Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Three Crucial Components of a Successful Employer Brand

Only strengthened by the recent civil unrest in the U.S. and across the globe, companies are taking a good look at their corporate cultures and hiring practices to promote a more equitable and diverse working environment while guarding against potential biases. Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are all top of mind for executive teams, HR leaders, and boards of directors seeking to ensure their ongoing success—recruiting and retaining top talent as well as growing the bottom line.

In this episode we speak with Karen Lanning, VP of Human Resources at First American Financial Corporation, about how she and her team are building upon their award-winning culture and employer brand by incorporating their “For All” DEI initiative. First American has been featured on FORTUNE Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For® the last six years in a row. Karen talks with us about what it takes to be successful in the DEI arena and shares insights into how it’s being structured for the more than 13,000 employees at the company.


Episode Transcript

Justin: Hello, and welcome to Expert Opinion. I’m Justin Garvin, director of brand management at Branding Business. Today we’re on the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion or DEI. To help us better understand what it is, what it means, and how it should be considered a priority for corporations globally, I’m honored to have Karen Lanning as my guest on today’s show. Karen is vice president and director of human resources at First American Financial Corporation, a leader in title insurance and settlement services with over 13,000 employees here in the US and one of Fortune Magazine’s 100 best companies to work for the past six years in a row. Hi Karen, it’s so great to have you on the podcast today.

Karen: Hi Justin, happy to be here.

Justin: So Karen, for the sake of furthering introductions, can you tell us a little bit more about you and your role at First American?

Karen: I’d be happy to. I’ve worked at First American for over 20 years and always in the HR function, vice president of HR for our direct and our commercial segments. And I also have the honor of leading what we refer to as our best places to work team and co-chairing our diversity, equity, and inclusion advisory council.

Justin: Great. Well, before we dive into the topic of DE&I, let’s talk a bit about First American’s culture because it’s really been winning awards and making a lot of headlines in recent years. The employer brand at First American is called People First. What can you share about it?

Karen: We’ve had that brand for about the last seven or eight years. I see it being used a lot now, which is great that companies are focusing on their employees as one of their greatest assets. And at First American, part of our culture is that we put our people first. Our employees are important to our success, and that is something that’s recognized at the executive level and down throughout our organization. So we’ve been really dedicated to creating a really awesome employee experience for our employees. We invest in our employees, we celebrate wins, and it’s really important to the future of First American that our employees are highly engaged and feel really great about the work that they do and know that there’s purpose to their work. So we look to provide comprehensive benefit programs to our employees. We’ve really been focused on wellness a lot lately. Innovation is so important to our future success and we try to create opportunities for our employees to have input into our solutions, our innovation initiatives.

We work really hard to communicate with our employees and make sure that they have a way to give us feedback. We do a lot of surveys and our employees provide us with great input that help us make important decisions for the company. And then we’ve also been really focused on what we call FirstAmCares, which is our social responsibility program. And we have great engagement across the country. We are in all 50 states with 750 offices domestically, and then we’ve been working a lot on really fostering an environment of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So we believe that People First is taking our highly talented, diverse, and engaged workforce and giving them the tools and resources to do the work that they do. And from there, we hear People First coming back to us from our employees. It’s not just something that’s pushed down from the executive level. Our employees use People First. And what we hear a lot is it’s just not a mantra, it’s a way of life here.

Justin: Well, as a testament to all the great work you’ve done around People First, First American has now been part of Fortune Magazine’s prestigious 100 best companies to work for list the last six consecutive years. Congratulations, by the way. What has that meant to you personally and for the company as a whole?

Karen: Thank you. It’s something that I think everyone of our employees is very proud of. It’s a wonderful process. It really does help you look at the engagement of your employees. And like I said earlier, feedback is so important. Part of that process to be listed as a 100 best companies to work for is the employee feedback. And so our employees and what they say about us is really what gets us on that list and gets us recognized. We take that feedback and we use it to make decisions around benefits and other programs, and it helps us know what people are thinking. It validates that we are doing right by our employees. So we’re very proud that People First resonates throughout First American. It’s just not something that’s at our home office here in Santa Ana, but it’s something that you’ll see and hear at any office you go to throughout the country.

Justin: So, Karen, let’s shift to the very obviously related topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is this a concept that’s new to First American or has this been something that’s been a part of People First for a while now?

Karen: It’s definitely been part of People First for quite some time. We’ve taken a newer approach to it over the last 24 months, but First American has been recognized too by Great Places to Work as a best place to work for diversity and a best places to work for women over the past several years. So our scores on our surveys related to DEI have been very high, but there’s always room for improvement. So we’ve kind of taken an enhanced approach and are working even more diligently on our DEI initiatives.

