Challenge Status Quo: Create Building Blocks to Authentic DE&I

Individuals, organizations, and communities are taking a hard look at their relationships to others, and the fundamental practices — from internal recruiting to vendor selection — that have historically characterized their businesses or teams. There is a sense that, while long overdue, society is moving toward actively doing what is the “right thing to do.”

Cammy Watkins and Maggie Wood are co-executive directors with Inclusive Communities, an Omaha-based nonprofit focused on diversity and inclusion education and advocacy.

When asked about the majority millennial workforce and what readers can do to maximize the potential of a diverse workforce, the executive directors encouraged support of diversity at “every level.”

“Making it easy for people show up as their authentic selves helps them to focus on doing the work, solving the problems, being creative, rather than, ‘Is it OK for me to exist in this space?’” Watkins said.

“You can set up employee resource groups (ERGs) or affinity groups for your team, mentorship relationships, engage in cultural exchange days that support the diversity of your staff, recognize the holidays that different folks celebrate, develop clear and documented inclusive workplace policies, use inclusive language on your forms.”

Furthermore, Wood said that valuing diversity goes beyond simply hiring diverse candidates.

“It should also include promoting diverse candidates into leadership positions and exercising supplier diversity … need to have a catered luncheon, get marketing materials printed or have a copier serviced? Build relationships with diverse and BIPOC- [Black, Indigenous, people of color] owned businesses,” she said.

Also, Wood emphasized moving beyond the creation of a “diverse atmosphere” within one’s workplace.

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“Atmosphere alone can sometimes feel performative or be an illusion,” she said. “We want to tangibly have diversity and promote, support, embrace that diversity.”

To sustain healthy environments and cultures that are meaningful and not illusory, Watkins and Wood indicated that business owners and managers should check in with teams, actively listen to them, and follow through with actions that support all. When “people” are prioritized, they suggested, productivity follows. This should then be the starting point for key stakeholders to craft processes, policies and workflows that build and sustain healthy work cultures.

Culture Change

Jillian Davis co-chairs the Human Resource Association of the Midlands (HRAM) D&I Committee. When presented with a similar question about the shift to a millennial-majority labor force and its role in elevating DE&I, Davis stressed that companies must understand what millennials really want from the workforce as a means of maximizing diversity.

“Millennials’ values exceed simply working for a paycheck,” she said. “They value companies that help them learn, where there is potential for growth, where they can take time off from work without judgment or penalty and are fairly compensated for their work.

Lastly, millennials want to work with people that look like them (are diverse) and where they can be authentic in who they are at work.”

Davis also noted that companies must act quickly on this front; many firms, especially in tech, are quickly catching on.

“Millennials seem to have a stigma among non-millennial leaders that they are demanding, lazy and want to excel in organizations too quickly,” she added. “At some point, millennials will be the leader-majority in organizations, which means the culture will begin to change to accommodate their needs.”

And, if both older and millennial leaders are not accommodating their needs, Davis said organizations will continue to experience turnover.

“Millennials will find organizations that value their expectations,” she said.

Achieving diversity may involve a hard look at recruiting efforts and reaching out to local ethnic and minority associations to build relationships; attending career fairs at the likes of historically Black colleges and universities; and converting current postings into other languages.

Furthermore, Davis indicated the intersection of millennial teams and diversity efforts includes investments in learning and growth opportunities — from coaching programs to creating platforms for these populations to voice their ideas and concerns (lending themselves to “psychological safety” within the workplace).

“The company culture is deeply rooted in the organization,” she asserted. “Rather than formal policies or procedures, in most instances, culture stems from norms and is something that stakeholders ‘just know’ or ‘just do.’ Outsiders may not easily interpret the culture. A person must become familiar with the organization over time to understand the organization.”

And, Davis continued, because the culture is “deeply rooted,” it requires time, patience and commitment to change it.

“First, the organizational leaders, president/CEO, and the C-suite must commit to diversity and inclusion,” she said. “The responsibility must go beyond diversity (what you see); the commitment must include equity and inclusion (thinking and behaviors).”

Then, leaders must embark on what culture change means to the organization — what it looks like over the short- and long-term.

“The mission and vision of the organization should reflect its DEI efforts,” Davis said. “The organization may have to make the difficult decision to help exit employees, including leaders, unwilling to embrace the new changes.”

Organizations that are committed to DE&I largely have a dedicated person on site to focus on these efforts. In the beginning, though, Davis recommended bringing contractors on site; for instance, Inclusion Analytics, which she said can help leaders dissect their organization’s readiness for change and make recommendations to move into inclusive cultures.

Best Practices

Law firm Koley Jessen officially launched its DE&I Committee in January 2020, having organized their passion for diversity — a structure that, leadership indicated, has made a huge difference its efforts.

At present, shareholder Stephanie Grattan also chairs the committee.

