by Nori Gale
Why are Diversity and Inclusion Important in the Workplace?
Providing a safe and inclusive space where all backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives are embraced is core to WEX’s values and who we are as a company, and we remain committed to furthering that work. We are proud of the contributions that our diverse community brings each and every day to WEX, and we know that those contributions make us a better company.
WEX condemns and will not tolerate discrimination, intimidation, or violence directed at any individual or group.
Melanie Tinto, Chief Human Resources Officer at WEX, was recently featured in the “Leaders in Payments Podcast” on the topic of Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. She emphasized how making D&I a part of your company’s DNA is essential for its success. In this article, we’ll cover the highlights from her interview and dig in a little deeper on a few of the topics discussed.
Diversity and Inclusion at the 50,000 Foot Level
When you think about what practicing Diversity and Inclusion might look like at your company, you may come to see your business in a new light. “Inclusion and diversity really help shape the DNA of a company. The pillars of diversity and inclusion need to align with the culture and values of the company which is a bit personal to that individual organization. For me, D&I at the macro level really involves the company’s philosophy and vision for employees. So it starts with a strategic vision and roadmap that articulates where you are and aspirationally where you want to be as an organization.” Tinto goes on to describe that what is essential is how these two very important cultural ideas are discussed by leadership at your organization. Employees need to see evidence of your commitment to the ideals you speak about.
Walk the Talk of Diversity and Inclusion
How do you champion diversity and inclusion for your organization? How do you build a company that lives and breathes it? As Tinto puts it, “The words and actions have to matter and they have to align. What I mean by that is when you talk about or describe your aspirational mission it has to be transparent and real for your employees. It has to be something that they can tangibly feel, and that they can believe. If you have a focus on ensuring for example that you’re recruiting diverse talent into your organization you need to have a culture that really embraces and supports that talent of diverse backgrounds.” She goes on to say that you have to be aware of the culture that new employees are entering. Is there a chance that new hires will face discrimination or bigotry from their peers? To avoid this, and to create safe, healthy, and happy working conditions for your employees, you must work to create a culture of acceptance. This also means that you must make clear that intolerance and hatred will not be condoned.
What Are Some Good Strategies to Employ When Embarking on a D&I Program at Your Company?
Tinto talks about strategies at WEX that have driven diversity and inclusion practices across the workforce, their community partnerships, and their marketplace. WEX has launched programs and resources to support diversity and inclusion throughout the past several years which have included the creation of employee resource groups (ERGs) to serve as touchpoints for employees and allies. The ERGs help foster a culture of belonging at WEX. “It’s a great way for employees to really connect, talk about their similarities, talk about their challenges, and also to focus on some key areas like development.” ERGs create an employee-led venture for more equitable practices to complement your diversity and inclusion efforts.
How do Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) Help Foster a Sense of Inclusion?
ERGs are a great tool to allow like-minded people with similar perspectives to find a home base for themselves within a larger company. Feeling included in an ERG can help employees feel included and supported by the company as a whole. Tinto’s team created a core process and playbook for creating an ERG at WEX and there are currently a variety of different employee resource groups across the company. The key according to Tinto is to allow employees to take the leadership helm to drive these resource groups and at WEX those processes have “been driven by employees, defined by employees and led by employees. Their efforts and passion really show through in terms of what they’re able to deliver and the actions that they focus on.” There is an executive sponsor that’s aligned to each employee resource group who is typically from WEX’s executive leadership team. Their responsibility is to help guide and shape the strategy of the ERG as well as to be their ambassador. “We’ve continued on the journey to expand our employee resource groups and we have had great focus from the employee community and really they have been driven by their own passion and have experienced growth through their own networks and through collaboration.”
How do you Keep ERGs from Getting Siloed into Their Own Groups?
Keeping individuals in ERGs connected to the wider company can be formalized with ERG playbooks and through the alliances that form between the leaders that run these groups. Tinto described an example of that connectedness playing out during the winter months in 2020. “Over the holiday season a few of the employee resource groups wanted to give back to the community and so they found an opportunity to collaborate and do what I’ll call a drive-through donation effort. Employees came together from three different ERGs, they each identified a charity that was important to them and that resonated with their particular group and then employees rallied together, did a drive-by drop-off and we just had an incredible sense of community through a socially distanced donation and charity event while all of these ERGs were coming together. So I think just their passion, their focus and commitment to employees, and their focus and commitment to our culture and our values really shines through during an event like this.”
