Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion In The Workplace

More and more, businesses are beginning to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the workplace. In order to learn more about the benefits of these initiatives, we went straight to the source: our local DEI leaders. What follows are their insights regarding their role, their responsibilities, and their vision for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workspace.

Photo by Rich Smith

Valoria Armstrong chief inclusion officer american water

Valoria Armstrong

Chief Inclusion Officer & VP of External Affairs

American Water

How would you explain the importance of DEI in the workplace?

Valuing differences across your organization makes a great company. Companies are strong when their employees contribute different ideas, viewpoints, experiences, and backgrounds. Creating an environment where everyone can bring their whole selves to work is essential. Having a workforce that represents the communities we serve and ensuring all employees feel included are key to our success. Our world is more diverse than ever and so is the talent pool of job candidates, and research shows that companies with greater diversity outperform those without.

How does having a DEI officer benefit employees?

To an extent, an ID&E role can serve as part of the conscience of an organization. There is a person in place who helps shape company culture by integrating themselves into key, critical business areas and asking necessary – sometimes uncomfortable – questions. For example, does a business know how it will address issues related to the emotional and mental health and safety of its employees? Are there opportunities for improving the career path of diverse employees? And how does the business help ensure an inclusive work experience?

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this job?

Being an advocate at heart, I’ve enjoyed shaping our company’s ID&E strategy and seeing its impact on so many employees and our communities. This work is hard at times. As I reflect back over the past two years – from the pandemic to the social justice issues that arose from George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – being a safe haven for employees to share how they are feeling and providing resources and comfort during such difficult times has been rewarding. Overall, knowing that the work we do today will shape the lives of so many in the future means a lot to me.

What led you to choose this career?

I chose it and I believe it chose me; it was a little of both. At my core, I enjoy being an advocate for others and addressing issues of inequity, both professionally and personally, so my professional career path was a natural fit. Over the past 11 years, I’ve been on a non-traditional career path, from HR to operations, to government and regulatory affairs, and then back to HR. It’s been quite a ride, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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BEN STAPLES / VP OF HUMAN RESOURCES & DIVERSITY, KENCO LOGISTICS

Ben Staples

VP Of Human Resources & Diversity

Kenco Logistics

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

In addition to providing strategic leadership for the Field HR team, I am responsible for Kenco’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, including employee resource groups, diversity outreach, education, and overall diversity recruiting strategy.

How would you explain the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

DEI in the workplace leads to better individual employee performance, since employees feel safe, respected, and trusted. It also improves collective performance. Diversity of thought across the organization leads to more successful decision-making.

Are there any common misconceptions about this job that you would like to address?

One of the biggest misconceptions about this job is that DEI is only an HR issue. While many DEI initiatives are led by HR departments, it is imperative that executive leaders within an organization understand the importance of DEI and help drive it to all levels.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this job for you personally?

The most rewarding aspect of this job for me is seeing the changes that this journey has brought to Kenco. We started our diversity journey, in earnest, several years ago. Since that time, I have seen excitement and engagement grow throughout Kenco. Who wouldn’t want to work in a role that helps make our work environment the best possible place for our associates, while also positively impacting the bottom line?

In what ways does having a DEI officer benefit employees?

Having a culture that values DEI allows our associates to show up and be their true, authentic, and best selves. This, in turn, allows them to focus on their jobs and be the best they can possibly be in their current roles.

In what ways does having a DEI officer benefit businesses as a whole?

In today’s war for talent we must attract, retain, and invest in our associates. A commitment to DEI affects the bottom line in a positive manner because the best associates will want to join, stay, and perform at higher levels.

What advice would you give to leaders about hiring a DEI officer for their workforce?

Understand that the diversity journey is a marathon and not a sprint. It is easy to get frustrated when you don’t see the changes overnight – just know that the small, incremental steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion will add up to big, meaningful changes for your organization.

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Dr. Marsha J. Drake / Chief Equity Officer, Hamilton County Schools

Dr. Marsha J. Drake

Chief Equity Officer

Hamilton County Schools

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

I am responsible for ensuring that the Educational Equity Plan is carried out and followed for the district. I also oversee the district behavior, homeless students, alternative education programs, and advocacy for students and their families.

