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Six Ways to Engage a Diverse Workplace

by Jane Burns Thursday, March 17, 2016

Making inclusion work takes more than having the right head count. It’s about saying “Good morning,” thinking deeply about who you mentor and why, and sharing a really good cup of coffee with someone you’ve never met.

In short, diversity is nothing without inclusion. Both were at the heart of an executive panel discussion, “Leading with an Inclusive Lens” with Wisconsin BBA students as part of The Compass Program™ at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“You’re communicating with people all over the world on a daily basis, you’ll need more cultural dexterity than I ever had,” Ray Wilson, managing partner at the Milwaukee office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), told a group of more than 100 Wisconsin business students and faculty. “It gives me a lot of hope and a lot of optimism that your generation will get it right.”

Ray Wilson of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), with Nízida Arriaga (MBA ’91) of Nuveen Investments. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

Wilson was joined by panelists Nízida Arriaga (MBA ’91), managing director and head of investment due diligence  at Chicago-based Nuveen Investments; David Gay (BBA ’96), managing partner of Ernst & Young in Milwaukee; and moderator Binnu Palta Hill, director of diversity and inclusion at the Wisconsin School of Business.

Wilson, Arriaga, and Gay are members of the WSB’s Diversity Advisory Board. They shared personal and professional stories of how they have experienced diversity and inclusion, how they’ve seen workplaces evolve, and how they’ve recognized biases within themselves and used those lessons to shape their leadership styles.

Among the insights offered by the business leaders:

  • Inclusion is the key.

Hill emphasized that inclusion begins with acknowledgment, and the panelists agreed that a simple “hello” can go a long way. Arriaga says that while at a prior firm she noticed that while the staff worked well together, everyone ignored consultants who worked there for months at a time. A simple “hello,” “good morning,” even in the elevator, can change the feeling of inclusion in an organization. 

Wilson says his firm noticed one staff member who never joined them when they went out for celebratory drinks. It turned out it wasn’t because the staff member didn’t want to be part of the team, he didn’t want to be around alcohol because of his religion.

“He’s as hard-working as anyone, but he’s got a commitment to his religion,” Wilson says. “So now that we know that, the next time we have an after-hours party we’re going to find a way to do it without alcohol and celebrate with him.”

  • It’s the way of the world.

Arriaga says that globally most business growth isn’t coming from the U.S., but from outside it. “It’s India, China, South America,” she says. “You need to think about where the growth at the firms you’re going to be working at is going to come from. You need to think about the skill sets that you need to be able to work with somebody in China or Vietnam.”

  • Lead by example.

Gay says he is aware that as a managing partner, employees pay attention to which people he spends his time with. “It’s unnerving but I realize it’s important to people,” he says. “You have more influence than you think.” If leaders mentor only people who remind them of themselves, he says, it illustrates an unconscious bias and a preference that others in the workplace will pick up on.

  • Give the benefit of the doubt.

The panelists said most people trip up not out of malice, but from a lack of experience. And, Arriaga says, you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what you perceive as bias. Arriaga, a Puerto Rico native, related a story of how she was with her son at a park and someone asked if she was his nanny. Then, while speaking Spanish with a McDonald’s cashier while buying her son a Happy Meal, the cashier asked if it was a gift for her grandchild.

“I may have been perplexed at some people in the park who thought I was the nanny because I was Latina,” Arriaga says. “But maybe, as youthful as I may think I look, they may have been  asking because they thought I was too old to have a five-year-old.  None of them are good biases but I'd rather not be considered ‘old.’ This funny story shows how one should not jump to conclusions; give the benefit of the doubt about your perception of other people’s biases.”

  • Start a conversation.

Wilson says it’s important to get out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with a stranger. “It might not be something you want to do now, but five years from now, you’ll wish you had taken more opportunity to get to know people.”

Gay says it sounds challenging, but it’s not and can lead to better conversations. “I know it’s difficult, but how often have you been offended when someone says, ‘Tell me about yourself’?” he says.  “That’s literally how easily it can start.”

  • Travel.

Seeing that your way isn’t the only way is huge, says Arriaga, adding that many facets of American culture were influenced by other parts of the world. “The world is so large,” she says. “Think about what you like to eat. Thirty years ago it was almost impossible to get a good cup of coffee and now you can get a good cup of coffee on every block. There is amazing food everywhere, and all of that comes from diversity.”

Diversity Panel

Binnu Palta Hill (L), director of diversity and inclusion at the Wisconsin School of Business, leads the panel discussion featuring (L to R) Nízida Arriaga (MBA ’91), managing director and head of investment due diligence at Chicago-based Nuveen Investments; Ray Wilson, managing partner at the Milwaukee office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC); and David Gay (BBA ’96), managing partner of Ernst & Young in Milwaukee. PHOTO: PAUL L. NEWBY II

The topic of diversity and inclusion wasn’t new to students, but many of the insights from the panelists were, say students who attended.

“There’s a way that work gets done and ideas get generated because of diversity, and that was good to hear,” says Brenna George (BBA ’17). “I thought it was interesting that you can talk about being diverse, but if you’re not also inclusive, it doesn’t really matter.”

Dan Brown (BBA ’17) grew up in Minnesota around few people of color, but during his freshman year had an African-American roommate from Compton, California, and another suite mate who was gay. That opened his eyes to diversity and inclusion, he said, but he still wanted to learn more from the panel.

“I didn’t realize the backgrounds they had and the struggles that they’ve gone through to become the aware people they are,” Brown says.

The panelists’ insights of how diversity and inclusion are important as students go on to work in the world struck a chord with Brown.

“We need to understand what other people feel,” he says. “That needs to be a goal for everyone.”

The panel showed that it doesn’t have to be that difficult to talk about diversity and inclusion, which is a good lesson for students to hear, they say.

“In certain environments it’s easier to talk about,” says Elizabeth Borkhus (MAcc ’16). “If you’re in a safe environment with people willing to talk about it, I don’t think it’s hard.”