How These 7 Chicago Companies Foster More Inclusive Workplaces

August 13, 2020

“The fish rots from the head.” 

That’s the metaphor Akia Parks, a copywriter of clinical research at digital marketing agency closerlook, uses to describe why companies fail at intersectionality.

Parks, a Black woman, said her company is aware of their white and mostly male executive suite. While diverse changes in leadership might not be immediate, their cooperation with employee-led DEI groups to enact meaningful changes, like ensuring equal pay across gender and race, don’t go unnoticed.

As the Black Lives Matter movement propels companies to make statements about diverse hiring effects and inclusivity, leaders are looking for concrete ways to implement those statements in action.  

For the seven companies we talked to, that means allowing space for employees to initiate difficult conversations and change. Unconscious bias training, core human resource teams and diverse panels help show employees that leadership is serious about inclusivity. From there, they encourage employees to form their own DEI groups and support them in their needs. 

“The best way to ensure all employee voices are heard, respected and valued is to ask, listen, then act, in that specific order,” Parks said.

 

velocity ehs
velocityehs

Mandatory unconscious bias training and an open call for support sparked the creation of the company’s first DEI group, Voices at VelocityEHS. Employee Experience Manager Molly Thompson said the group has inspired others to launch their own DEI groups at VelocityEHS, a company that helps businesses reach environmental, health and sustainability goals. 

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

VelocityEHS recognizes that an essential part of creating an inclusive workplace is more than just celebrating diversity in the abstract. We strive to support our individual community members, many of whom have unique identities that may result in compounded discrimination. Our employee-led affinity groups are safe places where people can reflect, talk and heal from these experiences. We are also rolling out management training later this year specifically on diversity so our leadership team is equipped to meet the needs of their individual team members.

 

We strive to support our individual community members.”

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment? 

Last year we mandated an unconscious bias training for all employees in the company, followed by small group discussions and an open call for support. This led to the formation of “Voices at VelocityEHS,” a DEI launch team founded to help shape company policy and create a more inclusive culture. Voices focuses on providing educational resources to our employees, effecting organizational change and leading open and honest discussions about race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and more.

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting DEI efforts? And what have you done to ensure even the most marginalized voices on your team are represented and heard? 

The Voices group sparked the creation of several employee-led affinity groups focused on DEI at our company. We now have Mosaic, which celebrates cultural and ethnic diversity at VelocityEHS; FEM Forum, dedicated to empowering the women of VelocityEHS; and Pride, a group of LGBTQIA+ and ally colleagues. All of these employee groups work in conjunction with Voices to make sure they serve as safe places for people to engage in honest conversation and introspection, but also work to educate and celebrate a diversity of holidays, milestones and viewpoints within the broader VelocityEHS Community.

 

bounteous
bounteous

Chief People Officer Leah Weyandt said effective DEI initiatives start from the top of the company. At digital agency Bounteous, that means executive leadership, the core human resources team and affinity groups all work together to create a place where employees of all levels feel empowered to contribute ideas.

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

It’s really about creating a DEI ecosystem that starts with your company’s core values, including treating each person as an individual with unique needs and circumstances and ensuring that all team members can be open and authentic without fear or worry. DEI-focused values — when supported by a board, the executive leadership suite and the core human resources team — create a green light for team members to submit suggestions for improvement freely, organize affinity groups and enhance DEI initiatives and programming even further. Top-down support coupled with bottom-up recommendations nurture inclusivity and equity, as well as build trust across the organization.

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment?

Our foundation and commitment to inclusivity and equity is strong, but we still have a way to go to build out an even more diverse workplace. Being transparent about our hits and misses during weekly town halls, measuring our progress and providing comprehensive, take-what-you-need paid time off, wellness benefits and flexible scheduling help to address and support the varied needs of all those we serve.

 

Our foundation and commitment to inclusivity and equity is strong, but we still have a way to go to build out an even more diverse workplace.”

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting DEI efforts? And what have you done to ensure even the most marginalized voices on your team are represented and heard?

It starts with offering varied communication channels and providing a matrixed network of support to reach all team members, no matter their location, role, tenure, personality type, work preference or any other layer of diversity. At Bounteous, this includes weekly pulse checks that allow for anonymous survey submissions; well-established escalation paths for reporting issues, concerns or grievances; pairings with engagement mentors, career coaches and professional sponsors; open-door communication across the organization; and facilitated educational programs, discussions, roundtables and innovation labs.