Importance of Having Executive Buy-In and Having a Focus on D+I in the DNA of Your Company
When you work with an executive leadership team that’s in alignment with the values of the company and has a shared drive to create a harmonious, healthy, equal workplace for people of all backgrounds, these values will become a natural part of your company’s everyday workings. “It makes my job a whole lot more fulfilling working with a leadership team that embraces the diversity and inclusion strategy. I think back even to engagement when I first joined WEX.” Tinto goes on to describe conversations with her leadership team where they talked a lot about wanting to engender a sense of belonging for employees. They asked questions such as:
- Do employees have a sense of belonging?
- Do they feel that they can be their authentic and true selves?
- Can they bring their full selves to work?
“We talk about talent constantly at the executive leadership team level. We talk about diversity and inclusion and the growth of others and ask ourselves how do we develop and advance our employees?”
When you’re a publicly-traded company and have a board of directors there is an added dimension to your pursuit of diversity and inclusion. For Tinto, her experience with WEX’s board has been one of synergy and alignment. She describes conversations with the board about how to seriously commit to a policy of diversity and inclusion. They discussed how to make sure that they are walking the talk, “and our board of directors rallied quickly behind that and said ‘we want to be part of it.’”
Tinto and her team started with a simple awareness campaign relative to unconscious bias and this was piloted at the board level. The exercise was around the questions ‘What is unconscious bias?’ and ‘How do you identify it?’ The group realized that everybody has unconscious bias. The question then became, “How can you leverage techniques to make sure that you are focused on minimizing unconscious bias?” This led to an even more meaningful and fruitful discussion.
The board at WEX has been exemplary in its care for and attention to creating a truly egalitarian workplace based on principles of integrity and openness. “Over the past two years, we’ve had conversations with our board of directors on our vision, on our road map, and on our strategy. When I talk about the pillars that we’re focused on, the board has been a critical advocate and really a sounding board for me and for the other leaders across our leadership team to continue to develop and advance in this space.”
How Important is Having a Vision and a Strategy to a D+I Initiative?
It’s extremely important to lay out a vision and strategy for your company’s D&I initiative. “If you think about building a sustainable company it requires intentional focus on diversity and inclusion in everything that you do. And if you think about why it’s important – you need a roadmap that articulates the vision and strategy.” Tinto goes on to say that having these ideas articulated also helps you when you need to communicate your plan to others. It helps you show meaningful progress, and it helps you remain focused. “If you think about the way most companies run their businesses they always have a strategic business plan that sets their vision. It aligns their organization. They focus their goals and align their goals to that business plan and the same discipline in my mind should apply to a D+I strategy. Crafting that vision, crafting that strategy, staying focused on it, and continuing to build momentum along the journey is the best way that you can make meaningful progress in the space of diversity and inclusion.”
What are the Fundamentals of Building D&I into the Fabric of who you are as a Company?
Building D&I into the fabric of who you are as a company is not something likely to be accomplished overnight. At the same time, doing so will be the surest way to create a culture that supports your D&I goals. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is D&I rooted in your values?
- Is D&I a focus in your core systems whether that be compensation structures or reward systems?
- Is D&I a focus when you think about encouraging and celebrating people to be their authentic selves?
- Is D&I part of the words and the actions that you choose?
- Is D&I integral to the employee behaviors that you reinforce and celebrate?
- Is D&I expressed in the messages that your organization sends?
As you can see from this list, the expectation should be that D&I is a part of everything you do. As Tinto explains, “Anything from how they engage with their employees, to how they focus on the community through philanthropy, through their supplier diversity chains, etc. It really permeates the fabric of an organization and can be a powerful, positive momentum for an organization as well as a great unifier across employees.”
For Small- to Medium-Sized Companies, How do you Bring Diversity and Inclusion into Your Company and Make These Ideals Sync up with Your Company’s Culture? How do Large, Global Organizations Fold Diversity and Inclusion into Their Practices Around the World?
Tinto acknowledges that folding D&I into your culture can feel like a daunting task at first, especially at the beginning. What’s crucial is to start with the most basic promise to always provide transparency and accountability. She suggests continuously sharing where progress is being made, and what you’re focused on. Keep thinking about not only what you’re doing but why you’re doing it, and where your organization is along that maturity curve. She says that “without a clear vision and roadmap, I found just in my past experience that a lack of focus on the truly critical items for your organization can make it difficult to make meaningful progress.”
The other issue that Tinto points to that can become a stumbling block is what some people call the “shiny penny.” As Tinto puts it, “There are many people that have a passion for diversity and inclusion and the component parts that make it a success. What I found is that without a roadmap it can be overwhelming. There are many great ideas that come at you and you’re constantly chasing the newest idea. That roadmap helps keep you grounded.” With a roadmap, you have a clear direction and a way to communicate to employees and to leaders where you are and what’s next. “It’s an opportunity to set your course, and continue on that course and again move forward. Otherwise, at times I’ve seen where organizations didn’t have that strategy and that clarity they were constantly chasing the newest idea or initiative in the marketplace and it either just didn’t resonate for employees, or it wasn’t able to get traction.”
