X. Kendi which discusses concepts of racism and proposes individual actions people can take to encourage systemic change.
“I think the main thing is to learn, but I don’t want people to get stuck in the learning mode,” she said. “It’s that learning has to be coupled with action. So find some way to take action in a way that makes a difference. And when you’re collaborating with others, find points of commonality.”
Part of D&I involves managers or employers making sure they’re amplifying diverse voices.In the age of ubiquitous Zoom meetings, Richardson noted that while someone might have something valuable and constructive to offer, being reserved and having others chime in might dissuade them from doing so. Richardson recommends managers “go around the squares” of any Zoom call, giving participants the opportunity to share what they wanted to but didn’t get to.
“Especially if they know in your meeting that’s a routine of yours and they definitely don’t miss the opportunity to contribute,” he said. “[It helps them] not to be tone-deaf to what’s going on and helping them to express kind of ‘where do we stand as an organization?’ and making sure that we don’t lose the voice of those that may not otherwise speak up in this type of environment is really important.”
As many companies continue to work partially or fully remotely, keeping employees connected to one another is a challenge. Flynn suggested that employers offer their employees the chance to come together for varied discussion groups and related that one of the employers she works with has started a book group.
After all, the business case for focusing on diversity and inclusion is manifold: According to census data, Agudosi noted that New Jersey is on track to be majority minority in 20 years, banks that had a higher percentage of women on their boards fared better than their peers during the financial downturn of 2008 and diverse companies are more adaptive and innovative than their counterparts.
“The two components of the business case that I recently developed and those two components would be first talent is equally distributed, and by that I mean talented people come from all walks of life, whether they’re taller, smaller, older, younger, male, female, et cetera. So it follows that if you don’t have a diverse workforce, you don’t have your fair share of the best and the brightest talent that’s available to you, the talent that we’re going to need to be successful in the future,” Richardson said. “And then the second part of the business case is that diverse backgrounds lead to a diversity of thought, and it’s that diversity of thought that’s going to give us those creative more robust business solutions. That’s going to help us maintain our competitive advantage going forward.”
Beyond that, if leaders don’t make D&I a priority, they could be losing out on prime candidates who simply don’t want to work someplace where leadership’s priorities don’t align with their own. According to Flynn, close to 70 percent of job seekers now are looking for employers that make D&I a priority.
Additionally, companies with robust D&I programs have lower risk profiles, Parikh emphasized. “Companies that take the effort to have cultural sensitivity training to have D&I discussion to improve the diversity of their workforce end up having [fewer claims against them and] a workforce that is more collaborative,” Parikh said, thus making the company more attractive overall.
“You lower your risk profile, your insurance companies probably will love you because there’ll be less employment claims. Your lawyers probably will hate you because they’re not [getting much work],” he joked.
A webinar attendee from a mid-size conservation-based nonprofit told the panelists during Q&A that the organization was having trouble recruiting Black and Latinx people, and asked what could be done to attract that talent.
Richardson-Miller asked if they were reaching out to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-serving institutes, and Black MBAs or Latino MBAs.
“What are your intentional efforts in going after this talent? I think that there just has to be a very thoughtful methodical and intentional approach and making sure that your recruitment efforts are targeting agencies and organizations where that talent exists and where you can connect with that talent,” she said.
“Everyone matters. Diversity is organic, but inclusion is intentional,” Agudosi said.