How would you explain the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

DEI is very important in education. Students need to see teachers and other school leaders who look like them. Students all come with various needs, and DEI champions look at situations through a different lens in order to focus on removing barriers to success for all students.

Are there any common misconceptions about this job that you would like to address?

Yes. People tend to believe that DEI officers work to make schools and workplaces better for one type of person or one group of people, but that is so far from the truth. DEI officers work for all of the people involved in the school district. We make sure that each person in the school, district, or organization is represented – meaning that they are seen, heard, valued, and given the necessary tools to be successful.

In what ways does having a diversity and inclusion officer benefit employees?

A DEI officer gives employees a voice at the table – someone who is always thinking of your best interest and asking the challenging questions. Someone who is there to make changes that provide those people who are typically marginalized with greater access and opportunities.

In what ways does having a diversity and inclusion officer benefit businesses as a whole?

This position provides a different way to think about situations and solve issues or problems. Research indicates that racially and ethnically diverse companies tend to perform better. DEI officers assist in recruiting, training, and retaining a diverse workforce. If you want your company to grow leaps and bounds, have a growth mindset that is inclusive for all staff, and provide a caring work community that takes in a diverse viewpoint, a DEI officer can help.

What led you to choose this career?

I grew up in a single parent home with limited resources, opportunities, and access. I see my adolescent self in the work that I do every day.

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Ron HarriS / VP, Corporate Workforce Diversity, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

Ron HarriS

VP, Corporate Workforce Diversity

BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

My team and I advise on how our business can be more effective by thinking about diversity and inclusion at all levels. Yes, we assist with recruitment and employee engagement efforts, but we also help build relationships with diverse suppliers and promote access to equitable care. Most importantly, through my work, I’m able to help BlueCross create a workforce that’s reflective of our members, equipping us to serve them better.

How would you explain the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

Our world is changing at a revolutionary pace, and I think it’s important to remember that as our society evolves, we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of the changing population. As I look at our company, I see diversity and inclusion at every level – you feel it in the hallways and you see it in our employees’ interactions with one another. We know from our own experience that DEI impacts recruiting, retention, and turnover.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this job for you personally?

I always say that my dream is to work myself out of a job, and I’ve seen glimpses of what that could look like one day. A few years ago, I sat down at a planning meeting for our annual Black History Month event – which typically has a lot of Black employees at the table – but this year, I was the only Black employee there. At first, I was struck by how unusual that was, but then I realized that this event had gone from being a Black employee event to a BlueCross event. It held meaning for everyone, and we all wanted to be a part of it. It doesn’t get much better than that.

What advice would you give to leaders about hiring a DEI officer for their workforce?

I’d encourage leaders to look for someone who is skilled at engaging in conversations and meeting with people from various cultural backgrounds or organizations that represent differing perspectives. It’s also important to seek out individuals who can serve as real agents of change within the company. In the DEI field, it’s critical to build relationships and broaden the circle of influence within the organization, and this takes a specialized skill set. These professionals need to understand both the strategic and business purposes of the work, not just the social perspective. They’re more than advocates; they must also possess business acumen.

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Stacy Goodwin Lightfoot

Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Engagement

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

How would you explain the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education?

To understand DEI in higher education, one must first understand the significance of each term – diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity is the presence of differences: race, gender, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability, age, diversity of thought, etc. Respecting and valuing diverse perspectives and differences allows the needs of broader groups to be addressed, thus creating an open and supportive environment for all. Equity is the process of fairness. Equity ensures that resources, access, and opportunities are provided for all to succeed, especially those who have been historically disadvantaged. For systems to become more equitable, it is critical to recognize the challenges students, faculty, and staff face and be cognizant of the root causes of those barriers. Equity is achieved when resources are shared based on what each person needs in order to adequately level the playing field. Inclusion is an outcome to ensure everyone feels welcomed, valued, respected, and capable of reaching their full potential. The goal of inclusion is to make everyone feel accepted, comfortable, and ready to contribute their opinions and thoughts without hesitation.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this job for you personally?

The most rewarding part of this job is that I wake up every day dreaming of and strategizing ways to better connect students, faculty, and staff to our campus and the community. Through this role, I am operating and living in my purpose – improving the lives of others!

In what ways does having a diversity and inclusion officer benefit businesses as a whole?

