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Four things energy companies are doing to improve diversity, equity and inclusion

The energy industry has in recent years begun looking for ways to increase the diversity of its workforce. Efforts initially focused upon making the workforce better reflect the communities companies were serving, with programs primarily geared toward recruiting and retaining more women and people of color. With increased national attention on the broader issue of race in America, many energy companies are looking inward and instituting deeper conversations about equity and inclusion, working to create a more welcoming and supportive environment for all.

Here are a few of the things CEWD member companies are doing to connect, engage, and create change.

Leading Corporate Conversations on Race

Inspired by the national conversation on race that followed the killing of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests, Southern Company Gas recently held its first-ever corporate conversation on race. The 60-minute live, online conversation was led by CEO Kim Greene and others in company leadership, with roughly 3,000 employees tuning in to listen, said Tommi Paris, Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Southern Company Gas. That conversation was the start of a series of dialogues to better understand race in America and find meaningful solutions that promote real change.

“Our executives talked very openly during this purpose-driven dialogue on race. They started the conversation focusing on psychological safety, which is the ability to respectfully share a perspective or experience, even when it’s uncomfortable and hard. It was powerful to see our leaders model this inclusive leadership behavior during this conversation to reinforce our ‘speak up” culture,’” she said. “During the conversation, they shared their personal and professional experiences regarding race and talked about the importance of continuing the conversation beyond that moment.”

During the virtual conversation, Paris shared that white leaders reflected on how they had never experienced discrimination and were committed to learning more about the experiences of others. A black leader shared that his 85-year-old mother called him every time there was a story in the news about a black man killed by police officers, because she worried so much about his safety. 

“This one conversation is just the start for us. Our leadership is committed to continuing to better understand the experiences of black people, and other people of color, in America and in our company, so we can work toward meaningful change.”

Tommie Paris

Director of Diversity and Inclusion , Southern Company Gas

“These are real stories that we typically don’t hear every day, especially when we’re at work. But these stories are important for us to hear. These stories are manifestations of real issues with real implications that affect our employees personally and professionally,” said Paris. “This one conversation is just the start for us. Our leadership is committed to continuing to better understand the experiences of black people, and other people of color, in America and in our company, so we can work toward meaningful change.”

In addition to the conversations on race, Southern Company Gas employees are participating in a Summer Learning Series that includes a robust suite of resources and virtual workshops dedicated to educating employees on racial equity issues and skills needed to engage in purpose-driven dialogues about race. For example, its D&I team just launched a 21-Day Challenge on Racial Equity that includes a video series of the untold history of race in America. “In order for us to really make headway on racial equity, we all have to commit to unlearning some of what we’ve been taught and learning about the realities of the issues we’re facing and what the implications are for us as an organization and in our communities,” said Paris.

Southern Company Gas also offers employees information about how to hold conversations on race and how to respond to racism in a way that promotes the company’s values. All employees, including the executive leadership team, regularly take part in these learning sessions, said Paris. “They are modeling what it looks like to realize Dr. Maya Angelou’s quote: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.’”

“The environment we find ourselves in is providing us with an amazing opportunity to learn and grow,” said Paris. “Many teachable moments are emerging. People are leaning in and taking on the request and the invitation of our CEO and many of her messages that say, ‘Please start to practice being comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ “We are all being called to meet this moment in history in a meaningful way.”

Creating Immersion Groups and Ally Labs

Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) has spent the past three years focusing on the unique needs of individual segments of its workforce, creating immersive experiences that allow diverse groups of employees to form networks of support, said Joyce Cooper, the company’s Director of Diversity & Inclusion.

Prior to the pandemic, cohorts of 12-20 employees spent time away together off-site, in two 20-hour sessions talking about their life and work experiences, said Cooper. So far, two cohorts of women and three of people of color (African American, LatinX and Asian American) have taken part in these sessions, called Gatherings. In 2020, the sessions are being done virtually.

“It is really a way of sharing common struggles and strategies on how to overcome barriers,” she said.

So often what companies are doing engages the mind. We give people information about things they need to think about, but there is often no accountability to change. These immersion experiences are really about how to engage the heart and people’s feelings and really have that call to action to individually digest this and be different on the other side of it.”

Joyce Cooper

Director of Diversity and Inclusion, OPPD

It is also an opportunity to share suggestions and concerns with OPPD, said Cooper. “They spend part of their time sharing with Mart Sedky, OPPD’s vice president of Human Capital, what they think the company can do to make it more inclusive for women and people of color. They generate a list of things OPPD should start, stop and continue doing. Each cohort has a three-four hour meeting with Mart and then they decide on a project they plan to work on to help the company make changes.”

So far, Gathering cohorts have come up with a dozen suggested changes, including requiring feedback for employees who are turned down for positions for which they interviewed; incorporating questions about diversity and inclusion when interviewing candidates for leadership positions; and training members of the cohorts to participate on interview panels and assist with talent acquisition to broaden outreach to ethnically diverse candidates.

