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NASCAR's Reckoning and Four More Lessons on Employee Inclusion

A group of people sitting on chairs at a mental health event.
​NASCAR's CHRO John Ferguson, center, speaking at the SHRM Executive Network's Visionaries Summit 2022.

Building a workplace culture in which all employees belong and have equal opportunities to thrive was the theme of last month’s Visionaries Summit, a gathering of SHRM’s Executive Network members in Chicago. Here are five nuggets of wisdom from the 40+ presenters:

1. NASCAR's Confederate Flag Reckoning: A Lesson in Listening

In the spring of 2020, the Confederate flag was still prominent in the sport of NASCAR. But within a month after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, NASCAR made the decision to ban the flag from all its races and properties. The response was quick and positive, both among the fan base and the NASCAR applicant pool.

"What we instantly saw in that action step was that the sport opened up to a whole new world of people, a whole new world of employees. And we're still on that journey," said NASCAR CHRO John Ferguson, at last month's Visionaries Summit.

The flag ban was just one step in NASCAR's move toward a more diverse culture, which was led by listening to its fan base and its employees—especially the younger ones.

Ferguson said that during the pandemic and the racial protests following Floyd's murder, it was impossible for NASCAR to ignore what was happening in employees' lives outside the workplace.

"People are bringing their whole selves into the workplace now and I give credit to the younger generation," said Ferguson, noting that younger employees these days are demanding that their employer's values be aligned with their own personal values.

That listening includes encouraging employees to respectfully discuss some of the hot-button topics that used to be off-limits in the workplace.

"I grew up learning that you don't talk about how much you make. You don't talk about church. You don't talk about politics in the workplace. So those were some of the things I had to unlearn to go back to these connections with people," Ferguson said.

In response to the racial injustice protests in 2020, most organizations issued public statements of solidarity. But Ferguson noted that too many organizations have failed to follow through on those commitments.

"When I talk to employees, whether at NASCAR or elsewhere, I say that when they put that language out (in 2020), they created accountability for them. … That's hard for any leadership team to ignore," he said.

2. Connection with Intention: Don't Leave It to Chance

Pre-pandemic, building connections between employees was like the old real estate motto—location, location, location. We built connections with people who we interacted with in our physical workplace. In the remote world, organizations must be much more intentional about taking steps to create relationship-centered workplaces, said David Shapiro, former CEO of MENTOR, a Boston-based nonprofit. That can include everything from formal mentorship programs to scheduling regular (and random) check-in Zoom calls with employees.

"It can't be left to chance. It can't just be people who are good at connecting in a virtual world feeling like they belong," Shapiro said. "Through a system culture, you can make relationships a part of your workplace. …. People today have watches that tell them to breathe. What's wrong with having a system asking if you've connected today? Have you talked to your people today? … Everything is drawing us inward these days. We need systems to have connections and draw us out."

3. It's HR's Job to Call Out 'the Ugly" in the C-suite

The most well-intentioned policies on inclusion and belonging are turned upside down when senior leaders and managers misuse their power. Colleen Mitchell, senior director of DEI, belonging and culture at Nordstrom, said, "We need to have positive tension on senior leaders in the company to say that when you are eroding psychological safety by the fact that you can't manage your emotions or can't manage your ego, then you are crippling the company."

HR leaders should not look for others to step in. HR is uniquely positioned to take action in such situations. Julie Lodge-Jarrett, chief people officer at Dick's Sporting Goods, said, "If you are a great strategic business partner, you've got the ability to hold up the mirror and help the leaders see the ugly that he or she is unwilling to see. That's our job. Because if we can help them be the best versions of themselves, then they're going to set the right tone."

4. The End of Offices Means the Start of Real Diversity

Voya Financial, like many white-collar companies, is shedding office space as it makes remote and hybrid work permanent. The benefit has been not just lower administrative costs, but also a more diverse hiring base.

"We're now no longer filling up offices just because the leases were there. We're out of the real estate business," said Voya CHRO Kevin Silva. "Now we can hire diverse populations where they are. We're going into communities that we couldn't go into before and bringing them to us."

And those Voya employees who did return to the company's New York headquarters saw something new. The executive team gave up their private suites and now sit among the masses.

"When I say gave up, that means name off the door, files gone, no assistance," Silva said. "I don't have an office. My CEO doesn't have an office with his name on it. My CFO doesn't have an office with his name on it. And we go where our people are."

5. Leaders Must Reveal Their Vulnerable Sides

A big push in inclusion and belonging is to allow—and even encourage—employees to bring their authentic selves into the workplace. But if managers and leaders put on their game face all day, employees won't feel safe to let down their own guard, said Tracy Layney, CHRO of Levi Strauss & Co.

"It starts with us as leaders, HR leaders. A lot of us were trained in HR not to be vulnerable and not to share about personal stories," Layney said. "I have shared publicly about burnout. I had someone else talk about abuse as a teenager. Have the top of your organization talk about these stories. … I can tell you the amount of positive feedback I get. It gives everyone the permission to do things. And then they get care, they go to an EAP, they ask for an accommodation, they ask for time off if they need it because they know it's OK. So, role modeling that behavior is so important."

For more on the event, see Overheard at the Visionaries 2022 Summit: 8 Great Quotes 



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