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Financial R&R: Prioritizing DE&I Efforts - Strategies to Build a More Diverse and Inclusive Workplace

By Alliant

There is a clear need for leadership that prioritizes Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives and mental/emotional health in the new workplace. Nothing brought these important issues to the forefront more than the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting transition to the current and hybrid work environment. Ron Borys and Ryan Farnsworth, Alliant Financial Institutions, take a departure from the Insurance angle of the Financial R&R and welcome Aaisha Hamid, Alliant Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager to discuss how to build an environment in which employees feel safe, can be their true, authentic selves, and apply their unique strengths and capabilities to accomplish their personal goals and business objectives. Aaisha provides insight into holistic, long-term strategies leaders can put into place to build a safe and inclusive workplace for all employees.

Intro (00:01):
Welcome to Financial R&R, a show dedicated to financial insurance and risk management solutions and trends shaping the market today. Here are your hosts, Ron Borys and Ryan Farnsworth.

Ron Borys (00:14):
Well, welcome, everyone. Thanks for tuning in to the latest episode of Financial R&R. I'm Ron Borys and here with Ryan Farnsworth, and we're really excited today to talk about a very important topic throughout our industry, throughout the financial institutions' world that we cover throughout our own firm. It's diversity equity inclusion or DEI, and really excited to have Aaisha Hamid. She's been with Alliant now coming on a little over a year, July of last year, and working with us and has made a tremendous impact, and has spoken to our team and many of our colleagues on this topic multiple times. So, we thought it'd be great to have her on as a guest and talk a little bit more about it in detail. So, thanks for joining us, Aaisha.

Aaisha Hamid (00:54):
Thanks for having me, Ron.

Ryan Farnsworth (00:56):
Aaisha, we're really happy to have you here. I mean, normally we talk about boring insurance information and trends on this podcast, but really taking a conversation to the next level and talking about organizational challenges and employee wellbeing and retention and things that are so important for us to think about as leaders of organizations, as employees and frankly as human beings. And we've learned a lot about human interaction and social interaction over the last couple of years and social awareness. And really as part of the conversation today, we're really looking forward to hearing your insights about what it is that we still are learning about diversity, equity and inclusion, and specifically, maybe some of the things that we're learning from studies that have now been ongoing over the last couple of years. There are a lot of different ways we want to take this conversation today, but we're really looking forward to hearing from you about what is it that we're learning now from studies or from paying attention to this topic over the last couple of years.

Aaisha Hamid (01:56):
Yeah, and Ryan, that's a really great place to start. I think that some of the recent happenings like COVID, for instance, have really brought to light some of the social inequities that exist, not just within our societies and our communities, but also in the workplace. And more recently, I believe this year, a lot of organizations, including our own are starting to settle into this new world of not just remote, but hybrid work environments, where you have people on teams that are both virtual, but also in the office. I think that's only exasperated some of these issues. So, it's a really great time to talk about, how we as workplace leaders can do on our end to ensure and mitigate some of these issues and what is happening right now when we're looking at some of the research and data on it. I think one of the biggest things that's come up in the workplace and I'm sure you all have heard of it as well, is the "she-session", right? This idea is that we've lost millions of women who have left the workplace since COVID hit, and that's impacted our percentages of women in both the C-suite as well as senior vice president positions. Prior to this, I mean from 2015 to 2019, the numbers have actually increased. I mean, of course, there's still a lot of representation that's lacking, but they've increased by 5% in the senior vice president rule. And by 4% in C-suite and then after the pandemic, those percentages have all gone down, particularly when we're looking at working mothers, senior-level women, and black women, and this has impacted racial and ethnic minorities as well. It's impacted the LGBTQ community. So, there's a lot of people right now that diversity, equity, and inclusion, like focusing on this is especially important because there's a lot of people that are impacted, and in order to have a truly inclusive workplace, we need to talk about this more, to be able to figure out how we can be there for everyone.