In addition, our DEI council, “B: You,” has provided a steady stream of suggestions and oversight for policy improvement, recruiting efforts, branding and marketing; facilitated discussions and celebrations; as well as served as a partner for expanding our allyship and affinity group memberships. And for this year’s annual all-company Hackathon, we’re looking forward to setting aside two days in October to help push our DEI initiatives even further. With a focus on giving back, teams are encouraged to submit ideas that support sustainability, accessibility, working parents, racial justice and gender equality.  

 

west monroe
west monroe

Chief People Officer Susan Stelter said West Monroe, a national consulting firm, provides space for employees to initiate and lead their own ERGs. Anonymous employee listening sessions on challenging topics ensure that all voices are heard.

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

We place extensive focus on understanding the “moments that matter” for our employees, and that includes constantly being cognizant of intersectionality and understanding how different parts of our employees’ identities are affected by our organizational structures and processes. We focus on ensuring a supportive and positive experience at those critical junctures in our employees’ careers. By regularly assessing our people processes through the lens of DEI, we ensure we’re taking steps to address any inequities that exist. An example where we pay attention to intersectionality specifically is our pay equity analysis, which we share with all employees every year. 

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment? 

While we have made progress, in many ways we are considering ourselves to be on a revitalized journey by holding ourselves to higher standards. We recently engaged a third-party consulting firm that is helping us undertake an extensive analysis of all our key people processes throughout the organization to understand where inequity may exist and then build plans to address and improve those areas. 

We also are in the process of hiring a dedicated DEI program manager. Until now, our employees have rallied around inclusion and diversity efforts in addition to their day jobs. We want to ensure that everyone feels the responsibility of making our firm more inclusive and diverse. However, we also want dedicated ownership and guidance. We believe investing in a DEI program manager who lives and breathes inclusion and diversity and is committed to guiding the organization in ensuring equitable experiences for all employees is a critical step forward for our organization.  

 

We have always had a strong culture of employee ownership and involvement.”

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting DEI efforts? And what have you done to ensure even the most marginalized voices on your team are represented and heard?

We have always had a strong culture of employee ownership and involvement. We’re not a company where employees look to leadership to solve all problems; they are empowered to enact the change they wish to see within the firm. Because of this, all employees play a role in supporting DEI efforts. In particular, we have an engaged DEI committee made of employees from all offices, across walks of life and spanning all levels within the organization. We also have employee resource groups like WMPride, the Women’s Leadership Network and the Black Employee Network that plan and execute programming for the rest of the firm. 

To ensure all voices are heard within West Monroe, we conduct anonymous employee listening sessions on challenging topics. We also conduct a biannual pulse survey of all employees to understand what we, as a firm, can do better. For example, as a result of the most recent survey we revamped our Intranet home page to make resources more relevant and accessible. 

affirm
affirm

DEI Manager at fintech company Affirm Aleah Warren said managers make a big impact on employees’ mental health at work. To make employees feel represented and safe, management completes unconscious bias training, training on inclusive leadership and allyship training.  

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

A key component of DEI is understanding that identity, and especially overlapping identities, can completely change the way a person experiences the world. With that in mind, managers have a huge impact on how people feel at work, including their sense of belonging, development, advancement and engagement. While we share examples of how bias and discrimination can affect certain groups in specific ways for context, we really encourage managers to focus on the needs of individuals who report to them and to engage in open, empathetic conversation, especially with Affirmers from underrepresented groups. 

For example, we’ve trained managers on how to give unbiased feedback and how to manage in the context of the pandemic and ongoing racial violence and inequality. Already on the books for this year are trainings on inclusive leadership, unconscious bias and allyship for managers. We also make sure the skills learned in training are reinforced through policies, structures and programs that mitigate bias and encourage equity and advancement for people from underrepresented groups. 

Equally important, our employee resource groups (ERGs) and community groups (CGs) often hold joint events, as so many people identify with several groups. In addition, our LGBTQ+ ERG recently launched an amazing internal campaign called “We are all here together” to show how important intersectionality is. It has been an amazing way for Affirmers from all backgrounds to come together. 

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment?

Affirm started hiring full-time DEI-dedicated employees early on, starting at around 400 employees. Many companies often don’t start hiring for full-time DEI roles until they are in the thousands. What has been even more impactful is that Affirm has given those of us whose full-time role is in DEI the space and support to set a vision and accomplish our goals. It has been amazing to have the resources, budget and support from leaders to engage in the long-term planning and execution of a DEI strategy. Our approach involves embedding DEI into all processes, programs and structures across the entire employee life cycle. 

The only way these systemic changes can really happen and have an impact is to dedicate people, time and resources to DEI and give it the priority it deserves.

