Q&A on DEI: Continuing the Conversation

In coordination with FHLBank Chicago, WBA recently hosted “A Conversation on Racial Equity” which featured Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. The event addressed a wide range of important topics related to DEI from creating a more equitable society to being an antiracist, and concluded with a bankers panel to gather insight from leaders in the industry. 

Conversations on diversity, equity, and inclusion continue to be a critical part of providing leadership throughout the banking community. In the second part of our Q&A on DEI series, WBA spoke with Certified Diversity Professional and Founder of The People Company Deborah Biddle to determine the steps that come after DEI objectives have been introduced. When your statement is perfected, your plan is in place, and all your employees are on board, then what? How do you continue the conversation?

Q: Beyond establishing DEI objectives, how do you keep the conversation on diversity, equity, and inclusion going?

Biddle: “When I’m working with an organization, we aim toward setting up a plan of action. The conversation starts at the top, so if you’re in a position of leadership then it’s important to have that language be apparent. With every communication that goes out to the organization, there should be at least one sentence that has to do with DEI. If it’s virtual, then there should be some mention of the goal and how the work is related to diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

“It starts with making sure that DEI is part of the mission and the vision of the company. Somewhere there should be language related to DEI. Then it’s important to make sure that language is visible everywhere it can be, from social media to websites. Beyond that, keep in mind that everyone can be a leader when it comes to this work, especially when they are constantly and actively talking about it. Those fundamental values come from the top, but from there it’s part of a strategy and a communication plan that the entire organization is looking at. It’s the organization that has to really articulate at every level why this is important for everyone to understand, and then people can be better held accountable through the work that they do. Continuing this conversation is a team effort. Part of your plan should be to engrain the ideals, beliefs, and principles with everyone you do business with, partner with, or work directly with every day.”

Q: You noted how important it is to hold people accountable. Why is it so important to avoid just going through the motions of a plan that’s been set in place?

“If you’re just going through the motions, then you’re not serious about it. That will be evident, not only to your employees but to your clients and community as well. I think that’s the situation a lot of organizations realized they were in this past spring and summer, where they talked a good game but when it came down to where the rubber meets the road, they fell short. Making a statement and a plan doesn’t do much of anything until you act upon it.”

Q: How do we continue celebrating our differences while strengthening our commonalities? 

Deborah laughs affably. “You know, I myself have probably said plenty about ‘celebrating differences and strengthening our commonalities,’ but I don’t know if that’s the language I would use today. What we want to do is just be honest. Biologically, we already know that we’re all 99.9% the same, so there’s this invisible piece of us that tells us we’re different. In many ways of course we are, but I think we have to get past letting the differences divide us and talk about what’s most important. So, if I’m in a business, the thing that has brought us together is whatever the going concern is for that organization. Then we need to look at what everyone brings to the table, and ask ‘how can we use your strengths to help us all get to our goal?’ 

“We have to appreciate that we all are unique, and we all have values that are worthy of honesty and respect. And of course, the other, more business-oriented half of my brain would say 'we’re trying to provide a service here, and that’s why I hired you in the first place. I hired you so we can all put our heads together and be the best we can be, no matter where we come from.’ That success is a process that requires us to treat each other with respect, dignity, and value beyond what everyone brings to the table.”

Q: I appreciate the clarification on the language; I think your explanation puts that success into a better perspective. On that subject, how might a company fall short of continuing their objectives, and how can they constantly assure success?

“I think right now a lot of companies are in a hurry to put out statements and explain why they’re champions of diversity and how anti-racist they are. You saw it with a lot of places pushing forward their support for Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ, and more, and that’s been an absolutely incredible step in this process. But it needs to go beyond saying, and it has to have that element of doing. We must be able to back up that support. A good step for a lot of organizations would be to simply have their employees really reflect and acknowledge where they are today. Not everyone is at the same level, but we can create a realistic plan to help everyone get to that level in a realistic amount of time. If you’re an organization of hundreds of people, you’re not going to move as fast as an organization of 50 people. 

“Another thing that seems to happen is companies start to put out these aggressive hiring goals and think they’re going to become diverse overnight when they’ve never done it before. Look at that honestly and ask, ‘What does diversity mean here?’ Because it might not be that you suddenly have 20% African American and Latino employees in your workforce tomorrow. Diversity might mean that you’re giving everyone an honest chance at the job and that you’re open to hiring a range of people from previously incarcerated individuals looking for a second chance at work to veterans. Really look at where you are and set realistic goals. 

“It's also time to face the fact that many organizations have barriers when it comes to equity, and then best identify what those are. I think that’s the hard part – some of the work that companies will skip over in their efforts to be diverse and inclusive. Of course, those efforts are admirable, but you can’t skip the step of going through the hard work and having those difficult conversations about where you’re at today. Make sure everyone in your organization reaches that same level that you’re stating to the world. If you’re an organization that has a diversity statement saying, ‘We welcome everyone,’ but everyone in a position of leadership is white, male, and over the age of 55, then clearly you’re not as diverse as you claim to be in your statement. That’s just the reality of it. I don’t doubt that those are all really great people, but it might just be that they have the blinders on to what’s really going on in their own organization.”

It seems that honesty, willingness, and a realistic approach are the critical elements to assure that a company is successful with these objectives.

“Exactly. You can say you’re open to everybody; you can have a great mission statement and say you’ll talk to everyone, but the proof is in who’s working there and who you’ve elevated. These are the questions we must be willing to ask: Who has a career path? What is your succession plan? Are you asking for everything but the kitchen sink when you’re hiring? Do the candidates have to be like the people already there? And it’s more often the case that we’re simply not aware that we hold those biases and have those expectations. But if we take a good and honest look at our organization, especially if we’re in an area where we could hire for diversity and haven’t, then that shows there’s room to improve your practices. 

“It’s worth noting that it’s not the same for every single company. If you’re out in rural Montana I wouldn’t expect you to have the most diverse workforce, but if you’re in Milwaukee, it’s hard to explain your way around that. I talk to people all the time who say, ‘We’re a great organization; we welcome everyone here.’ But they’re putting procedures in place that are inherent barriers for the diversity, equity, and inclusion they claim that they want. If you want to have continued success through your objectives, recognize those barriers, and work toward bringing them down. You continue the conversation by having it be part of everything you do.”

Interested in learning more about topics like this? Deborah will be speaking at WBA’s Bank Executives Conference on Feb. 3. 

By, Alex Paniagua