Having a diverse workforce also means greater emphasis on sensitivity training and hiring practices
Demographic changes in the nation are being reflected in the workforce. People are working longer, and older workers might find themselves reporting to younger supervisors.
Labor pools can be melting pots of people from different ethnic backgrounds, different races, different religious beliefs, different sexual preferences. With this trend in mind, sensitivity training has become more important than ever.
The Urban League of Northwest Indiana develops sensitivity training for Region employers, and the training is getting rave reviews.
Lisa Daugherty, president and CEO of Lake Area United Way, asked for the training after a community leader made inappropriate remarks to a staffer, she said. The unidentified leader later said he didn’t mean for the staffer to take offense, but then realized he shouldn’t have said that, Daugherty said.
“The training that they offer is phenomenal,” she said. “It forced us to do some introspection.”
Daugherty said her agency’s focus on the ALICE (Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) families in Lake County also has opened eyes to the need for training.
“Folks of color are treated differently when trying to access resources in the community,” she said. “We’re going to have to tackle some of the implicit bias in the community.”
The Urban League of NWI seemed a perfect fit for the training, Daugherty said. Diversity and inclusion have been a mission for the league for years.
Addressing a need
In its State of the Workforce report in April, the Center of Workforce Innovations noted that Northwest Indiana has a diverse workforce. In the Region, 12.7% of the workforce is Latino, compared to 7% statewide. African-Americans account for 14.4% of workers here, compared to 9.7% statewide, said Linda Woloshansky, CWI’s president and CEO.
CWI is a client of the Urban League diversity and inclusion training and sees the need for other employers to pursue it, she said.
“I think employers in Northwest Indiana are becoming more sensitive to this issue, more aware of this issue,” Woloshansky said.
CWI’s staff and advisory boards are more diverse now to reflect the community better, she said.
Lack of cultural sensitivity alienates customers, colleagues and others, Woloshansky said.
“We’re hoping to be able to take this and kind of move this into the community,” she said.
About eight years ago, the league launched its annual diversity and inclusion awards luncheon. In response to surveys filled out by attendees at that inaugural luncheon, the league began an annual diversity and inclusion symposium to offer a deeper dive into the issues. The training for employers is an outgrowth of the annual symposium.
Participants who go through the training offered to employers often want to continue the conversation to dig deeper into the issue, trained facilitators said.
“People like to have conversations like this in a safe environment,” said Vanessa Allen-McCloud, president and CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana. “They want to learn more about having conversations on implicit bias. I think the results have been welcome. The conversations have reached a point where people are more aware of the implicit biases that happen sometimes subconsciously.”
Each training session begins with a pre-assessment to determine what issues might need the most attention, said Mike Berta, one of the Urban League facilitators.
“These are sensitive topics for people to discuss,” Berta said. “At the beginning, there’s kind of an anxiety of what’s going to happen here. People generally aren’t comfortable talking about their biases and so on, but a part of our job is to establish a comfortable environment for them so they can have these discussions.”
Adapting to change
Michael Suggs, NIPSCO’s director of integration planning and corporate engagement, is one of the facilitators. Participants are divided into small groups of eight to 10 people for group discussions.
Suggs begins by asking participants to share their name, the place they grew up (not their birthplace), their age and two things they can share that define who they are. For Suggs, that’s faith and family. He then tells, in about two minutes, why those are important to him.
“I find that when you lower what we call on the cultural iceberg the waterline to just human conversation, you know, the thing that all of us want — we want to be safe, we want our families to be safe, we want our kids to get an education and have an opportunity for a quality of life — when you start talking about those things, people lower their waterline, and they start to be more receptive to those conversations,” he said.
“Race and gender aren’t the issue. Everybody wants these things for their family,” Suggs said.
Danny Lackey, director of diversity and student support services at Merrillville Community School Corp., is also an Urban League volunteer.
“Personally, I think it’s a little easier to engage kids in talking about these issues because they don’t have the baggage that some grown folks have, and they don’t have the sophisticated barriers that grown folks have in talking about these issues,” Lackey said. “Talking about race and privilege, they’re very sensitive topics.”