Cooper said the company likewise provides immersive experiences for white male leaders, to give them a deeper understanding of how their experiences differ from those of women or people of color. Then, the leaders share how they can utilize their privilege to be better allies.

 

They will soon offer an immersive experience that brings everyone together, she said, that lasts for four days. The “allies lab” will be based on the experience she and Mart, her boss, attended last year, with people outside the company. “You hear the perspective of what each group experiences,” Cooper said, “without asking questions. The requirement is to just listen to the person who’s different from you and let it sink in. Being able to empathize with others made the conversation so deep and beneficial. We said we have to do this with our company, because we saw the change in ourselves.”

Taking a deeper dive into what diversity, equity and inclusion mean to employees has led to substantive changes among individuals, as well as the company culture, said Cooper.

“So often what companies are doing engages the mind,” she said. “We give people information about things they need to think about, but there is often no accountability to change. These immersion experiences are really about how to engage the heart and people’s feelings and really have that call to action to individually digest this and be different on the other side of it. That’s what I think is impactful and moves the needle on D,E&I and the company culture.”

Developing an Inclusion Index

With the help of an employee engagement survey, Xcel Energy is creating an inclusion index that measures how employees feel about their work environment and prompts the company to make changes where needed, said Baird McKevitt, Director of Inclusion and Diversity.

The survey, begun last year, includes five questions around an employee’s feelings about belonging, authenticity, recognition, empowerment and the ability to speak up, McKevitt said. They are currently in the process of collecting more employee responses to these questions, which will give them a full year’s worth of data.

Once they have all of the answers, he said, this “emotional metric” will allow him to analyze the data to see if employees’ responses differ by gender, race or department.

“We can look across the business and understand if we have areas where people are not feeling as included, and work with the leaders in those areas to have conversations about why that’s the case. We can work together to brainstorm ways to do better.”

“We know that having a more inclusive and diverse workforce makes our company stronger,” he said. “Our commitment has to go beyond human resources practices.”

Baird McKevitt

Director of Inclusion and Diversity, Xcel Energy

While Xcel has been working for several years to increase the diversity of its worker pipeline, said McKevitt, this program will allow the company to see how well they are doing making diverse employees feel welcome once they’ve been hired.

“We know that having a more inclusive and diverse workforce makes our company stronger,” he said. “Our commitment has to go beyond human resources practices.”

Teaching Employees How to Recognize Their Own Unconscious Bias

Maria Smedley, Esq., Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Strategy for Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC) said her company received a lot of positive feedback after providing unconscious bias training as part of its quarterly meetings with managers and supervisors.

“The key to good training is getting the right trainer,” said Smedley, who brought in Dr. Atira Charles to teach “The Realities of Bias in the Workplace: Implications, Strategies and Solutions.”

The two-hour training session, which teaches people the basic psychology around bias – both conscious and unconscious – is a good place for companies to start when raising awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion issues, she said.

“It’s like sticking your toe in the water first. Because it’s based on scientific evidence, how our brain works and how everyone is biased. It doesn’t make any particular group feel like they are being targeted, but it’s effective in getting people in the room to acknowledge they have biases because our brains are wired that way. Then they learn how to make sure those biases don’t lead to acts of discrimination.”

So far, about 80 managers and supervisors and 150 employees have been through the training, Smedley said. “I think it got the conversation going, and that’s always a plus. I think it also helped give employees a common language to use to talk about experiences associated with unconscious bias.”

Following the death of George Floyd, AECC brought Dr. Charles back to facilitate a town hall meeting for roughly 100 employees who voluntarily signed on to discuss racial equality in the workplace, Smedley said. The two-hour virtual session, which included an introduction from the President/CEO and participation from company senior leadership, allowed employees to ask questions and share personal experiences.

At the end, she said, it was clear that employees wanted more. “Some wanted a list of specific resources to better educate themselves,” she said, “such as books like White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist. Some wanted more training on how to have these kind of discussions. Some wanted Lunch and Learn meetings on diversity. Some wanted a mentorship/leadership program to assist people with different backgrounds. Others wanted the creation of diversity resource groups.”

“I think these discussions provided an opportunity to have open dialogue about issues that were under the surface,” said Smedley. “Employees have been given permission to have conversations that otherwise they might not have had. And we’ve shown employees that management cares about the employee work experience and is willing to do things they haven’t done before, so all employees feel valued.”

Maria Smedley, Esq.

Vice President of Human Resources and Corporate Strategy, Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation (AECC)

“I think these discussions provided an opportunity to have open dialogue about issues that were under the surface,” said Smedley. “Employees have been given permission to have conversations that otherwise they might not have had. And we’ve shown employees that management cares about the employee work experience and is willing to do things they haven’t done before, so all employees feel valued.”