Driving Meaningful D&I Change: A Q&A with Sonia Cargan

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 31, 2018
Driving Meaningful D&I Change: A Q&A with Sonia Cargan

This is the second in a series of Q&As with diversity and inclusion leaders.

Meet Sonia Cargan, new chief diversity officer at American Express. The position is associated with long-standing diversity and inclusion (D&I) best practices, and the company has been singled out over the years for these efforts. 

In 2017, media outlet Bloomberg put American Express on its list of 52 companies that are building gender-equal workplaces. It has made both Working Mother magazine's list of Best Companies for Multicultural Women and the National Association of Female Executives' list of Top Companies for Executive Women for 15 years. In 2016, Black Enterprise magazine named it among the top 50 Best Companies for Diversity.

Cargan steps into her new role after 22 years at American Express, having served as vice president of HR in the United Kingdom and Singapore and, most recently, as vice president, HR business partner, in global finance and corporate functions in New York City. In New York, Cargan worked with a portfolio of groups that included global finance, the general counsel's organization, global advertising and brand management, the internal audit group, and corporate affairs and communications. 

As chief diversity officer, Cargan leads a seven-member team of D&I professionals that includes two vice presidents. She also serves as a conduit from the executive team to the company's 15 colleague networks—the Executive Black Employee Network Global Forum, the Hispanic Origin & Latin American Network and the Jewish Employee Network are among them—that have nearly 100 global chapters.

SHRM Online caught up with her during the company's recent Global Women's Conference in New York City to talk about what she will be doing in the D&I sphere.

SHRM Online: In your new role at American Express, you partner closely with key stakeholders. What are some of the ways you do that to drive meaningful change?

Cargan: I think about key leaders, I think about our employee base and I think about the fact we're asking them to deliver for our customers and shareholders. It starts with understanding business objectives and how diversity and inclusion will help employees deliver those business objectives—for example, understanding the spending power of women when designing marketing or new products.

Also, diversity of perspective comes in many guises—gender, race, world view. The more alternative perspectives you can get around the table and to be part of the dialogue—particularly in decision-making and problem-solving—the better the outcome is for the rest of the company.

SHRM Online: At one time, "diversity" was code for having more people of color. What are some of the more recent trends that you see in diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Cargan: At American Express, there is an ongoing focus on gender, on race, on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer), on Millennials and on recognizing that employees have different stages in their life and supporting people differently, depending on where they are [in their stage of life].

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Develop a Diversity and Inclusion Initiative]

SHRM Online
: In light of the post-Weinstein and #MeToo era, and tensions over incidents such as what happened recently at Starbucks, what can organizations do to promote a respectful, civil workplace?

Cargan: The tone comes from the top. It's essential that the most senior leaders in an organization articulate that poor behavior is not acceptable. Senior leaders need to reinforce that; they need to reinforce it consistently and make it clear to everybody in the organization that it's not acceptable and [that any complaints] will be investigated and action will be taken.

SHRM Online: How does an employer in a geographic region that has a significantly homogenous population create a diverse workplace?

Cargan: You need to understand the markets you're operating in. It's really important that you understand the locations. It's really critical that you're having conversations with your colleagues, with your business leaders, with your stakeholders, about what diversity and inclusion mean for you. What does it mean in Japan? What does it mean in Singapore? What does it mean in the U.K.? Think broadly about diversity. Diversity is about perspective, it's about background, it's about experience. Make sure you're thinking broadly.

SHRM Online: American Express has a robust D&I program. Please tell us more about what it's doing.

Cargan: We want to make sure we enable our leaders to develop great teams, and great teams are diverse teams.

This is the third year we've participated in the Blue Circle Leadership Institute's "Transformational Leadership" program for midlevel multicultural women. The program takes place during the workday and includes live as well as online training. Women from American Express interact with women from other companies in the program, which is another great way of building a network and identifying mentors.

We want to focus on improving the representation of underrepresented minorities, enable women at American Express to achieve great things and help all of our employees reach their fullest potential.


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