The discussions are worthwhile, he said.
“I definitely see the evolution of some people more than I do the experience of digging in their heels and not moving,” Lackey said. “It’s tough. It’s hard work. It’s sensitive work.”
The concept of privilege is difficult for some people to grasp.
“When we’re talking about white privilege and systemic racism, it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around that,” Lackey said. “They think of it in the context of someone doing something to someone else and not a system.”
He said, when someone discusses white privilege, they tend to personalize it.
“They think, well, I don’t feel privileged,” Lackey said. “We’re talking about a system and how privilege is dispensed. It’s like male privilege and heterosexual privilege and able-bodied.”
Lackey said, if someone is in a workplace that is not diverse, they might not recognize when they say something that could be perceived as offensive to someone of a different ethnic or cultural background.
“When you’re in a workplace that is not very diverse, and you have maybe one or two people of color, and then you find out those folks aren’t staying, well, why are they leaving,” he said. “The reason they’re leaving is possibly they don’t feel comfortable staying in that workspace.”
Lackey said what ends up happening is that comments are made that offend that person of color, and a person not of color might not realize how that offends the person of color.
“It’s sad,” he said. “The point is, that’s how a person felt. You’ve got to go with how the person feels, not your perception of the situation.”
Employers should “be sensitive to these issues and acknowledge they exist,” Lackey said.
Achieving diversity in the workforce begins, of course, with hiring.
“The starting point is to try to make sure that you have hiring practices in place that are not biased in any way,” said Thomas L. Keon, chancellor at Purdue University Northwest and chair of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana.
Keon advised employers to strive for diversity when sifting through job candidates to create the short list of people to consider. The list shouldn’t be all males, all females or the same race, for example.
Employers will want to hire the best candidate, of course, but making sure that short list is diverse helps ensure the workforce is too.
Keon, among others, will quickly point to NIPSCO as an example of how employers should approach diversity and inclusion.
“NIPSCO, I think, does an excellent job of having a very diverse workforce,” Keon said.
Suggs said NIPSCO’s focus on diversity and inclusion began about a decade ago. The company noticed the results of an annual employee engagement survey showed some employees “had a lot of wonderful things to say” about their experience, but others didn’t. Those were employees who worked in smaller, distant locations or were minorities, he said.
Focus groups of NIPSCO employees showed some of them just didn’t feel included in events like those at bigger locations, for example.
That opened NIPSCO leaders’ eyes.
“We realize diversity is more than race and gender,” Suggs said.
Now the company has seven employee resource groups, as they’re called, to draw attention to these issues.
“These resource groups are focused on different areas of diversity within our company,” Suggs said. “We have a women’s group that is there to celebrate women in the work environment.”
He said the group welcomes all employees, but it focuses on women. Each group focuses similarly on a particular demographic.
“And each (of) these groups is aligned for corporate goals,” Suggs said. “So we will try to get each of these groups to see what they can do to support and educate those individuals in that particular demographic.”
NIPSCO has similar groups for Hispanic, African-American, veterans, LGBTQ, Pacific Island/Asian and millennial issues. These groups can be educational as well as supportive.
“If you’re a male leader, and you want to know about what work experience women have, what better place to go than to get engaged (in) the women’s group?” Suggs said.
A side benefit for the company is that the employee resource groups can help with the hiring process.
“If you talk about recruiting, and you’re talking about recruiting particular groups or demographics, what’s better to do is to use your employees who have relationships with their ethnicity, with their demographic, and they can probably lead you down a better path to some quality folks,” Suggs said. “I find it’s a great connector.”
NIPSCO prioritizes hiring employees from the areas they serve to make sure the workforce reflects that community, he said.
Suggs said he’s often asked how their diversity and inclusion efforts are going. At NIPSCO, he said, they’ve reversed that to focus on making all employees feel welcome.
“Diversity is a fact. Diversity is just differences,” Suggs said. “Inclusion is how you use that diversity, how you include diverse people, how you make them feel valuable.
“So, inclusion is really our key. How do we make sure that everyone is valued — that they’re invited to the party, that they’re invited to the dance?”