“Companies need to continually strive for improved diversity, equity, and inclusion as there will always be an opportunity for further progress,” she said. “By implementing programs, initiatives, and clear communication, you can ensure an environment where, from top to bottom, employees recognize that DE&I is a priority.”

Grattan said that Koley Jessen had approached the creation of a diverse culture by putting it at the forefront of the firm’s strategic initiatives.

“We are actively involved in the Employer Coalition for CODE, LeadDIVERSITY, Diversity Lab, Avenue Scholars, and the Nebraska Legal Diversity and Inclusion Project,” Grattan expanded. “We have monthly firm-wide meetings that focus on a diversity-related topic, where our LeadDIVERSITY representative talks to the firm about a topic and moderates discussion.

“Creating an environment where people can talk about things and ask questions has been incredibly important. We support affinity groups, such as with our women’s forum. Firm leadership reinforces the importance of DE&I on a regular basis as well.”

The Greater Omaha Chamber’s Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Dell Nared, said companies (like their membership) need to empower, engage and create safe spaces. So, everyone can be heard, valued and respected regardless of the position that they hold within the organization.

“Research and our CODE Assessment tell us that creating a diverse workforce increases engagement and morale, which is true; however, it is not about how diverse your workplace is,” he said, making a reference to the chamber’s Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity efforts to help the community achieve sustainable growth in each area (as well as inclusivity). “The question is, ‘Are you educating your organization on how to keep it?’”

The first step in this process, Nared said, is to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and to show your employees that you respect and value their traditions and backgrounds.

“Organizing diversity and inclusion awareness events and training activities at all levels of the organization, starting from the top, will show that DE&I is a part of the company’s DNA,” he said.

Noting that each company’s journey differs on the road to achieve DE&I in the workplace, Nared isolated nine different ways to “get there:” Creating a comprehensive DE&I strategy, with an assessment to inform strategies; setting key performance indicators in areas of talent acquisition, retention, promotion and representation; building a fair hiring process with the likes of blind resume reviews, structured interviews and rewriting job descriptions; creating an environment where discussing DE&I is the “norm” in onboarding, meetings and web communication; offering related education (coaching, lunch and learns); establishing pay equity; creating employee resource groups; structuring “norms’ in how religious, multicultural and holidays are recognized; and being “pronoun-friendly.”

Since 2017, VP of Human Capital and Inclusion Bianca Harley said Omaha Performing Arts has relied on its IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility) steering committee for direction and accountability, and that the group represents a cross-section of lived experiences, backgrounds and titles.

“They have been empowered to influence all areas of the organization and already have done so in meaningful ways that have impacted the entire community,” she said.
Harley noted Omaha Performing Arts has always worked hard to feature performances that appeal to diverse audiences.

“We have also implemented hiring practices and employee policies that promote diversity,” she said. “Approximately 38% of our staff identify as diverse, 30% as BIPOC.”

When asked further about achieving DE&I, Harley said metrics associated with its strategy featuring long-term goals, action items and accountability partners are reviewed regularly.

They are also transparent, with progress featured on its website at

“A statement is not a strategy,” she emphasized.

“We are also intentional about expanding and improving accessibility at the Orpheum Theater and the Holland Center,” Harley said. “We offer services like sign language interpreters, sensory-friendly performances and more.”

Business Case

A diverse workplace means a diversity of lived experiences and ideas that lead to better problem-solving and greater creativity. Studies, the Inclusive Communities co-executive directors noted, further correlate above-average diversity to higher innovation revenues and profitability (Harvard Business Review, 2018 and McKinsey, 2017).

But yet, Watkins and Wood said that myths regarding hiring practices and diversity persist.

“On the other hand, this question relies on the assumption that a ‘case’ needs to be made for diversity and inclusion, and that rests on a number of myths [for instance],” they said.

They described a myth that there aren’t enough qualified diverse candidates, and therefore a company would either need to lower their bar or sacrifice time to continue looking for a qualified, diverse candidate. This is sometimes referred to as the “business case.”

They said, “No one is asking ‘What is the ‘business case’ for maintaining the status quo?’”

HRAM’s Davis also expanded upon education and training on basic DE&I definitions and concepts, as well as continued education as companies progress through their journeys.

“Employees should be allowed safe platforms to ask questions and understand how to navigate real-life scenarios that may typically create challenges,” she said. “Additionally, ensuring employees understand how DE&I shows up in their specific roles can help guide actions to create more inclusive internal spaces and externally for customers.”

Harley of Omaha Performing Arts referenced a wealth of positives derived from “diversity at all levels”; business outcomes, ROI, rich ideas and an atmosphere that allows for: “ … individuals to attain their greatest potential, achieve a welcoming environment for our patrons and artists and provide deep, enriching engagement for the communities we serve.”