 

We want to make sure every Affirmer feels that their voice is heard and valued.”

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting DEI efforts? And what have you done to ensure even the most marginalized voices on your team are represented and heard?

Employees run our ERGs and CGs, which are groups that help build belonging, inclusion and understanding. I work closely with these groups to understand their experience and how we can support them to further support Affirm’s DEI initiatives. 

We recently established a diversity and inclusion steering committee (DISC), consisting of senior-level leaders from across the company who advise on and push forward high-impact DEI initiatives. We also survey our entire company every year and ask DEI-specific questions, as well as review the responses along aggregated demographic lines to see if experiences differ. The survey responses are used to facilitate DEI action-planning on both the company and departmental levels. We want to make sure every Affirmer feels that their voice is heard and valued.

 

Slalom
Slalom

Organizational Effectiveness Consultant and local DEI Lead Laurice Shelven Adegunwa said simply providing a space for intersectionality allows employees to discuss large and important issues. At consulting firm Slalom, a recent panel about COVID-19’s impact on lower-income Chicago neighborhoods transformed into a dialogue about institutional and structural racism in America.  

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

Our affinity groups play a critical role in creating a welcoming, inclusive environment where employees can feel a sense of belonging. One of the ways that Slalom encourages intersectionality is by supporting our affinity groups to collaborate and co-create employee experiences and discussions. 

A recent example was a roundtable discussion on living authentically as an LGBTQ+ Asian and Pacific Islander. The event was hosted jointly by our LGBTQ+ affinity group, Prism and ASPIRE, our affinity group focused on the Asian, South Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander employee experience. During the discussion, employees reflected on and shared their diverse experiences, challenges and perspectives. Leaders and allies from across the company joined in support and to expand their own perspectives.

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment? 

Recently, we have had a series of conversations around anti-racism that engaged our entire workforce in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Within days of the murder of George Floyd, our Black affinity group, REACH, hosted a panel discussion on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Chicago’s Black communities. What was intended to be a Q&A between three community and business leaders on the effects of a pandemic transformed into a dialogue about institutional and structural racism in America. 

Following this initial discussion, leaders across our organization hosted dedicated virtual sessions for dialogue. They shifted plans for existing meetings to instead address current events head-on. What set them apart was the vulnerability and engagement that our leaders modeled. Their behavior set the tone and gave “permission” to all employees to share their truths. These conversations created a shared understanding and urgency to take action. 

 

We have had a series of conversations around anti-racism that engaged our entire workforce.”

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting DEI efforts? And what have you done to ensure even the most marginalized voices on your team are represented and heard?

It’s a part of Slalom’s culture to support employee interests and passion areas, which often results in activities that reflect diverse voices. When it comes to inclusion, diversity and equity efforts, our leaders are intentional about consulting and making decisions with employees who identify with historically marginalized groups. 

Most recently, about 15 Slalom Chicago employees — including our general managers, practice leaders, talent management team and members of REACH — came together to co-create a set of racial equity commitments. These working sessions uncovered needs and opportunities that might have gone overlooked if certain voices weren’t included. After multiple ideation sessions, this group presented over 14 anti-racism activities that we would begin working on immediately. 

Just as important as the commitments themselves is the process that we leveraged. One of my goals as a local inclusion, diversity and equity lead is to ensure that this kind of co-creation and representation exists in other areas of our business as well.

 

The Marketing Store
The Marketing Store

Suzi Lilley, a director of global talent acquisition at customer engagement agency The Marketing Store, said inclusion groups need to have a cross section of leadership representation in order to be successful. For change to happen, everyone has to be involved.

 

How does your company approach intersectionality in the workplace, and how does that help shape your broader DEI initiatives?

Our approach to inclusion is grounded in enabling our people and operations to support the equitable opportunity of all people. We believe in creating a professional space where people can bring their whole selves to work and be met with acceptance, respect, dignity and legitimacy. It is, therefore, critical that we support our people to act inclusively and understand what “all” really means. 

To help us to do this, we introduced the concept of intersectionality as a framework to enable us to understand the multiple facets of how a person can be identified, such as race, ethnicity, gender and parental status. We created a short video to help us to articulate what intersectionality is and shared with our employees and our followers on our social channels. 

We have run a "lunch and listen" in respect of the Black Lives Matter movement. We provide an open forum for our people to share their experiences with their colleagues and peers in a safe space. We partnered with Howard Brown Health Centre to run mandatory transgender and gender non-conformity training. We added pronouns to our signatures to ensure we put this training into meaningful action.