Justin: So as we’ve seen, DEI can actually mean a number of different things for different organizations. Even the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion are somewhat debated and misunderstood and we can see a number of different meanings for those online. How do you define each of those terms at First American?

Karen: Justin, it is a very complicated topic, right? And there’s so many layers to it. So I think one of the things, and I’m going to try to make this… I hope this will make sense is we’ve really focused on the inclusion piece, right? Because that’s what every employee can control, how you make other employees feel about coming to work, how you engage with each other. And so we’re focused on the diversity and the equity, but inclusion has really been where we’ve been working with our employees, communicating, and setting up programs such as employee resource groups because we believe that inclusion is in all of our hands and it’s something that we can all have an impact on.

Justin: So you’ve obviously had a lot accomplished over the last several months related to DEI and you’ve covered this a little bit, but why is First American putting such an emphasis on this now? Is there a particular reason why this has become so important?

Karen: I think the events of the last couple years, I think most companies are maybe reevaluating. I hope a lot of companies are reevaluating their DE&I efforts. And so we put together a DEI advisory council at the enterprise level. We’ve always had task force working on DEI initiatives, but our CEO thought it was very important and as the executive sponsor for our diversity, equity, inclusion advisory council, and we also wanted to make DE&I part of our employer brand. So that’s where we actually worked with you and BrandingBusiness to look at what we should do in that area. And we came up with the idea that it’s really people first for all. Again, that’s the inclusion part. And so that’s where we are now. And we’re working on a lot of initiatives and programs around our People First For All brand.

Justin: Great. Karen, can you tell us a bit about how the First American DEI initiative is structured and led?

Karen: Sure. As I previously said, we always had people in the organization primarily in our HR team working on DE&I programs, our learning and development team, making sure that it was embedded in our training programs, but in 2020, we decided to form the DEI advisory council. It’s made up of nine business leaders across our divisions and across the country. Bringing in different thoughts and ideas and perspectives we thought was very important and people who understood our business. Myself, I’m the co-chair. And we have Alicia Bikes, who is our Arizona State manager, as our chair. And we’ve been putting together somewhat of a more formal strategy around DEI for First American with the support of our CEO.

So we felt that using the council made sense for First American because we’re not just one business segment. We’re made up of multiple business segments in all parts of the country. And that council, we believe, brings us that really good perspective and helps us also socialize and introduce new ideas and programs and communications across those business segments in the country. So it’s something that has been, we believe very successful. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last… The council’s been together for about 14 months now.

Justin: Oh, that’s great. We see a lot of organizations of your size utilizing employee resource groups or ERGs. What role do you see ERGs playing in the DEI program at First American?

Karen: We’ve rolled out a total of five employee resource groups in the last year. We had one that was started a couple years ago, our early professionals group, and we have had such interest in the ERGs. I think part of it is we’re very dispersed workforce and the ERGs give people an opportunity to come together, talk about topics that are meaning to them and to get to know people across the First American family of companies. So it’s been very successful.

The ERGs also have a very strong ally component to it and we’ve done a lot to try to educate employees. What is an ERG? What is an ally? How can I get involved? And that’s been through blog posts and book reviews by our council members. So we’re very pleased at the progress. We’re just starting, but I think our ERGs besides bringing the workforce closer together and creating that internal network, we’re really excited to see what they’re able to bring to the organization. These will be great groups for us to have focus groups when we’re trying to make decisions on maybe a program or a benefit and those sorts of initiatives. So we’re excited. We’re just getting started.

Justin: So Karen, I’m curious with so many different elements of this initiative going on and so many people rightfully so wanting to be a part of it, how are you benchmarking progress? Is that something that’s done at the corporate level or is that done more at the regional level?

Karen: Right now it’s done at the corporate level. We have scorecards that we look at and share when we are looking at our hiring and applicants. Are we casting a wide net and getting a diverse pool of applicants? We look at our turnover numbers, we look at that by gender, by generation, by BIPOC. So, there’s a lot of analysis and so forth that we’re doing on those numbers. And then with our ERGs, we’re going to, as we move into the new year, we’ve developed a scorecard for them. We’ll start to look at their membership, their retention in membership, promotion of individuals who are part of those ERGs and a whole host of data elements. So it’s still in its infancy, but we’re excited about seeing what progress we’ve made and we’ll make over the next several years. It’s a journey, Justin. It’s going to take us a little while as I think most companies who are working maybe a little bit more in this area are realizing.

Justin: Right. Well, it’s good to see First American leading the way in this. You’ve mentioned the DEI council. You’ve also mentioned executive sponsorship. When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, who do you see in the organization as being responsible for ensuring at the end of the day that success is being made and progress is being made here?