Ryan Farnsworth (03:48):
Those are some pretty stunning stats, and as we've all learned over the last couple of years, in particular, becoming aware of the situation is the first step to identifying it, talking about solutions and what we can all do, and we'll get into those and some of the thoughts on that. I'm sure during the course of this conversation, but what is it that you are seeing in your role specifically, whether it be specific at Alliant in the insurance sector, or financial services broadly speaking, what are some of the things that are driving those trends and what is it that we can initially do, first as people, to help with where those are trending?

Aaisha Hamid (04:28):
I think the number one thing right now is that people don't feel connected. So, there's a lack of inclusion and belonging in the workplace, and I'm noticing people feel in some ways like they are having higher burnout while working from home. It's startling because you wonder if there should be more. You would assume that there'd be more of a work-life balance when people are working from home. But then there are a lot of external factors that we don't always think about. For instance, children, taking care of the elderly that is impacting certain groups more than others. So that's one piece of it, but in terms of connection as well, I think it's always tricky when we're in a virtual environment, you're not having those water cooler conversations. And so, finding ways as an organization to, and on teams as well, finding ways to replicate that kind of connection in a different way, I think is like one of the biggest things that we can do right now. I think that people feel like they can't be truly themselves. They have to constantly stay on because you have your Zoom on all the time now, and so you have to constantly stay on versus before. It's a little bit more organic, the conversations and you're kind of primarily in your workstations. So, I think that's another thing to think about. Thirdly, I mean, because we're looking at hybrid environments as well, is that there are some people that are going to be in the workplace and they're going to have access to leaders versus others that are not going to be in the workplace. So, you're dealing with that as well. That divide. It's something called distance bias, and that's essentially where, Ryan, if you have some people on your team that you're constantly seeing all the time in the office when you're considering opportunities, whether for advancement or for development, who are you going to think of first? The people that you're working with right now, or the ones that are virtual that you don't see as much? So, that's another piece people feel they're not being given opportunities or perhaps they're just not having as much face time.

Ron Borys (06:28):
Yeah, I can tell you firsthand, Aaisha, I've been so fortunate to listen to the conversations that you've had with our group. It's certainly something that Ryan and I talk about all the time, we try to think that we're very front and center of this. You know, I was having a conversation with a colleague today and I said, how are things going? Are you getting out and about, and the response was: Yeah, but there are still some things that I'm probably not getting invited to. And to your point, I don't think it has anything to do with wanting that person to be there or not. I think it's we're all sort of getting back into this groove, and this is a person who joined our firm during the remote/hybrid world. Which, again, I give a lot of people, a lot of credit who were able to move jobs in 2020 or 2021, and basically start at a new company. We know that could be challenging in and of itself from a DEI perspective, but then to have to do it and basically interact through Zoom and through the phone. You have to make sure you're making a concerted effort. I certainly agree with you on the whole burnout phase. I remember when I was early on in my business career and not to date myself, but we didn't have iPhones or blackberries. So, you could leave the office and you would generally pick up on your work the next day because you didn't really have a cell phone and people weren't calling you that way. So, the expectation was you got back to somebody within 24, or 48 hours, and you were super responsive if you did. Now. It's like if you don't get back to somebody in 24 minutes, they don't think you're being responsive enough.

Ron Borys (07:53):
So, I think a lot of the things that you've touched on, particularly in the area of burnout and sort of making sure that we're making an effort, right, you have to be focused on these types of things. More often than not, I think people who fall into the trap of conducting themselves in this matter, it's because they have a blind spot to it. I don't think in many cases they're doing it intentionally. I think it's just because in order to do this effectively within an organization, you have to have it in front of your mind and make it a big priority for yourself.

Aaisha Hamid (08:22):
Yeah. Completely agree, and I mean, talking and adding to this, I think that everyone right now is dealing with a lot more than they were before. So even leaders, they're getting additional pressure from all around to just make sure that you are increasing your premiums if you're talking about the insurance industry, or you're just increasing profits overall, and then you're also making sure that you're listening to all of your direct reports and making sure that you're addressing the different kinds of issues that are coming up, but in the kind of environment that we're in right now, and the time that we're in right now, there's so many nuanced issues that are popping up. So how do you, as a leader, make sure that you're balancing everything? It's like what you said, like having that conscious effort and figuring out what you can do from a structural standpoint to try and mitigate some of these concerns, especially as they continue to increase with more people being welcomed into the workplace.

