(Illustration by Softulka/iStock by Getty Images)

The three crises that America is undergoing simultaneously–health, economic, and social–have a major element in common: they’ve exposed the painful consequences of inequality and bias. The COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and massive layoffs have disproportionately affected people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. While the debate over cause-and-effect is highly politicized, in Corporate America the response has been an unprecedented amount of earnest public statements about striving to be part of the solution.

How is that translating into action? For one thing, companies have tried for years to emphasize diversity and inclusion (D&I), deploying a variety of programs. For a recent webinar, From Day One gathered four advocates of D&I with hands-on experience in promoting one of those tools: employee-resource groups (ERGs), also known as affinity groups. These groups–for women, people of color, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and more–can reinforce a company's leadership in D&I as well as providing mutual support for ERG members. Among the highlights of the discussion:

Opening up the Conversation

Among seasoned advocates of diversity, the current recession has ominous echoes of 2007-09, when years of progress toward corporate diversity suffered a setback because of layoffs and hiring freezes. “You look at the Great Recession, you look at the impact on the legal industry,” said attorney D.L. Morriss, the D&I partner at the Chicago-based law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson. “Hardest hit African-Americans saw a 13% reduction, Asians and Hispanic Latinos saw about a 9% reduction, even though historically, they only represent about 5% to 8% of the industry.” In an economic crisis, ERGs can be influential voices in helping management navigate the situation in an equitable way.

D&I advocacy groups can take different forms. Atlanta-based Piedmont Healthcare employs a program called a “diversity council,” in which all the employees who might ordinarily join an affinity group instead mix together with the same mission, said Jo Anne Hill, Piedmont’s executive director of D&I. Council members work together to develop programs around such occasions as LGBTQ Pride Month.

“We all should support Pride, because these are our patients. These are our providers,” said Hill. “So even people who were not a part of that group came together in the diversity-council model because you can be more than one thing. You can be an African-American, male or female, veteran, someone with a special disability, LGBTQ, so many things.”

Intentionality and Accountability

For David Alfini, partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson and co-chair of the firm’s LGBTQ Affinity Group and Mentoring Committee, the transition to remote work this spring provided an opportunity to step up communication with his ERG, launching bi-weekly meetings.

“They're able to ask us questions about what's going on, what's going to happen when we go back to work, when are we going back to work. I actually think that in a strange way, it's really strengthened our ties,” he added.

Our panelists were asked: How do you make sure you have strong leaders moderating these conversations? And who is held accountable for progress being made?

The speakers at our webinar on affinity groups, clockwise from top left: Kerri-Lyn Kelly, Jo Anne Hill, D.L. Morriss, David Alfini and moderator Lydia Dishman (Image by From Day One)

Morriss offered a personal example of leaders committing themselves emotionally and physically being allies: “You have to learn how to get comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Our chairman, he kind of raised me up at the firm. And we've been able to exchange in some very candid conversations where he's able to say, ‘Well, I don't understand exactly [what] I'm supposed to say.’ And we can talk through that. But I think accountability is something that you exemplify that you show physically, so having a leader in charge who is present is certainly important.” (Here is the firm’s latest D&I report.)

Hinshaw & Culbertson celebrated LGBTQ Pride Month last year on the firm’s rooftop in Chicago, inviting all colleagues, including several prior chairmen, to the festivities. Alfini remembers the event fondly. “It really showed how far the firm has come,” he said.

Getting Outside the Comfort Zone

Hill observed that company-wide evolution in the realm of D&I can be uncomfortable, like a tricky yoga pose. “If you ever do yoga, and I do yoga every single morning, some of the positions are uncomfortable, but I see growth and [us] being more agile, and I think that's where diversity and inclusion really is,” she said.

Part of the process involves opening up about personal experience. “I shared this internal memo with the firm a few weeks ago, titled: ‘When Is It OK to Run?’,” said Morriss, whose memo was subtitled, “A Cultural Reflection on Raising a Black Son.” He continued: “It was based on my experience and feeling in response to the Ahmaud Arbery death. My son asked me, can he walk to Walgreens to get some index cards, because he likes to make these little sports cards. And that's his hobby. And my immediate reaction out of fear was, well, no, not right now. It's not a good time,” he said.

Alfini talked about his personal journey to becoming a leader in the LGBTQ community. “I never thought there would be a time when anyone could be openly gay at work,” he said. “I never thought that would happen. And about five years into my time at the firm, the affinity groups were formed, but I wasn't openly gay at work. I didn't join our affinity groups. And it wasn't until younger associates came that I saw that this was a real benefit. I thought that I would lose more by being openly gay than I would gain and I realized I was wrong and I joined the affinity group. And over the years, I've become a leader in it.”

The affinity groups provide another benefit: creating a space to talk about social upheaval like the widespread protests over racial injustice and how they’re affecting one’s coworkers. Our panelists affirmed that the more open and vulnerable they are in these efforts to broaden cultural awareness, the more understood and heard everyone begins to feel.

At Piedmont Healthcare, employees can join its diversity councils by filling out a one-page interest form. People from all levels of the company are encouraged to take part, including younger employees like Kerri-Lyn Kelly, a talent development and learning specialist at Piedmont. “I immediately was drawn to it knowing that I wanted to be a part of something bigger,” Kelly said. “I'm still relatively new to my career. I wanted to be a part of a council and have that opportunity to share my story and to learn from others as well. I believe it's all about education. I know I don't know all the answers, but I want to learn. And I want a safe space to be able to have those discussions, learn from others, and bring my perspective and experience to the table as well.”

Hearing those life stories and experiences offer a good way to get past superficial assumptions about coworkers, the place where unconscious bias lurks. Said Hill: “When we talk about diversity and inclusion, what I often like to say when I speak is: ‘If you stop at what you see, you're going to miss out on the best part of me.’”

We invite you to watch the full video of this webinar here and consult our schedule of future webinars and conferences here.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.