When Ryan Saddler first joined the faculty of St. Ambrose University, the college was making an effort to bring diversity to the forefront. But for Saddler, the work being done by the new diversity work group was too slow moving.
“I was working here in the disability realm. But as an African American, and one of the few, it made sense to be part of that group,” Saddler said. “It was frustrating because it was work to be done. And we saw a few things that needed a person to kind of drive some of the issues. One was around diversity and one was around veterans. Those conversations started in 2006, and since then, a lot has been produced.”
Saddler’s position today, as director of diversity, came out of those conversations. His department continues to grow, and the college continues to push diversity and inclusion as a main mission.
“I’m grateful because I have a number of allies, of individuals, working side by side with me to look at culture change and challenge thoughts,” he said. “It’s not just me. And I’m grateful for that because we have some challenging agendas when it comes to race, ethnicity and adversity.”
Having a staff member dedicated to thinking about diversity, Saddler argues, is the most important step a company or institution can take to create an inclusive work environment. Other local larger corporations, such as Deere & Co., also have diversity departments and dedicated staff members.
“Having someone in this role, they’re able to think about this and bring these topics up. This stuff is on my mind when I wake up,” Saddler said. “If you don’t have someone assigned doing that, or someone in marketing doing that, you can’t leave it in the hands of your CEO or your janitorial staff, or anyone else. If you assign someone for that role, you invest in that because that’s important.”
With more corporations, CEOs and employees under fire publicly for insensitive, biased, sexist or racist remarks or actions — Starbucks and Papa John’s Pizza, for example — Saddler emphasized the importance of prioritizing diversity. But for small, local businesses without the means of hiring someone to focus on diversity as a full-time job, keeping up with the changing business climate can prove difficult.
More Quad-City businesses have been seeking out diversity training and changing policies to better accommodate the growing diverse workforce. But, local experts say there’s still a lot of work to be done.
‘It’s about survival’
Lisa Pook, with MRA, the Management Association, which has a Quad-City office and offers human resources training, said for decades, promoting diversity was “the right thing for companies to do.” Now, it’s necessary, she said.
“The conversation used to be that we need to have a diverse workforce because we need to embrace those tenets and it’s the moral and right thing to do,” Pook said. “Now, there is research that shows us organizations benefit. There is a business benefit from having a diverse and inclusive workplace. Research statistics show greater productivity, higher engagement of employees, return on investments and better business results.”
While diversity quotas have been around for quite some time, she said it’s increasingly important to hire employees representing the changing population.
“If you’re an organization and you’re not drawing from all of the populations available to you, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage at the very beginning,” she said. “With the entire demographics of the workplace changing and the more global economy, organizations must be innovative and creative and build a diverse workplace.”
But, inclusion is another step. She said it's important to be inclusive for people of all backgrounds and identities, including race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender, sexual orientation, disability or ability.
Pook added, “diversity is inviting someone to the party. Inclusion is inviting them to dance.”
“Bringing employees into an environment that doesn’t acknowledge there are different ways of thinking, behaving and experiencing, they’re going to leave. You won’t be able to retain employees,” she said. “Your next step is how do we make sure that within our organization’s culture that they’re included.”
Today, Saddler said having a diverse and inclusive workplace is “about survival.”
“If one of your fastest ethnicities is Latino, you can’t ignore that,” he said. “If you want to stay in business, you better listen to where the dollars are, where your workforce or client base is growing. If you miss the boat, you’re planning to fail more than anything else. We have to prepare for the global society.”
Improving cultural competency
A few months ago, Realtor Donna Arnold, with Keller Williams Quad-Cities, listed a small house in Rock Island for sale.
“Every time somebody called about it, I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t understand their language,” she said. “So then I learned there are 47 different dialects spoken in Rock Island alone. I figured we need to get more information on how to deal with these different groups.”
Last month, the group of realtors participated in their first out-of-office diversity training, led by Lloyd Kilmer, of Performance Learning in the Quad-Cities. A seasoned teacher, Kilmer said the cultural competency and diversity training sessions began last year.
“At Rock Island High School, 42 different languages are represented in that student body. So those school personnel really have challenges working with those communities,” he said. “And stores have to work with them too. Everyone has to encounter those families, and hopefully with training, there’ll be better relationships and it’ll help businesses’ bottom line.”
The realtors learned nuances of certain cultures, everything from greetings to working in the same environment together. He said the point of cultural competency is being sensitive to differences within groups, genders and family structures.
“Even someone who is really well-traveled, unless they get involved with the culture, they really aren’t gaining competency. They’re just a tourist,” he said. “It isn’t going to improve their understanding of how these cultures work. Of course you can’t send everyone on field trips, but there are evaluations to see how they can improve. We’re a country of immigrants. And without immigrants we aren’t going to have an employee base. Companies are going to have to get more aggressive about seeking employees and customers that aren’t as traditional as the past. To do that, you have to evaluate, train, share and then evaluate again at the end.”
Is diversity training enough?
