October 26, 2020

Meet People Where They Are

David Walsh, Zoo Advisors’ President, recently sat down with Pamela Kelly, the Director of Personnel and Inclusion at Dot Foods, the largest foodservice redistribution company in the United States. Pamela also sits on the Board of the Saint Louis Zoo Association. Pamela shared her expertise, insights, and advice on how to build a more inclusive workforce. Her advice includes:

“Don’t be afraid that you’re going to say the wrong word. Be more concerned that you’re not saying anything at all. Invite people to come in and not be perfect, and not have the right word, and not get it right and say that’s okay. We’ll figure it out.”

Interview highlights include:

  • Why understanding the value proposition potential members bring is critical to diversifying your Board.

  • How a diversity audit tool can be effective in removing barriers to increase diversity within interviewing, recruiting, and promotion processes.

  • Why you should remove the word ‘fit’ from your vocabulary when talking about hiring practices.

  • Why tracking diversity data is critical and how to set diversity goals for your organization’s leaders.

  • What three strategies have worked to build a diverse pipeline of talent.

Watch the full interview here or read a transcript below:
[Note: The full interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Zoo Advisors (ZA): How do you expose people from diverse backgrounds to different opportunities and career paths?

Pamela Kelly (PK): The best way to expose any of us to anything that we’re not aware of is to meet people where they are. Zoos are the best, most well-known organizations in any city, town, or state. But they are also the best kept secret when it comes to finding talent. We don’t automatically think, ‘let’s go to the zoo to find a career.’ It’s really all marketed around fun or learning about animals. I think the opportunity is there for zoos to market their career opportunities as well as they market the zoo.

ZA: What’s the best way for governing boards to identify a more diverse talent pool?

PK: The board leadership needs to challenge its board members. When it’s time to fill a new seat, think about the skill set and life experiences that are missing from the board. Go out and recruit those individuals, even if they’re people in circles outside their own. We feel it has to be hard, but it really doesn’t have to be. Most of us would like to serve in a capacity where we’re adding value. Reaching out to someone who’s different from you is okay. No one wants to be part of an organization or a board to feel like they are there simply because of their gender, sexual orientation, or race. They want to know, “What’s the value proposition I’m going to bring to your board?”

ZA: How do we change systemic hiring practices to improve overall diversity and equity in our organizations?

PK: We use a diversity audit tool to take that first step. What are the things that we’re doing really well? Where are we strong? What are the barriers within our hiring, interviewing, recruiting, promotion, or succession planning processes? We also look at physical barriers within our walls that tend to keep people separated from each other and not engaged. We try to look at it more holistically. When we change, it’s not just the process, but other barriers that could cause people to go back to old behaviors. We took all of our leadership through unconscious bias training. That was a lightbulb moment for a lot of our leadership:

  • We blew up our hiring process;

  • created a new job description template that weeded out bias words that cause women not to apply;

  • took off market information or things that we felt might make diverse employees think, ‘that’s not really for me’;

  • found language was hugely important, plus how you write and communicate your opportunities to different groups; and

  • went from a one-on-one interview to a panel style, where we all heard the same thing and we were able to discuss our individual perspectives.

ZA: You mentioned the diversity audit tool? What is that?

PK: Our audit tool covers about 40 different areas, from our environment to advertising, including questions such as: What do our advertisements say about us? What does our brand say to individuals in different groups? Do we have a mentoring program? It looked at the whole “echo system” within our company, to answer the question, “If I were to walk in that door and there wasn’t anyone else that looked like me, would I still be okay and comfortable working there?”

ZA: What common mistakes do you see in hiring practices that are barriers to increasing a diverse pool of people?

PK: When a homogeneous organization brings in someone who is different, it’s hard for them to evaluate whether that person will be a fit. We realized early on that we needed to literally erase the word “fit” from our vocabulary. When we think fit, we think, ‘Are they similar to us?’ We now ask, “What value is the person bringing?” In our review sessions, where a lot of bias could happen, many comments were raised that had nothing to do with the person’s ability to do the job—whether it was the person’s hair, clothing, or because the person would say “ax” instead of “ask”. But in some ethnic communities, it’s just the way that the word “ask” is said. There were things that were being held against candidates that had nothing to do with how well they could do the job—it was all about bias. Sometimes you heard a hiring manager with greater influence advocate for a candidate because that candidate went to the same college or university. All of those little things really detracted from equity and opportunity.

ZA: What are ways to remove those biases?