Research shows that companies with inclusive environments set the stage for innovation and business growth. Companies are more profitable, innovation is higher when diversity is present, and employees feel safe and ready to show up to contribute their ideas. Businesses that focus on DEI have increased job satisfaction and engagement among employees and increased levels of trust.

What advice would you give to leaders about hiring a DEI officer for their workforce?

Businesses should articulate why they are focusing on DEI and explain the benefits they will gain from a hiring a diversity officer. Before telling people what is being done, make sure they understand why it is being done and why it is needed for the company.
Additionally, DEI work should not be the sole responsibility of the diversity officer. Holding leadership accountable builds a foundation for organizational and transformational change.

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Tamara Steward / Chief Equity Officer, City of ChattanoogaTamara Steward

Chief Equity Officer

City of Chattanooga

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

As the City of Chattanooga’s first-ever chief equity officer, I serve on Mayor Tim Kelly’s senior leadership team. I oversee the Department of Equity and Community Engagement, and I consider my role to be two-fold. Firstly, I’m tasked with ensuring that the City of Chattanooga’s internal practices are equitable as an organization. Secondly, I’m responsible for making sure that all of our engagement with the community is done with a focus on equity. Any person, regardless of background or zip code, should have ample opportunity for their voice to be heard.

Are there any common misconceptions about this job that you would like to address?

To someone who doesn’t work in the diversity and inclusion realm, it may come as a surprise that these jobs can be incredibly emotionally taxing. A certain amount of emotional capital is spent each day when you’re fighting for the voiceless, and participating in many difficult conversations that often involve trauma and discrimination. You really have to feel a higher calling to this type of work in order to stay motivated.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of this job for you personally?

I’ve been able to see equity incorporated into processes and initiatives from the highest level. I’ve seen my coworkers challenged, and I’ve seen them step up to the plate to do things equitably, even when it means more work. To see my colleagues earnestly using the tools I’ve been able to provide them in their everyday decisions is incredibly rewarding.

In what ways has your work contributed to the evolution of the organization?

In my role as chief equity officer, I have had the opportunity to facilitate conversations that steer the overall culture of our organization. I’m grateful for a team that is willing to be challenged and that is eager to try things in a way that may be different from how things have been done historically. We’re all focused on better serving our employees and residents.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I understand that some folks may not see the value of this work. If someone hasn’t experienced discrimination themselves, it can be hard to imagine it happening to someone else in their company. I would challenge those individuals to step outside of their own comfort zone and their own experiences, and to have empathy for those who may not have the same institutional support.

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Ericka DeBruce / Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer, Unum

Ericka DeBruce

Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer

Unum

How would you explain the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace?

The importance of inclusion and diversity at Unum starts with our employees. Their unique perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds help us better serve our customers, communities, and each other. Our strategy revolves around harnessing diversity of thought and building an equitable culture, inclusive teams, and a representative workforce. We ask employees to bring their full selves to work. For them to feel comfortable in doing so, we work to provide a psychologically safe environment that fosters inclusion and belonging.

What are the responsibilities associated with your position?

As Unum’s chief inclusion and diversity officer, my primary responsibility is to implement a comprehensive, enterprise-wide strategy that addresses inclusion gaps and insights through data-informed analysis. This includes: Working with internal stakeholders to align I&D goals with business goals.
Developing and providing educational programs and diversity initiatives to embed throughout the company. Providing guidance and support to the I&D team as we assess business needs and collaborate with stakeholders across the company to diversify products and services.

What led you to choose this career?

My dad, a Black man, did not graduate college and was a Vietnam veteran. When he started his career in corporate America, it was 1960 and equality was an aspiration. I remember how unhappy he was every time he went to work and came home at night because of the micro-aggressions, micro-inequities, harassment, and discrimination he experienced every day. I didn’t want to grow up because I thought every adult went to work and came home each night unhappy, upset, and deflated. I do this work because no employee should ever feel the way my father did during his career.

In what ways does having a DEI officer benefit businesses as a whole?

People want to work for a company where they belong. Customers want to do business with companies they trust and value. The community benefits because they become stronger and more equitable when businesses like Unum support local organizations working to end racism, discrimination, and bias like our Social Justice Fund does. It’s my job to educate our leaders and employees on the importance of advocating for equity so all employees can grow and thrive in their careers. It is a critical part of the leadership team. It’s then important to hold leaders accountable and encourage continued progress.

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