We facilitated panels with external speakers to discuss Black History Month, microaggressions and allyship for the LGBTQ+ community. We shared educational resources to highlight pivotal events, such as Juneteenth, in our inclusion calendar. We introduced an inclusion newsletter to ensure we have continual thought leadership and knowledge-sharing circulating to our people on a regular basis. Here we introduce concepts such as microaggression, share educational resources and spotlight our own employees to hear their stories. 

Intersectionality is critical to our DEI work. It is the filter we seek to put across all our work to hold ourselves accountable for recognizing everyone who fits into the “all” we want to include. 

 

Intersectionality is critical to our DEI work.”

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment?

At the start of the year we committed to inclusion being a critical component in our business plan. We recognized that we had work to do in this space, and in order for that work to be meaningful and sustainable, inclusion had to be a priority and a stand-alone component of our overall business strategy. 

One of the first actions we set out to deliver was to build teams in each of our global locations that would help us deliver on our inclusion ambitions. The inclusion teams are comprised of people from varying levels across each of our local businesses and are led by an inclusion lead who also sits in the local people team. They are structured in a specific way to ideate and deliver output across four key tenants: culture, communications, acts of inclusion and tracking our inclusion progress. 

Implementing our inclusion team has been the single most effective output of all of our inclusion efforts this year. It has amplified the voices of our diverse people and enabled them to effect meaningful change in our organization. 

 

closerlook
closerlook

Akia Parks, a copywriter of clinical research at digital marketing agency closerlook said it is leadership’s responsibility to ask, listen and then take action. For example, the CEO is working with the DEI committee to ensure equal pay across race and gender. 

 

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive work environment for your employees? 

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, closerlook is far from perfect. As an agency, it is overwhelmingly white, with only one woman and no people of color at the C-suite level. However, one of the reasons that I, as a Black woman, feel included is our willingness to invest time, money, energy and action into enacting meaningful changes at all levels.

Before addressing an issue of inclusion, it’s also important to address issues of diversity. They are not mutually exclusive. If it is blatant that a company does not value diverse voices by employing diverse people, marginalized groups won’t feel included.  

Closerlook has empowered and supported our diversity and inclusion committee by taking action on the goals we have outlined as change we’d like to see company-wide. We’ve held a candid conversation about diversity and inclusion within the agency, social unrest, Black Lives Matter and actionable things we can do to make our space more inclusive. Our D&I committee is working with our CEO to ensure equal pay across various lines of marginalization such as race and gender. We’ve also teamed up to make sure we are creating a more diverse pipeline of talent and providing training to employees on how to address implicit biases. There is still a lot of work to do, but for me, tangible action speaks volumes.

 

Employees play a huge role in supporting and leading inclusion efforts.”

 

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting inclusion efforts? What is the best way to ensure the voices of all employees are heard, respected and valued?

Employees play a huge role in supporting and leading inclusion efforts. It is important in any workplace to foster an affirming community where everyone feels like they’re all in it together. That starts with building relationships and having difficult conversations. At closerlook, employees who want to lead initiatives that address these issues are being supported, encouraged and given space to introduce ideas that stray from the “unspoken norms” in our environment. It has also been equally important for other employees not leading these initiatives to lean into difficult conversations, open themselves up to learn or change their way of thinking, make space for their colleagues who feel excluded and build in accountability to make better habits and practices.  

The best way to ensure all employee voices are heard, respected and valued is to ask, listen, then act, in that specific order. Employees have to feel that they are welcome to share their opinions in a respectful way without fear of retaliation if the leadership doesn’t like what they hear. When employees from marginalized communities speak, it is crucial that both leadership and other fellow staff come to listen, learn and compromise. Many times, coworkers aren’t intending to be racist, sexist or bigoted. They just have never given thought to the experience of someone who doesn’t look like them. In order to address the status quo, some folks are going to have to be a little uncomfortable.

 

What advice do you have for other organizations looking to create a more inclusive work environment for their own teams?

The saying goes “the fish rots from the head.” It is absolutely imperative to have the commitment and buy-in from leadership to set the tone for company priorities and culture. Assess the diversity and inclusion priority of the top folks at the table, whoever they are.

Whoever is in leadership, have the courage to stand up for what’s right. The stakes are much lower for a person in leadership to support a controversial change than for lower-level employees to do so. Don’t be afraid to assess where your company stands and challenge the norm. There are trainings and paid professionals who can make assessments and recommendations.

And when it comes time to implement change, pay for this work. Improving diversity and inclusion is not free labor. Studies have shown that an investment in diversity and inclusion is an investment in the financial success of a company. It really all comes down to committing to change and then taking action.

 

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