Diversity and inclusion are big buzzwords in the insurance and financial sectors right now. But it’s not always easy to go from talking about these ideals to incorporating them into everyday functions in the company — including meetings, leadership training and other corporate events.
For businesses that are truly committed to recruiting and retaining employees with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, making events both diverse and inclusive is more important than one might think. The hard truth is that people of a different race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, religion or age often aren’t being given the same access to opportunities as people in the majority.
“A lot of companies that are trying to do good what they’ve done is they’ve recruited people who are different, but they don’t necessarily nurture, mentor or highlight the potential in the different folks to climb the ladder,” says Jessica Pettitt, CSP, owner of Good Enough Now, who is a speaker, author and educator who has been doing diversity and inclusion work for nearly 20 years. “If people are not being nurtured in the organization, that organization should at least outsource it to a conference or other event.”
Amy C. Waninger, CPCU, author of the book “Network Beyond Bias” and founder and CEO of Lead At Any Level, agrees with Pettitt. “When you have high-potential employees and, in particular, when you have high-potential employees who don’t look like everyone in your C-suite, those are people you should send to conferences,” says Waninger, whose business helps companies build leadership across its diverse employee population. “When people who are high-potential go into an environment where they feel stimulated and part of a community, and they see their employer is investing in them, they’re more likely to stay in the industry.” After all, it doesn’t matter how many people from diverse backgrounds a company recruits; if they don’t stay and advance into leadership positions, the firm will be hard-pressed to meet its diversity goals.
The other thing planners need to consider is what happens once people arrive and begin participating at gatherings. All of the attendees need to feel comfortable and included. “Just drawing in diversity does not necessarily create a successful event,” says Donna Brighton, co-founder of Leadership Uncorked, which uses wine to teach people about leadership. “When people show up, they need to be engaged and feel honored and be allowed to fully participate.”
As stated, they also need to see people in leadership roles who look like them and have a chance to grow or expand their network of people who are both similar and different from them, experts say.
People and Planning
If Waninger could give just one piece of advice to people organizing events, it would be to include people with a variety of backgrounds and life experiences in the entire planning process. “The more perspectives you have on the front end, the more likely you are to not miss anything on the back end,” she says. That might mean creating a planning committee to provide advice or hiring a diversity consultant who can offer advice on how to create a welcoming environment for everyone. “If you don’t have the luxury of increasing the team, then doing a better job of reaching out to potential participants to understand what their unique needs are is important,” Brighton says. “For example, something like food can seem simple, but there are so many allergies now. It can make people feel like they’re excluded because they have different food needs.”
One of the earliest decisions a planner must make is where to host their event. Before picking a destination or venue, it’s important to investigate local laws and attitudes that might affect participants, Pettitt says. Some states ban the use of gender-neutral pronouns or gender-neutral bathrooms in public facilities. The laws around medical cannabis also may be different, which can cause problems for participants with disabilities who use it routinely.
In addition, there are still parts of the country where people who are different may be made to feel very uncomfortable. That culture clash can lead to problems for everyone. “You need to think about, what are the users of the event used to and what are they going to be expecting at the event, and how are you going to close the gap?” Pettitt says.
Other venue considerations include ensuring the facility is accessible for people with disabilities. That means “the entire venue, not just the area around the main stage,” Waninger says. “That includes finding a hotel that will welcome everyone. It’s increasingly possible to find secure accommodation partners that offer a little extra in that regard.”
Says Pettitt, “Some hotels are starting to put rugs in the closets for yoga, stretching or for prayer rugs. They’re also putting an arrow in people’s rooms pointing toward Mecca.” These small stickers are unobtrusive for people who don’t need the information, but some properties have also taken the arrows as an opportunity to educate people, putting a small card on the table explaining why the sticker is there.
These small messages of education and acceptance give businesses an opportunity to increase diversity awareness in their company and industry. When a company asks people to indicate their pronouns on the registration form and includes them on name badges, it can start a conversation about why allowing people to specify their pronouns is important. “Then, they go back to their home communities more educated,” Pettitt points out.
Registration materials should also ask people if they need special accommodations for the event. “It’s amazing to me the number of folks who don’t ask this question,” Pettitt says. “Usually, the push back is, ‘We can’t accommodate everything.’ But you should ask. And if you can’t accommodate a request, let the person know that ahead of time.” Be sure to follow up on these requests one way or another. “That’s actually a bigger liability than not doing anything in the first place. Because you asked but now you’re choosing to ignore the information you got.”
To help young people or people with lower incomes, consider offering registration fees on a sliding scale, providing scholarships and helping people find options for carpooling or roommate matching. Companies are often hesitant to do the latter for liability reasons, Pettitt says, but they can direct people to an event Facebook group or similar service where people can connect with other attendees on their own.