Ryan Farnsworth (09:12):
You talk about leaders. It's also thinking about, all right, now we need to pivot, what can I start with myself? And what can I do, first of all, to take care of myself in this remote and hybrid work environment and make sure that I'm trying to interact and help and socialize with my clients, with my colleagues? But how can leaders, if we're shifting now to more leadership and organizationally what confirms be doing generally, it's not just about leading. It's also about leading inclusively, and thinking about that dynamic, which is a different dynamic than perhaps we've done as a society up until this point, but so important to think about going forward, what are some of the effective ways that leaders can lead inclusively in the workplace?

Aaisha Hamid (09:57):
Yeah. That's a really great question, Ryan. I think that there are a lot of ways to respond to it. I mean, there's so much to think about when we're discussing inclusive leadership in particular, but when we're thinking about it right now, there is a simple model that I like to bring up, which is NMA: normalize, model, and assess, and that's the very first part of this showcasing what it means to be real right by redefining professionalism. We're in an environment now more than ever, where it's important that we showcase parts of our life as well. If we don't know, like in the beginning, especially people may not know what the rules are, right? Like how do we conduct ourselves professionally while we're also having to be in our home lives, which can sometimes intersect? Leaders are what drive that change because they are a piece of what is needed in order to normalize the workplace culture. So, when we're talking about this particular area of the model, it's about leaders, redefining professionalism for their teams, whether that's through informal coffee chats and showcasing pieces of your life, or just, you know, saying that, Hey, it's okay to not be dressed in a certain kind of way. You can be dressed a little bit more informally when we're having these conversations, these small things, which may not seem like a big deal, but actually impact the way that the other person on the other side of the screen is going to be a feeling or thinking about what they should be doing. One thing that I've noticed in this area, and I'm sure you all have probably seen this as well, is this authenticity word that gets thrown around a lot. I think it become almost a buzzword. And I think that leaders think that it's important to tell people that, Hey, you should be authentic. Like, you know, I value that, you know, you're not going to be punished for it. But the problem with doing that is that you want to make sure that on a structural level, this is also the case. Because you can tell people to be authentic, but systems might still penalize them for it, particularly underrepresented people. So, that's why it's really important to show parts of your life first. And then when other people feel comfortable as well, they'll show it as well, as opposed to just saying like, you should do it, but have you all also noticed this as well? Like have you noticed that authenticity has been coming up more and more, especially when we talk about connection in the virtual world?

Ron Borys (12:08):
Without a doubt. I think you can certainly differentiate the authentic leaders when it comes to this topic versus the folks who are almost, it seems a little more scripted for lack of a better term. There's a passion. There's a way that people who are authentic come across, you know, sometimes we're a little too passionate about what we do, and we have to sort of channel it back a little bit, but I always sort of say, you know, wear it on your sleeve. We're very much of that mindset. I definitely think that there's a difference between people. There's this term called greenwashing and the term greenwashing essentially is, somebody who's saying they're going to do something, but then don't make any changes or implement any operational changes in order to accomplish that goal. Right? So, if I say by the end of 2030, I want to be carbon neutral, but I haven't made any changes in how I run my business or do anything of that sort. People are starting to say that wasn't very authentic, right? You basically just told me what I wanted to hear, but you didn't do anything to try to affect that. And it's a big area of risk that our clients and our underwriters are very focused on because we're starting to see claims emanate out of people who are saying, they're going to do something and then failing to deliver on those promises.

