Advancing workplace DEI initiatives strengthens employee engagement, retention

Advancing workplace DEI initiatives strengthens employee engagement, retention

Dr. Sheila M. Strong has noticed an increase in companies’ efforts related to diversity, equity and inclusion over the past few years, given factors that range from racial injustice to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Sheila M. Strong

“Companies are recognizing that change is not an option, but it is urgent and necessary,” said Strong, director of Leadership Development and Equity at United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes.

She added that efforts focused on DEI initiatives in the workplace can bring about positive change such as the opportunity to eradicate prejudice, enhance levels of creativity and innovation and improve healthy employee engagement and retention.

The United Way of the Greater Rochester and Finger Lakes, for example, places equity at the center of all it does, creating a culture where everyone can thrive, Strong noted.

Strong made the comments as part of a panel discussion on Building Inclusive Work Environments at the Rochester Business Journal’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Virtual Summit last week.

Panelists shared key insights on ways to advance DEI practices within a company’s culture.

The panel was moderated by Jonathan Ntheketha, director of DEI at The Harley School.

Joining Strong on the panel were:

  • Herb J. Alexander, chief diversity officer at Cayuga Health System.
  • Sydney Bell, manager of diversity, equity and inclusion at ESL Federal Credit Union and
  • Jessica Cohen, LGBTQ+ education coordinator at Trillium Health.

Bell said one of the things ESL did in the initial stages of its DEI journey was to pause and listen to the feelings and needs of the workforce before taking any action.

The credit union implemented listening sessions across the organization and placed an emphasis on building trust with employees so the sharing of ideas could flow freely and openly.

ESL then built on those learning opportunities to develop DEI initiatives that positively impacted the organization, she said.

“Our employees, members and stakeholders deserve to know their identities are valued and respected,” Bell said.

Cohen said company leaders need to commit to DEI initiatives for the long-haul and should constantly be seeking feedback and learning.

She encouraged organizations to examine their policies and procedures and implement proactive practices, noting that is customary practice at Trillium.

Cohen also advised business leaders to refrain from asking employees to leave their personal lives at the door.

“We bring our full selves with us to work,” Cohen said, adding being one’s authentic self is what makes people good at their jobs. “Honor those identities and make space for them.”

Alexander noted that, often, DEI work is done in a reactionary — rather than proactive — way.

He is working to change that mindset.

“We are trying to change the narrative of DEI from being an issue to being an asset,” he said, adding it is important to meet people where they are, rather than where we think they should be.

Alexander noted that a business case to be made regarding DEI at the workplace.

“Organizations can be both morally right and efficient,” he said.

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