Having ‘hard conversations’ about diversity at work can be challenging, and transforming

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//February 4, 2021

Having ‘hard conversations’ about diversity at work can be challenging, and transforming

Melinda Rizzo, Contributing Writer//February 4, 2021

There’s nothing easy about having a hard conversation – especially in the workplace.

Whether about race, religion, ethnicity, culture or gender, 2020 proved to be a crucible year for social, political and health care flash points, highlighting disparities at home and around the world.

How can diversity, equity and inclusion policies, known as DEI, transform the Lehigh Valley from one-time reactive moments in recent history to a sustainable, long-haul movement aimed at genuine changes in recruiting, hiring and retaining a broad and diverse workforce from anywhere, and everywhere.

“The political events have urged us to take a look at our own bias and how they impact attracting and retaining talent in our organizations,” said William “Bill” Spence, retired PPL Corporation board chair and CEO.

Spence is president of the Lehigh Valley Partnership, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the business landscape and quality of life in the Lehigh Valley.

The first Virtual CEO Action Regional Summit explored how C-suite and senior company leaders are addressing DEI issues of hiring and creating welcoming workplace environments in the Lehigh Valley where newcomers want to stay.

The virtual Thursday morning event was attended by more than 130 and hosted by the Lehigh Valley Inter Regional Networking & Connecting Consortium (LINC) to advance DEI workplace initiatives.

Ron Arnold, LINC board chair and founder of Ironclad Management Consulting, said a continuous challenge for Lehigh Valley companies large and small is to create a “talent magnet” atmosphere for attracting and keeping diverse talent up and down the corporate ladder, especially in C-suite and senior leadership positions.

“That’s been the challenge – [because] it’s not an easy place to transition into,” Arnold said of the Lehigh Valley.

The third most populous region in Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley is considered part of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country primarily settled around the American Revolution by German Reformed, Lutheran, Moravian, Amish and Mennonite people, among other predominately German Christian sects.

The summit’s keynote speaker, Shannon Schuyler, principal and chief purpose and inclusion officer at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said it is incumbent on company leadership to create “a culture of belonging, so people want to come to your organization.”

“There are no more sidelines,” Schuyler said, alluding to the moral obligation to take a stand after last year’s killings of George Floyd in May, Breonna Taylor in March, and others across the U.S.

Having hard conversations about the experiences of being Black, or gay, or about faith, generally considered taboos, are essential to discuss and understand.

Creating a safe framework to explore what diversity means and hire staff accordingly can positively impact the bottom line, extending to an outgrowth of product development, positioning of store front locations, or informing company branding, she said.

Thursday’s summit panel discussions included leaders from Air Products & Chemicals, Inc.; B. Braun Medical, Inc.; Lehigh University; Olympus Corporation of the Americas and PPL Corporation.

Building a culture where all employees feel heard, understood and belong is among those first critical steps.

Vincent Sorgi, president and CEO of PPL said the firm has committed to develop and create a culture of DEI across all levels and positions. George Floyd’s killing sparked “a mile deep, [of] discussion of race in America” and that more than anything else he had committed to listen and learn.

“I heard stories from our Black community [at PPL] and they had a profound impact on me,” he said.

He signed the CEO Action Pledge, a tangible promise and reminder to look inward and check personal biases, take action to mitigate them and to have difficult discussions around DEI issues with friends and colleagues.

“Each of my direct reports signed the leadership pledge to do more and do better, so employees feel safe and can truly thrive here,” Sorgi said.

Getting started isn’t easy, but once the initial ice-breaking awkwardness is bridged meaningful conversations can happen around ways to address issues of diversity and inclusion, he said.

“My job is to listen,” said Julien Sauvagnargues, president of Olympus in Center Valley.

He said Olympus is using DEI concepts to guide how the company processes and hires employees, as well as inform its culture.

At B. Braun, Chairman and CEO Jean-Claude Dubacher, said the company’s DEI practices are guided by these objectives and principals:
• Is it [choices and behaviors] the right thing to do.
• Keep the workplace dynamic: substantial evidence confirms hiring diverse groups makes a company more effective, efficient and creative.
• Be challenged. With so much time spent at work, it’s important to be challenged by those from other backgrounds and experiences – a variety of approaches and views helps inform a company’s direction and decision making.
• Have “fun.”

Kristine Maciolek Small, director of diversity, inclusion and talent management for PPL, said finding ways during the pandemic, while many were working remotely, was important to create meaningful bonds and maintain camaraderie. From virtual cooking classes or origami to happy hour events, making time to learn about colleagues and do things together is an important aspect of team building.

At Lehigh University President John Simon said educators are in a unique position of responsibility to shape and train the next generations entering the workforce.
A complete turnover of student populations every four years further adds to the challenge.

Simon said tying elements of DEI initiatives to his professional goals, and to those around him, creates an accountability for which he – and they – must answer.

In the fourth quarter of 2020 Mindy Fitzgerald said Air Products went public with a goal to become the most diverse gas company in the world. Fitzgerald is Air Products global director of employee experience, culture, diversity, and inclusion.

The public announcement of its goals created targeted roles for tangible results. “We’ve seen a shift in momentum for change, and when a company publically says this, everyone starts to discuss it” from those on the operational floor, to management teams and executive leadership, Fitzgerald said. Powerful moments happen while holding the tension between different points of views, creating a positive edginess.

By allowing opposing views to be OK in a discussion grounded in mutual respect and kindness, the tension between differences can become transformative breaking down barriers rather than reinforcing them.

At Air Products DEI initiatives and actions now have specific, transparent metrics to impact outcomes. “That has moved the needle most,” she said.