Even MRA, which specializes in inclusion training and other HR matters, has been rethinking how diverse and inclusive its office is. The organization has begun offering diversity conferences and seminars to start exploring how it can improve.
“We admittedly are starting our journey ourselves as an organization,” Pook said. “We feel good about that and we feel it’s something that can be a strength and we can offer our members. Many of the MRA member organizations have yet to start their (diversity and inclusion) journey or are in the same spot we are.”
Recent news has been filled with corporations being criticized for comments or actions deemed offensive, biased or racist. Celebrities such as Roseanne Barr have lost their jobs. Starbucks took a day off from collecting sales to offer a company-wide training.
“I applaud Starbucks for the quick action they took. I think they responded in a positive way by holding the training. They closed shop for that time period, which is hard in a capitalist society,” Saddler said. “And one thing they did was took the position that this was the beginning for them. This is a piece of ongoing work. Affecting implicit and explicit bias is not a one-and-done thing. I think they realized that.”
Saddler said diversity training can offer a safe space to talk about biases. But diversity and inclusion goes beyond one day of training, or requiring employees to watch an hour-long video about sensitivity once a year.
While inclusion can be hard to measure, Pook said it should show in every facet of a business, from marketing materials to corporate policies. And, companies should put their money where their mouths are.
“One organization made a conscious effort and commitment to look at marketing materials, and make sure every image showed diversity in some way,” she said. “From a very practical level, making sure the community is reflected shows you are paying attention to diversity. That’s one measurement.”
Corporations that are far along in their diversity journeys, she said, will have diversity departments or staff members dedicated to diversity and inclusion, such as at St. Ambrose. She also emphasized the importance of building an employee pipeline and setting goals for diversity.
Cindy Mixon, vice president of HR for MRA, said holding diversity conferences, or setting aside time to meet and talk just about inclusion, is vital.
“It’s a continuous journey and something you have to invest in. Bias is ongoing,” she said. “You have to have a committed group of leadership or group of internal managers, or even a special interest group. The answer is definitely training alone isn’t going to do it. From the start, you have to have a committed organization, and in order for diversity and inclusion to work, it really starts with accountability on part of CEOs and the entire leadership team.”
“This is not something that’s an HR program. It’s not something that’s a training program. The CEO and senior leadership team has to be out in front saying this is a priority,” Pook said.
‘Make people feel like they matter’
When it comes to diversity, as the country grapples with changing demographics, workplaces and client bases, most experts interviewed said the Quad-Cities has a long way to go. Kirby Vyncke, with the MRA Quad-City office, said she's seeing interest slowly grow in diversity training.
“There have been a lot of requests for harassment training and sensitivity skills training, or unconscious bias training here,” she said. “There’s also a lot of requests about how do we be nice to each other in the workplace, which falls in line with inclusion. But the Quad-Cities is a smaller community and further from a big city, so it always takes a while for things to get here. People are starting to gain awareness and get more serious about it. It’s coming around but not as much in other communities.”
Saddler, who has a team dedicated to helping him promote diversity, said it’s still difficult to talk about inclusivity in the Quad-Cities.
“I think we have a lot of work — a long ways to go — here in this area,” he said. “Especially here in the Midwest, in this area, it’s not that obvious who’s racist or not. And it hurts more, when I find out we’ve been working together or interacting, and you don’t view me as a whole person.
“When we have individuals who are promoted in their job and their coworkers feel as if they are only promoted to that position because of the color of their skin, or because of an affirmative action measure, we are not where we should be. We have to be able to have these conversations and make sure those issues are no longer a part of our thought,” he said.
At St. Ambrose, Saddler said his department has begun creating affinity groups, where people with shared backgrounds and interests can regularly meet to discuss their experiences.
“We’re on the cusp of it and just started one for black employees,” he said. “We meet, have conversation, and it really allows people to reflect on their experiences here and at previous places. And it makes people realize they should come back, because they didn’t realize there were shared experiences. Then you can say ‘if that’s happening to you, or it happened to you, what can we do about it and how do we hit this on the front end.’”
He said companies have to provide a safe space to talk about issues, especially in today’s society, where comments, whether intentionally offensive or not, are taken more seriously. Saddler said he’s happy to see more managers saying they won’t tolerate insensitivity or non-inclusive comments. But still, the country has taken a long time to get to this point.
“It seems harsh to some people at this point because it’s been so long that we’ve done nothing about it,” he said. “If I discipline my child today after I haven’t disciplined him about the same behaviors for five years, it’s tough because now it’s normative behavior. Some people are just in that state.”
He said creating an inclusive work environment starts at the top, with CEOs recognizing the experiences of their workforce and customer base.
“If individuals of color are not comfortable in the work environment, wherever it may be, and that’s not being addressed by a president or CEO or manager, that hurts,” he said. “If I’m not aware my employees feel a certain way, then I’m not in touch with them. They have to make sure that they make people feel like they matter. It’s easy to throw money at an issue to try to make it go away. I’ts not easy to put yourself in a position of uncomfort to make sure people feel like they matter.”