Providing some in-depth guidance on the dress code can also make people feel more comfortable. Registration materials may state “casual dress,” but that could mean dressing casually in designer labels. Even if that’s not the case, people might fear they need to blow their entire paycheck on new clothes to fit in, which might scare them away. “Some conferences are using Pinterest and putting up pictures that say, ‘When we say business casual, this is what we mean.’ It shouldn’t be a boy and girl outfit, but a few options that show them what’s OK,” Pettitt says.
Chances are your event has measurable goals that will track data such as attendance numbers, workshop rankings on surveys and social media engagement. Be sure to establish metrics around equity and inclusion as well. “One of the things I think is really important is asking, what do things like diversity, equity and inclusion mean to us as a company?” Brighton asks. “Those are terms that are thrown around a lot. In your event, how will you measure success? Does it mean you have a more diverse audience? Does it mean your program is more diverse? Make sure you’re clear up front.”
Recruiting Diverse Participants
When it comes time to recruit people for the event, “make statements from the outset on the website, press releases, marketing materials and anywhere else that you’re creating a space that’s safe for everyone,” Waninger says. Sharing that you’re looking to bring together a group of people with a variety of backgrounds lets everyone know they’re welcome.
Make sure people of different skin colors, ethnicities, genders and abilities are shown in marketing materials in an authentic way so people can see that commitment is genuine. Highlighting presenters with a range of life experiences will do the same thing. “If you want diverse attendance at this meeting, you have to get outside the stereotypes for the industry,” Waninger says. “If all of the panelists are CEOs who are 65-year-old men, that doesn’t invite a lot of people to feel welcome.”
In the spirit of diversity, there’s nothing wrong with looking to other industries for best practices and case studies on how to broaden the pool of participants. The Aspen Tech Policy Hub, a policy incubator run by The Aspen Institute, hosts an intensive fellowship program every year. The program places a high priority on recruiting diverse candidates and has done a good job of meeting its goals. Dr. Betsy Cooper, founding director, shared some of their secrets to success.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re trying to get a diverse group is they end up trying to do it within their network,” she says. “But if you’re just sitting around thinking about people you know, the group may not be as diverse. One of the most important things you can do is make it public that you’re searching for these options and allow diverse voices to speak up.”
She adds, “On top of that, it’s really important to reach communities outside the ones you normally speak to and make sure they’re aware of that opportunity. If those communities aren’t visiting your website or following you on Twitter, they won’t see it.” Cooper recommends looking for people who have written articles or blog posts in the field on which you’re focused and contacting them. Another idea is to contact professional organizations that work with people from differing backgrounds and ask them to pass RFPs, meeting invitations or other materials along to their members. This is a great recommendation for events looking to recruit speakers as well as participants.
If the event will select a pool of participants rather than taking registrations from anyone interested in attending, Cooper emphasizes that it’s important to have a transparent and fair selection process. “You risk going back to your own biases if you don’t take the opportunity to select in a methodical way. For our program, we select people first based on their written materials, then through interviews. We score each piece of our experience separately. It doesn’t remove all bias, but I do think it forces you to focus on the specific things you’re looking for.”
Inclusion at Events
To ensure everyone feels comfortable at the event, Waninger recommends having a code of conduct in the program or posted in the event that says something like the following: “Harassment in any form will not be tolerated. People who make unrepresented participants feel unwelcome will be removed.” Pettitt recommends providing a cell phone or pager number in the event brochure people can call if they experience harassment. That way, the company can work to resolve the problem immediately.
“I’ve heard stories about women being followed into their room, or women presenters who were harassed or made to feel very uncomfortable by questioners in the audience,” Waninger says. “It’s important for meeting planners to have a strategy in place in advance for how they’ll deal with those situations. If someone feels threatened or unsafe, do you have a plan to protect them — and potentially to upset someone who is accused of behaving badly? It’s so much more comfortable to think about those things and have a plan and follow that plan, as opposed to thinking about it in the moment when people are upset.”
Brighton recommends having gatherings at the event where attendees can connect both with other attendees who are different from them and who are like them. “Events can have silos, and it can be challenging to be a new person in that environment and feel comfortable participating,” she says. “Partner new people with someone who’s been an attendee for a long time to make introductions and bring them from being an outsider to an insider.”
However, many folks may also feel more comfortable when they connect with others with whom they have more in common, which Brighton found when she worked for an association that had a large contingent of people from other countries. “I always thought it was incredibly important to — rather than just hoping they ran into each other — bring the international participants together so they could meet and interact with each other,” she says.
The old way of thinking about racial diversity was to insist on being colorblind and treating everyone the same instead of acknowledging the differences that made them interesting and full of meaningful contributions. Just as that outdated model of thinking is now gone, the idea of designing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ event may not always work.
Her Leadership Uncorked events use wine as an analogy for corporate leadership. But at one of her trainings, she had a person who didn’t drink alcohol. She found a way to draw the same parallels using tea so that attendee could have a similar but unique sensory experience to everyone else. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to design something that’s gender neutral and friendly to everyone,’ it’s about looking at each unique individual and finding a way to make sure they’re cared for,” Brighton says. “Find alternatives so people are not excluded from the conversation.” I&FMM