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[PULSE] Having an inside track on company culture can lead to successful diversity and inclusion efforts

Hiring existing employees to guide diversity programming establishes trust and investment

Recently, an article in the Wall Street Journal outlined the challenges many companies face in hiring and retaining chief diversity officers. For the highly-regulated housing industry, identifying highly-qualified people to fill those roles is critical to an organization’s long-term growth and success.

At Veterans United Home Loans, we’ve found a solution that avoids these pitfalls while strengthening the efficiency and effectiveness of such a position: hiring from within.

Guest Author,
Loreli Wilson

I offer my team’s story as an example of how a company can leverage existing employees and its own culture to establish strong diversity and inclusion efforts. I came to my position following a mentoring session with my boss and mentor, Dr. Amanda Andrade, in 2012. We had discussed my past experiences and the potential benefits of beginning a diversity and inclusion initiative. Shortly after, I was tasked with spearheading our diversity and inclusion efforts.

While diversity and inclusion efforts are important in every industry, they are particularly important in housing. As the nation’s largest VA purchase lender, Veterans United has made putting veterans in homes the cornerstone of our business. We know our business – and know that in the past, many American heroes were prevented from utilizing a benefit they earned through selfless service due to unfair housing practices. We have to do better – and one way we can do that is by ensuring our internal culture embraces and values diversity and inclusion.

Like all passionate people, we wanted to make big changes fast. Based on previous experiences at the company, we realized an aggressive, top-down approach was never going to get the results we were after. Instead, we had to use our knowledge and experience within the company and industry to build a real consensus for change. We knew the personalities of each department within our organization, as well as the internal influencers and experts to engage. This helped us develop programming that aligned with employee preferences and expectations.

We still have a long way to go, but we’ve made major progress as a company. In the past eight years, racial diversity has increased significantly. More females and co-workers of color have grown into the leadership ranks. We’ve been recognized locally and nationally for our efforts toward inclusion, including being recognized by the Mortgage Bankers Association with its Residential Leadership Award for Diversity and Inclusion in 2018. We’re still going strong – as we continue to monitor employee engagement and interests to guide programming.

Hiring existing employees into these positions brought two key factors to our program that allowed it to be successful: trust and investment. Discounting the knowledge and understanding of an organization’s existing culture an internal candidate possesses can be a big miscalculation when hiring for a chief diversity officer.

By leaning on existing employees, we were able to build on existing trust rather than having to establish it. Our employees know our team members value our unique company culture and are looking to enhance it by making it more inclusive. We have preexisting relationships with employees who trust us – and who we trust in return. We have firsthand knowledge of what our team members experience, and the value of leaning on and learning from their experiences, support and expertise.

Knowing our allies, we’re able to provide them experience through a wide range of hosting programs and initiatives, from Kinky Curly Hair, for employees with Afrocentric hair, to diversity dialogues with co-workers. Diversity dialogues provide a safe space to discuss issues that can divide us. By getting them out in the open and offering a platform to discuss them, we have found it promotes unity, provides alternative perspectives and helps overcome stereotypical barriers that can hinder an inclusive culture. We also offer opportunities for professional development sessions through diversity internships available for people of color and veterans, and employee resource groups.

Beyond trust, hiring internally means you’ve identified someone who is already personally invested in your company. Internally hired diversity and inclusion managers know that they are being put into a position to help drive change, not simply hired into a position to impose it. Through previous experience, they are able to do that by identifying where there is room for improvement, and navigating the company’s internal structure to advocate for and implement lasting change.

Diversity and inclusion is a journey without a clear destination. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Finding the right person to lead your organization’s efforts is critical. By simply overlooking your internal talent, and hiring from the outside, you are doing a disservice to your employees and your organization’s overall mission.

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