The New Melting Pot: Lincoln Businesses See Benefit of DE&I

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is a hot topic in American business right now as companies seek to create workplaces that welcome a melting pot of ethnicities, identities and backgrounds.

Gwendolyn Combs, associate professor of management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said unlike previous generations which sought to merely toe the line with employment law, more companies today embrace diversity as a way succeed.

“Efforts to improve racial, ethnic and gender diversity are not new and have been important workplace conversations since the 1960s and 70s. [Back then] focus was more on compliance,” she said. “Contemporary business perspectives see diversity, equity and inclusion more as a part of organizational strategy for building a workforce that effectively contributes to talent management, innovation and performance.

“The workplace is increasingly being impacted by global concerns, changes in labor force demographics, and new assessments of work and how work can most effectively be performed. So, in addition to the imperatives of the business case, circumstances of the last several years have compelled many businesses to continue to recognize the importance of DE&I as a moral obligation.”

Evidence of the tangible benefits of a strong DE&I score isn’t hard to find. In study after study, such as the McKinsey & Company report of 2018, diverse work groups and executive leadership soundly beat out more homogeneous competitors when it comes to productivity and retention.

It’s not just internal audiences that are paying attention. A 2019 study by Porter Novelli/Cone noted that nearly 80% of Americans connect with companies with values perceived to align with their own. In 2022, gender and racial equality are atop many consumers’ lists when assessing one brand over another.

Including Everyone Takes Everyone

Even nonprofits are under increased scrutiny in this area. In fact, Jay Wilkinson, founder and CEO of Firespring, said the focus may be more intense on such organizations.

“I think nonprofits have to think about it a lot more than their for-profit counterparts and it’s because so many nonprofit organizations are known for their mission,” he said. “There’s an expectation from everybody that the organization is going to get [DE&I] right and they’re going to be faster. In fact, it’s very seldom the case.”

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In 2019, Firespring partnered with Nonprofit Hub for a project study looking at organizations’ hiring practices pertaining to increasing racial diversity in the nonprofit workplace. The results showed how tricky the challenges of increasing internal diversity can be, even for groups promoting it through their mission.

Of the 1,000 subjects studied, 75% had barely a trace of minority presence on their Facebook profiles, a routine avenue for recruiting new hires.

“We tell people, ‘Okay, we need to find more people of color we can recruit to our organization, so share this with everybody you know,’” Wilkinson said. “But yet, the majority of people sharing this don’t have those minorities in their friend groups. The homogeneous applicant pool and these implicit biases end up elevating white applicants again and again and the cycle just goes around and around and around.”

Wilkinson acknowledged smaller organizations may find it more difficult to launch elaborate DE&I programs but said many peer groups today can offer ideas on how to get started at any stage. Understanding how slippery an issue DE&I can be, he pulled no punches on the steep challenges any sized organization faces, for-profit or nonprofit, if they are to tackle the issue.

“For any organization, any company, that decides with intention to really deepen their efforts around diversity and inclusion, as much time as you think it’s going to take, double it. It’s going to take more time,” he said. “The other thing we’ve seen working with a lot of clients in this process is that it often gets worse before it gets better.

“The minute you really start going into the rabbit hole and digging deep and going beyond intention into action, it requires patience, humility and a thick skin. That’s the best way to put it because in the word diversity itself, there are so many different approaches and answers. I don’t consider myself to be an expert or our company to be great at diversity and inclusion. I’m one of those who believes in having a learner’s mindset, rather than a knower’s mindset.”

A Never-Ending Mission

Jasmine Kingsley, senior vice president of legal and people at Hudl, said DE&I was not something ever fully mastered. Despite the company’s extensive work in this area, there’s always improvement and refinement to be had to continue to craft DE&I as less what a company does and more about what a company is.

“We consider DE&I as really intrinsically connected to our values. I think a lot of companies will probably say the same,” she said. “It makes integration of some of these core principles into our policies and our practices in the company not only really possible, but also really necessary.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve taken a hard look at the way we communicate, both internally and externally, wanting to ensure that language fosters an inclusive environment and it’s mindful of all the various constituents we serve. We’ve really embedded that throughout all our policies and procedures in terms of how we manage meetings and how we manage relationships, internally and externally.”

Kingsley said the company doesn’t just assume the steps it has taken are working but invests deliberate action and resources into making sure current practices are effective as well as looking around for what’s new and can be adopted.

“In order to assess the success of our efforts, we really look at feedback from the company and from individuals. We take that really seriously,” she said. “We have an annual engagement survey that helps us gauge if we’re hitting the mark or if adjustments need to be made. We also issue a diversity report annually.

“We also have employee resource groups, ERGs, that have been really instructive for us in terms of helping to educate, inform and gut check our work in this space. Our ERGs are all employee-led and grassroots-generated. We also have an overarching committee called Together at Hudl formed by our ERG leadership, various executive sponsors and other members at large to ensure strategic alignment between our overall DE&I goals and our actions.”

This kind of accountability has earned Hudl the reputation for being a leader in DE&I, accountability the company upped considerably when it began making its efforts and activities public.

“We issue a diversity report annually and about two years ago we started sharing that report publicly to help us assess what worked over the past year, what didn’t work, where we need to adjust in order to make progress on our journey,” Kingsley said. “It’s a great opportunity to share success stories but also own those areas where we didn’t succeed or where we need to be more accountable in order to continue along towards our overall goals.”

Serving Present and Future Employees

A company’s focus on DE&I (or not) doesn’t just impact incumbent employees.

Increasingly, it’s a determining factor for prospective workers, which in any labor market is important and in the current environment is critical.

“When you have this diversity focus, I think it welcomes ideas,” said April Rimpley, senior vice president of human resources for Ameritas. “Instead of, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ it’s like, ‘We welcome you to be your whole self.’ That is a different message than saying, ‘Well, we don’t really ask, and it doesn’t matter.’

“When you can bring your whole self to work and really share ideas openly and know that’s a psychologically safe environment, you end up creating outcomes, products, connections with customers, your community and your associates you can’t replicate. That does translate into real business outcomes around being able to grow, being able to retain associates and being seen as a good place to work.”

Making all of this so critical is the growing level of importance many workers place on working for a company actively promoting inclusivity. Rimpley said even in locations with a dearth of diversity demographics in the community, applicants want to see a company eager to proactively improve diversity to whatever degree possible.

“The talent market has changed as far as expectations, connection to purpose and connection to what the company values,” she said. “We’re doing those things to show not just our associates today, but our customers, our brokers, our producers and the talent of tomorrow because there are actions behind the values and the words we have out there.”

Like Hudl, Ameritas’ DE&I efforts are ongoing and designed to keep the company’s policies from becoming mere words on a page. Its Respectful Everyplace Training actively helps individuals understand how to interact with others. It also trains employees on implicit bias and pairs workers with accountability partners that provides one-on-one understanding of differences in race, culture, religion or gender.

“Sometimes someone has had a journey that has not involved a lot of exposure to diversity,” Rimpley said. “Let’s say I’m working on understanding different religions more. My accountability partner and I would talk one-on-one as individual people in a safe space about what that means, what have we learned, are we afraid of something, what do we think?

“What we’ve done is we recognize this is a journey for our company and for each person, as we bring all of our different backgrounds together. When we’re aware of bias, we can take action to reduce the impact of it. We can have an open conversation to learn from others and really overcome that.”