Karen: I guess I would say that it’s going to be the advisory council, our enterprise-wide council. As I said earlier, we believe that it’s every employee’s responsibility to help create a really great work environment. One that is inclusive. So it’s not one person or one group. I think we all have a responsibility and we’re really working to message that to our employees through education, things that… There’s a lot of new terminology that’s come out or maybe not new, but new to us or to our employees, trying to make sure that they have a place that they can go to read our blog posts, frequent newsletters out to our employees on topics of DE&I, those sorts of things. So I know that wasn’t a very direct answer, but I don’t think it’s just one person’s responsibility.

Justin: Of course. Makes perfect sense. Karen, with a name like People First For All and considering the fact that First American has more than 13,000 employees domestically, how are you leveraging the input of employees and how are you also sharing details and progress related to DEI with them?

Karen: So I mentioned earlier we survey. We survey a lot. Our employees are very tolerant and great about taking the time to provide us with the feedback. And I think part of that is because we can point to things that have happened or changes that have been made as a result of the feedback we’ve received. So during those engagement surveys and different feedback processes we have in place, we’ve asked questions about DEI so we can see where people are and what they might want more of or what they don’t understand. And then we’ve set up through our internal intranet, we have a People First For All page. Our council and some of our other individuals that are involved, our ERG leads do frequent blog posts. We do book reviews. This month, I believe it’s this month, we actually reviewed some children’s books that are on the topic of DE&I and how to talk to your children about the topic of diversity, equity, inclusion, if it comes up. And there are a lot of them out there. We were a little surprised, pleasantly surprised.

So we’ve done some videos, we’ve done some panel discussions with different council members and ERG members facilitated by some of our executive leaders. Communication is always a challenge within an organization, especially an organization as large as ours. So we’re trying to tap into whatever vehicle we can. We have pretty good engagement from the employees’ responses to our posts and our blog posts. So, it’s getting out there and we’re just going to keep trying.

Justin: Those are all great examples. Karen, how do you see DEI at First American evolving over the next several years to come?

Karen: Yeah, I wish I had a crystal ball, Justin, to know, but I think over the next couple years, we are going to be really focused on these ERGs. As I said, the response to the ERGs has just been phenomenal. And I think it takes a really big company that’s dispersed across many states and offices and it helps people feel connected. And I think that’s an important part of inclusion is people feeling connected. We’re doing a lot of work with our talent acquisition team looking for ways that we can attract diverse talent to the organization and then looking at ways through our onboarding process to make sure people know about ERGs, about our DEI initiatives and ways that they can connect and become involved in the organization.

Justin: Well, Karen, we’re coming toward the end of our time here today, but I wanted to ask more broadly and speak more broadly for a minute. Looking ahead, in your opinion, do you consider diversity, equity, and inclusion to be an essential part of any successful employer brand?

Karen: I do. I think it’s something that the workforce and applicants are looking at, too. We get a lot of questions during interview processes and we’re able to point people to our career site, our DE&I page. We published a diversity, equity, and inclusion annual report this year that talks about our different initiatives, provides some statistics about our workforce and the progress we’ve made in the last 12 years in the space of DE&I. And I think we all know that the job market, it’s a tight job market. It’s hard to find talent, right? And so providing a place where people feel safe, that they can feel supported is important. It’s more than just coming and doing a job. We want people to feel that they’re part of what we’re trying to accomplish. So People First, like I said, it’s more than a mantra here. It’s really how we… It’s the filter we put everything through, all of our communications and all of our efforts.

Justin: That’s very well said. Karen, once again, we really appreciate your time today and sharing these details and First American’s For All program. Before we conclude, do you have any additional words of advice for those who may be listening and looking to define and structure their own DEI programs?

Karen: I think it’s complicated, it’s multi-layered, and I think you have to just, don’t get too much analysis. You’ve got to start somewhere. Just start. And I think engaging with your employees, understanding your employee base is really important. And getting feedback from employees on what they want, what they don’t understand, what they’re trying to learn and what they need, and then making sure that those employees know that you’ve listened and here’s what you’re doing as a result of that feedback and the time they spent giving it to you. So it’s a journey. It’s an exciting journey and I think it’s an impactful one for the workforce and for the organization.

Justin: And if people were interested on finding a little bit more about First American and its culture, where could they best do that?

Karen: I think the best place is on our company website, which is firstam.com. And then from there, our career site is… There’s a link there. And like I said, we just updated last year, our DE&I page. They will see our branding all over our career site. The people that we use in our photos are all our people. We call them the people of People First. They’re very proud to represent the organization. So that would probably be the best place.

Justin: Perfect. Karen, thank you so much for joining.

Karen: Thank you, Justin.

Justin: And thank you so much to our listeners. This has been another episode of Expert Opinion by BrandingBusiness. Until next time, be safe and be well.