Saturday, May 18, 2024

How large companies take DEI seriously

There’s a lot of discussion in companies, in higher education, and among politicians about DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion. DEI is changing how some of the largest companies and institutions hire and promote, how they treat employees and how they deal with customers and vendors.  

Here is what it is: Diversity is the presence in a workplace of people of different races, ethnicities, genders and cultural backgrounds. Equity looks at how people of equal skill and experience get paid for the same job, and who gets recruited, hired and promoted. 

Inclusion is harder to pin down. It is concerned with behaviors that can make folks feel valued or not. Inclusive behaviors – or the lack – have an impact on how enthusiastic people are to come to work and how productive they are. Who gets to speak in meetings? Are disrespectful comments toward co-workers tolerated?

High-ranking folks are working at it in some of North Carolina’s largest companies and institutions, possibly your customers or competitors.

But opinion is split.  Defenders say it is about hiring the best talent, paying and promoting fairly and treating people well. Critics say it is the progressive agenda run amok, a newer, more corporate version of reverse discrimination that favors some groups over others, and penalizes folks who had no responsibility for past injustices. 

The North Carolina General Assembly recently passed a bill to limit how race and gender can be discussed by state employees in the workplace or in training. For example, it would prevent the promotion in the workplace or in training of 13 concepts such as: “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive,” and “An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the bill was overridden in the Senate last week and is scheduled for a House override vote.

What comes up sometimes in DEI discussions is the assertion that companies with more engaged workers are more profitable, and DEI increases engagement. You will also hear that companies with more diversity in leadership ranks perform better. Regions and countries that take it seriously, the argument goes, will be more productive and innovative. That’s the business case, which is why it is getting attention in C-suites.  

This got my attention

What got me interested in writing about it recently was the involvement of a couple of influential, mainstream business organizations in a couple of events in Raleigh.


The first was the  “Workplace DEI Conference” held by the NC Chamber at the McKimmon Center at NC State, on June 8. The second was last week, at the Raleigh Chamber. A part of the Raleigh chamber, the Triangle DEI Alliance, hosted a gathering featuring Sertrice Grice, a DEI consultant and co-author of the 2022 book, “Inclusalytics,”  on how organizations can use data to implement DEI. 

The NC Chamber event several weeks ago had a bunch of blue-chip sponsors, which is an indicator of how DEI has become an important thing in corporate America, despite some pushback from conservative politicians and others who say big companies – like Disney – have bought into the “woke” agenda. Sponsors included such names as  BASF, BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, Fidelity Investments, Eaton, Food Lion, Martin Marietta, MetLife, NC State and UNC Health. Big Triangle employers. 

One of the panels featured high-ranking DEI executives:  Audrea Caesar, chief equity and inclusion officer, UNC Health and School of Medicine; Monica Jackson, vice president, global inclusion & diversity, Eaton; Stephanie Helms Pickett, N.C. State associate vice provost for inclusive excellence and strategic practice, Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity; and Courtney White, head of North American HR and Global DE&I, BASF. The moderator was Garland Scarboro, HR, diversity, equity and inclusion manager, Food Lion. DEI is being run at the highest levels of management.

What they said

Caesar, of UNC, said her program is not only focused on employees, but on how patients are affected.

“We’re not just looking at how we’re doing in terms of representation. We’re looking at representation outcomes, and that patient outcome is directly correlated to how well we treat our team-mates. And how well do our team-mates treat our patients?”

Pickett, from N.C. State, said that an alumni survey had picked up something interesting. “At five years out, graduates were saying that they wish they learned about DEI to help them in the workplace.” 


White, of BASF, said that companies have to treat DEI like any other business function. Hoping that good intentions will move the needle, without goals and metrics, won’t get it done. “We understand that we needed to be as intentional about everything we do related to diversity, equity and inclusion, just like we handle every other part of our business strategy.” 

Courtney White

I ran into White twice in the past month, the first time at the NC Chamber conference, and the second time at the Raleigh chamber, for the Alliance gathering. He was the moderator of the discussion with Grice, the “Inclusalytics” co-author. White, a UNC Chapel Hill graduate, has experience at some of the largest Triangle companies, like SAS and Syngenta. BASF, where he has worked since 2017, is a big global chemical company, with around 1,000 workers in North Carolina, mostly at RTP, the headquarters of its North American crop protection division. It has a dispersions and resins business in Charlotte.

I chatted with White several weeks ago, at the NC Chamber event, about how DEI is discussed at BASF. 

“We have to have multiple ways of talking about the topic,” he said, “because some aspect of the way we do it, in our discussion, is going to appeal to people.

“There will be those it appeals to for financial reasons. But there are those it appeals to for social reasons. So what we try to do in perfecting the way we tell the story is touch them all.

“Here’s why it makes societal sense. Here’s why it makes sense for our workforce, as you look at the trending of what’s happening in the world.”

“And, oh, by the way, those are the same folks who are your customers, at the end of the day.  These are the same folks that are looking for what you represent, over and beyond profit. That you stand for societal good. And so, when we package all of that into a message internally or externally, it seems to resonate and make sense.”

Another conference

As I said, there’s a lot of discussion about DEI.  Next month, July 25, there will be a daylong DEI conference at the Raleigh Convention Center, hosted by the Triangle DEI Alliance. Some 1,400 people are expected. The Alliance has secured a big partner for the conference, Bank of America, and high profile sponsors – names like Amgen, BASF, Credit Suisse, Lenovo, Merck. McGuireWoods, IBM, the Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors, First Citizens Bank, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies. The list goes on.

One of the smaller sponsors is Mattingly Solutions, which is the DEI consulting firm co-owned by Grice, of Raleigh, and Victoria Mattingly, of Pittsburgh, who has a doctorate in organizational psychology. 

Mattingly and Grice teamed up with a third collaborator to write the book, “Inclusalytics,” mentioned above. It is a playbook, if you are thinking about launching a DEI effort in an organization. 

It is also a good book to read if you just manage some enterprise. It might cause you to think about how you recruit, or run meetings, or pay your folks.

“We do need data to do this work,” Grice said last week. “It doesn’t have to be complicated or scary to take a data approach.” The data is required to know where an organization needs to focus its DEI efforts. The book is very granular in detailing what kinds of data are needed, and who might have that data. But she added some advice.

“One of my main things I tell people is if you are not ready to commit to the action piece, don’t collect the data.” In other words, don’t raise expectations and then do nothing.

Added White, sitting beside her: “People need to know you’re going to do something with what you heard, because invariably, what you start to hear from folks is, ‘I’m tired of telling you the same thing over and over. Where’s the action?’”

Related Articles