PK: Unconscious bias [training] brought up all of it. It’s like it held a mirror up and it turned the mirror around—you can see yourself, and you realize it’s a light bulb moment. It was, “Wow, I’m making a lot of those judgments. I do a lot of those things.” We had to go from that and change the reconvene post-interview process to evaluate candidates. What are the things that we’re going to evaluate them on, and what things are we not going to bring up because they don’t matter? We had to literally rewrite our process.

ZA: What kind of data or information are you tracking now to measure your success?

PK: We collect a whole lot of data. We look at things from our diversity overall. Salary diversity, the number of ethnic minorities, females and males. We look at diversity within leadership levels, turnover, our pipeline going into manager level—i.e., at first-level manager, mid-level, and then executive. We track diversity by location and department, promotions and hires, and we look at our 360 inclusion scores of all of our leadership.

ZA: Are there performance metrics for your managers around diversity?

PK: All of our directors have a diversity leadership goal that’s based on their location and the area they feel like they need to target the most. We gave locations the opportunity to look at their data, and said, “Where do you feel like you have the most opportunity to improve diversity?” It’s tied to a monetary bonus. There’s a real incentive for them.

ZA: What strategies is Dot Foods using to build your pipeline and attract talent?

PK: It’s three-prong. [First], we do colleges, universities, high schools. We develop partnerships [with each]. We target really diverse college campuses, but we go even further with those student organizations where there’s diverse talent, and we tell them about our opportunities. And then, of course, we partner with the HBCUs, which are historically black colleges and universities. The second leg of the stool is community partnerships. We try to develop community partnerships where there’s a soft recruiting angle, meaning it’s mostly done to create awareness. If we can get more and more people in the community to know who we are, then they’ll begin to notice when they see our job ads on the trucks. They’ll be able to put two and two together and that’s been really successful. The third leg is partnering with organizations like the National Black MBA Association, STEM organizations, the National Hispanic Organization, and the Asian Historical Society. We try to make sure we partner with all of those professional organizations because that’s how we bring in our talent.

ZA: How do you see COVID and the social unrest impacting organizations as they look to become more diverse and equitable? What do you hope to see coming out of this year?

PK: I would say…the journey never ends, but there are [organizations] starting to get the wind behind them. Dot is an organization where we’re really starting to see the fruits of that labor pay off. But I wouldn’t serve your audience well without saying there are growing pains. There are individuals who push back, and the challenge of getting people to move in the same direction that the company is moving. And there will be those that eventually will join, and there are those that may opt out and decide that it’s something they’re not going to be a part of. Look at the inclusion and diversity program and take a look inward and say, are we saying I&D internally only? Are we really going to walk our talk and say it externally too?

Here’s the thing that your organization has to remember:

  • First, how is that incident impacting your employees? The communities in which your business [operates]? Your customers that you serve?

  • Second, if you’re a private organization, how is it impacting the family stakeholders? What do they want to do?

You have to think about all of those things before you make a statement. They’re all different and everybody has a different agenda. The statement has to be one of unity, respect, and denouncing things that we all don’t support, like racial hatred or injustice. Really being able to find your voice for your organization. Some organizations may take a stronger stance but that may not be who your organization is.

ZA: In terms of the language we’re all using, how should we be talking about this? What are the right words to be saying?

PK: Think about the whole conversation around it. We don’t call it diversity and inclusion—because you have to build the environment first and make a fertile ground for people before you can invite people into your home. We call it inclusion and diversity. Inclusion, of course, is making sure your environment is right, so that people can thrive, grow, develop, and prosper. Diversity is the different kinds of individuals you have within your organization. It’s not just race and gender. There are 26 dimensions to diversity, e.g. cognitive diversity and socio-economic. There are so many, we forget, because we tend to focus on gender and race. We at Dot focus more on cognitive diversity, because it brings in all of those other things. Know that different groups need different things.

ZA: This has been fabulous. Any last thoughts that you’d like to share?

PK: The advice that I give to all of my coworkers is don’t be afraid that you’re going to say the wrong word. Be more concerned that you’re not saying anything at all. Invite people to come in and not be perfect, and not have the right word, and not get it right and say that’s okay. We’ll figure it out on the back end. What do we need to work on? Even though you may or may not say it perfectly, I think that invites a much deeper relationship—much deeper trust, because now people feel like, “Hey, I can talk. I can literally talk and not be so concerned about my work.” Yeah, it’s huge.

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