Aaisha Hamid (13:28):
That's such a big point right there because it can come across as disingenuous and it can also go into the world of performative. Once you get into that, it's very difficult to dig yourself out, which is why, when we talk about modeling, I'm talking about work-life balance, which is a big one that's come up. Is that you would assume that with this kind of environment where we're all remote, that there's going to be more of a work-life balance, where you have a more flexible way of working, but there's these unsaid rules when, you are telling people that, hey, I value that a work-life balance, and I want you to do it. But then you're sending emails at all times of the day. And you're expecting an immediate response back. Are you actually, you know, Ron, to your point, is that really authentic or are you being genuine about what you're actually saying? There's a really interesting thing, an executive at Next Up, actually created a wording underneath her email signature, which has taken off, like she wrote an article about it. Her name is Lori Greer. She wrote an article about it, and a lot of other leaders have been replicating this as well. But when she sends emails, she puts something in her signature block that says I'm on a flexible work schedule, and I work across a different time zone. So, I'm sending this message now because it works for me. And then she just tells them like, feel free to read, act or respond as it works for you. So just that simple thing right there, she's acknowledging like, Hey, I'm sending this whenever I don't expect a response back immediately. And I think that's so important. And then I don't know if you all have heard of Nina Godiwalla, she wrote a book called "Women on Wall Street", and she talks a little bit about her time on Wall Street where she said that the people that worked there, they understood very quickly that you have to work smarter, not harder. There would be people there who would work the entire day, but then they would get exhausted. However, the managers would continuously come in and watch what they were doing. So, what they would do is, they would go home, sleep, come back and wear the same outfit that they wore the night before. So, it seemed like they stayed there the entire day. And it feels like we're still in that kind of environment, even though we're virtual. So, you have to make sure as a leader, that you're balancing that yourself as well. So, people also realize it, or at least to Lori's point, putting some kind of note out. So, they realize they don't have to immediately respond and just encouraging people to take their PTO if you're talking about it, but then you're not allowing them to take it off. Then that's a problem.

Ryan Farnsworth (15:46):
Well, Aaisha, I know for people like Ron who started his career before there were computers, it's been a bit of an adjustment. But I think one of the things that's been exemplified by your team and others within Alliant that have helped our group is, historically our group had what we called summer Fridays, where at one o'clock or close to it, you could, on every other Friday kind of start your weekend a little bit earlier, try to have a chance to enjoy the summer a little bit more and disconnect. Well, we literally had to change it from Summer Fridays to Disconnect Fridays, right? Meaning you have to literally disconnect to the extent possible on Friday afternoon with an out of office message that says: Hey, I've stepped away for the weekend. I'll reply as soon as possible. Because to your point, if you put an out of office on, and if I receive an out of office, when I send an email, my expectation is, okay, I'm not going to receive a response for a while. But somehow we have this innate feeling within our own selves that when we have an out of office on, or when someone sends us an email, they expect a response. But when you flip it around the other way, and you receive an out of office reply from someone else, you think, oh, okay, good for them. Right. They're taking that time off, but it's so hard for us to do that. But perhaps it's best as we try to wrap things up here and at least this installment of the conversation. But what are some things that we are talking about as a risk advisor to our clients and what are some things that organizations can and should be doing to institute a long term positive trend in their DE&I culture.

Aaisha Hamid (17:19):
Ryan, I think that's a really great place to wrap up, as well. I think the number one thing that people can do, is to develop a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy. Like you mentioned, these are not things that are going to happen overnight. And the other thing I will end with is that developing retention strategies, that's really important using your data, but you also want to make sure that you have investment at the top. So, if there's a desire, you want to make sure that you're having these conversations with your leadership, because none of this can happen, if it doesn't go from the top down, those are a couple of things. I hope that more organizations continue to take these things seriously, because as we've had this entire conversation today, it impacts so much. And these different kinds of scenarios that come up are only going to highlight the issues even more.

Ron Borys (18:04):
Without a doubt, Aaisha. I think oftentimes people, when they hear the term invest, they automatically go to dollars, and while the dollars are certainly important, I think an investment of time and an investment of attitude is equally important, because a lot of these changes and a lot of these things that need to be done, can be done without having to go and spend excessive amounts of money. I'm sure we will definitely have you on again, with that, we'll wrap things up. For those of you who are interested in learning more about Alliant and Alliant financial institutions, please feel free to visit our website, Thanks again so much for joining Ryan and me, we really enjoyed this conversation, and we look forward to having you on again, real soon.


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