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April 5, 2021 FOCUS: Diversity

Experts advise ramping up diversity efforts in tandem with societal shifts

PHOTO | CLOE POISSON , CT MIRROR State Treasurer Shawn Wooden has put pressure on companies in Connecticut and across the country to improve racial and gender diversity in leadership positions.

A well-written statement is nice, but not enough to meet the marketplace’s demands for real action on diversity and equity in the workplace.

That’s the message of two experts advising Hartford-area businesses on how to update — or initiate — policies to stay in step with swiftly evolving expectations on the role of diversity, equity and inclusion in businesses of all sizes.

Being a small, niche or family-run business is no longer an excuse if your company’s roster doesn’t reflect your community, or if your policies as a company don’t address your community’s concerns.

“Clients, employees, customers, communities are demanding action,” said Tara Pollard, director of diversity and inclusion for top Hartford law firm Day Pitney. “It’s going beyond just the words and the messaging and the marketing.”

Tara Pollard

In her role at Day Pitney, Pollard chairs the firm’s racial justice task force and oversees internal and external outreach and activities relating to diversity and inclusion. Although new to the firm, she sees a broader acceleration of trends toward more concrete action on equity in both the legal field and larger corporate world.

“There’s a real sense of holding ourselves and each other accountable,” Pollard said.

That means companies of all sizes need to let employees and customers know things like where they are investing their dollars, what they are doing to support employees and how specifically they are helping their communities.

“What are they doing to actually bring forth social change?” is one question Pollard said she increasingly hears on all fronts.

Reflection of larger trends

“The workplace is sort of a mirror of what’s happening in society in general,” said Theresa Kelly, a partner at Day Pitney who practices employment law and drives diversity and inclusion work within the firm. “So many clients and businesses realize that it’s a business imperative to be diverse and inclusive. ... It’s also the right thing to do.”

With the protests last year sparked by the death of George Floyd, calls for change in the corporate world have intensified, Kelly said, increasingly from both inside and outside of the C-suite.

“Employees are really asking that their employers engage with these issues,” Kelly said. “Employers are feeling responsible and wanting to engage and speak on these issues.”

Activists push for change

Companies may want to be proactive on diversity efforts as impatience mounts on concrete actions toward social change.

Activist investors including the New York State Common Retirement Fund, CtW Investment Group and Trillium Asset Management have filed resolutions asking for “racial equity audits” of major companies ahead of this year’s annual shareholder meetings, according to Bloomberg News.

Goldman Sachs Group, Citigroup and Johnson & Johnson have asked shareholders to oppose the audits, Bloomberg said. Regulators have ruled that the investors’ resolutions can go forward.

No major Connecticut companies were targeted for this round of audits. But Boston-based State Street Corp. was called out for issuing statements last year decrying bigotry while maintaining a board of directors with no Black members and paying top female and black employees less than their male and white counterparts.

Meantime, a Hartford Business Journal analysis last fall found that Black people, who make up about 12% of the state’s population, are disproportionately underrepresented in power positions at Connecticut public companies.

As of September, Black people held only about 3% of senior leadership roles and 7% of board seats at the 31-largest publicly-traded companies in the state, HBJ’s analysis found, leading to calls from public officials, including State Treasurer Shawn Wooden, for companies here to do more.

“I think those numbers are insufficient,” Wooden said. “The corporations in America and Connecticut need to do better.”

Theresa Kelly

He’s also trying to play an active role in moving the needle. He published a “corporate call to action” last May, urging companies, including those in Connecticut, to play a constructive role in advancing social change.

He also helped launch the Northeast Investors’ Diversity Initiative, a coalition of about a dozen institutional investors who are committed to racial and gender diversity in Northeast-based corporations.

That group — whose membership includes most New England state treasurers and other investors — published a diversity toolkit, which recommends ways companies can make more diverse senior-leadership hires.

Suggestions include making sure women and minorities are interviewed for open board seats, expanding criteria for qualified board members and disclosing board diversity to investors.

Reshaping the workplace

For smaller companies that may have held back on formal diversity efforts until now, Pollard said that a survey of employees is a good place to start.

“The concerns that are expressed in that survey will really be what the diversity strategy’s focus areas are,” Pollard said.

“Statements are important too,” Kelly said. “It’s really important for a small or medium-sized company to have a diversity policy and statement, so that’s articulated clearly and with intention.”

Next comes specific education and training, so all levels of the company understand the issues and how to broach them in the workplace.

“Change takes time,” Kelly cautioned. “It takes time and commitment and consistency.”

Fundamental to change is reshaping the workplace to allow for large social issues to play a role in employer-employee interactions, Pollard said.

The concept of bringing your “whole self” to work, “that changes the employer-employee contract,” Pollard said. “The ways that companies are executing on becoming the kind of environment where employees feel welcome to do that — it does take some training, some education,” she added.

One important step is teaching workers how to have “courageous conversations” around challenging topics in a constructive way. “Everyday engagement” is also imperative to forge the connections that allow for productive actions when current events make an impact on workers.

“These things that happen in society, when they come up, it’s not an icebreaking conversation because there have been connections built through everyday engagement,” Pollard said.

Beyond the office

Overall, employers need to realize that just “talking the talk” on diversity is no longer enough, Kelly said. Customers, workers and communities want specifics on what businesses are doing to diversify. Clients especially are increasingly asking for metrics like the diversity of company leadership, she added.

“They’re asking for that information from us and they’re also wanting to partner with us in terms of moving diversity and inclusion forward in their law departments,” Kelly said. Client queries are helping to fuel Day Pitney’s own internal efforts, Kelly added.

“It’s a business imperative for a law firm because our clients are really requiring us to have a diverse workforce and diverse lawyers working on their matters,” she said.

Both executives and the rank and file need to take responsibility for advancing equity efforts at businesses as demographics shift and societal expectations evolve, Pollard said.

“This work takes a concerted effort from all employees at all levels,” Pollard said. “It is a group effort, changing the culture … it’s really something for everybody to take on.”

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