Should Inclusion Come First?
Without a culture of inclusion successfully creating a diverse environment can be difficult. “You can do all the work you want around recruiting in a great group of diverse talent, diversity of experiences, diversity of perspectives, or thought process, or ideas, and without inclusion, it doesn’t stick.” So, really, the work to create a culture of inclusion must come first. As Tinto describes it, “You have to have that inclusion and that focus on what joins us together, do we allow people to be their authentic selves, and again I always use that sense of belonging but it’s so important to build the inclusion. It means we’re open to other people’s ideas and perspectives. It means we’re okay if someone approaches a project or program or process differently or even has a different opinion that they’d like to share and offer.”
The way to impart that culture to your employees is through the words and actions of leadership. “The words and the actions and demonstrating that it matters to a company is important. The messaging you send to employees is critically important as well. And it’s also about embracing other people – not just the way they look, but the way they think, the way they act, and what they value – and being open to that.”
When Building a Diversity and Inclusion Program, What’s the Best Way to Get Started?
Tinto explains that “everyone regardless of their background, their experience, where they are on their journey and their life stage, wants to belong and they want to be included, and they want to feel heard, and they want to feel valued. And so if you start from that basic premise, then a lot of things naturally fall into place.” She describes the ways that they have needed to be open to many different perspectives when entering into a diversity and inclusion launch, “and one of the ways we did that this year was just by having listening sessions within our organization. We spent time listening to our employees, letting them share their ideas without judgment. And it’s amazing to be able to walk in the shoes of someone else. Whether they’re younger than you, older than you, different economic status than you, different education than you, you get a whole different perspective and understand what it’s like to live and walk and absorb information from a different person’s perspective that way.” Tinto suggests starting with the notion that everyone appreciates belonging, and everyone has an interesting perspective to offer.
Additionally, Tinto suggests that you have “focus groups whether that’s through engagement surveys, through dialogue with others, just listening to how they describe the company, how they describe the organization, what diversity means to them, it seems like it’s a step that may take additional time, but it really gives you other perspectives.” Tinto says this is an important place to start because it tells you where you are as an organization and what’s going to move you forward.
Tinto also suggests identifying areas of strength and opportunity for your company, finding champions who are passionate about the topic and partnering with them. “Be very deliberate, create your roadmap, think about the foundational elements, and celebrate your progress. Celebrate where you are and where you’re going, and continue to communicate those wins, and over time, start to think about what are those meaningful goals and milestones so that you get stickiness along the way so you get that momentum that really drives an inclusive and diverse environment.”
How Can We Best Find a Path Forward for Diversity and Inclusion?
If we as individuals could get a little bit better every day at paying attention to our unconscious biases and listening and appreciating the thoughts and ideas of those who may be different from us it would make a tremendous difference. Tinto suggests that we need to not only get a little bit better every day but be bold enough to say “‘I don’t know the answer, I’m learning as well.’ Humility opens up many doors because it provides us with the openness to learn from others regardless of whether they’re more or less senior than you, from a bigger company or smaller company than you, or just have a completely different background and set of experiences, that’s what’s going to drive us forward is just that listening and being open to different perspectives.”
Tinto also advises that we take one day at a time. “This is work that’s really critically important and as I said before, it’s never done. It’s not a one-time initiative so for those that want to check the box, it just doesn’t work that way. It’s a component and critical part that becomes the fabric of a company’s culture, it defines where the focus is – whether it’s talent or how you develop others, how you create community, how you reward others, etc. In essence, it’s really threaded throughout everything you do and how you engage and grow your employees. And just remember to start small and build on a strong foundation.”
“At the end of the day, having a rich, diverse workforce creates an innovative environment that continues to benefit all of us. It benefits our culture, it benefits customers, it benefits partners, employees, and shareholders.” Be prescriptive, do not try to boil the ocean, have a strategy, and don’t be afraid to celebrate the successes even if they’re small ones. Start small, and build from those small foundational wins. If you can take these first initial steps and follow Tinto’s advice, you’ll be well on your way to building a strong D&I ethic for your company.
To listen to the “Leaders in Payments Podcast” episode featuring Melanie Tinto, Chief Human Resources Officer at WEX, click here.
Leaders in Payments Podcast
Diversity Officer Magazine
Harvard Business Review
New York Times