The Secret to DEI Program Success: Employee Engagement

Secret may be too strong a word. But as executive attention worldwide turns to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) with increasing focus, leaders soon discover there is no easy way forward.

It’s true, there’s little about the topic that’s not been discussed by this point. There are entire organizations and web-education portals dedicated to providing guidance to corporations looking to enact their DEI efforts. All the planning in the world, however, cannot replace hands-on experience through trial and error – discovering what works and what doesn’t for any individual organization.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with VP of Human Resources at First American Financial Corporation, Karen Lanning, to discuss this topic on our podcast. Her advice: “Don’t get too much analysis. You’ve got to start somewhere. Just start. And engaging with your employees, understanding your employee base is really important.”

This, we agree, is an often overlooked and critical component. DEI is more than simply hiring a diverse group of faces. DEI success begins and ends with engaging employees at all levels.

Featured on FORTUNE Magazine’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For® six years running, First American has also been repeatedly recognized as a best place to work for diversity and best place to work for LGBTQ equality. Let’s explore a few ways they’re putting their award-winning People First culture into action to engage employees and ensure the ongoing success of their DEI program.

Communicate, educate, and above all, listen.

Since the launch of People First as the employer brand in 2015, open dialogue and communication throughout the company has become synonymous with the First American employee experience. “It’s the filter we put everything through, all of our communications and all of our efforts,” said Karen Lanning.

When it comes to sharing and gathering information around DEI, the story is no different. “We work really hard to communicate with our employees and make sure that they have a way to give us feedback.” Karen’s team and the DEI Advisory Council (more on that later) have been on a quest to educate and engage employees through a variety of communication efforts. From weekly blog posts and panel discussions led by executive leaders to video content and book recommendations and reviews intended to inspire conversations at work and at home, First American is seeking to eradicate biases and make DEI part of regular discourse. As Karen puts it, “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.”

But outbound communication is only one side of the equation. People First is also about giving employees a voice, a way to engage, and a way to provide influence toward continuous improvement. First American’s intranet, FALive, is one such avenue, and a dedicated hub has been put in place for DEI where employees can find resources and participate in the ongoing conversation.

Another critical listening tool at First American is employee surveys. “We do a lot of surveys and our employees provide us with great input that helps us make important decisions,” explains Karen. “We ask questions about DEI so we can see where people are and what they might want more of or what they don’t understand. Our scores on our surveys related to DEI have been very high, but there’s always room for improvement.” Having worked with First American for the greater part of a decade, we’ve seen firsthand how these kinds of frequent employee surveys have been able to identify gaps to be addressed and direct efforts at the company. Once again, it comes back to open communication when these directed efforts are being considered and launched. As Karen puts it, it’s all about “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.”

Give employees the ability to influence and lead.

Early in developing a DEI strategy for First American, a critical decision had to be made regarding who would lead and provide ongoing governance for the initiative. Looking through the People First lens, they made a decision that was more authentic and reflective of their internal culture–to form a DEI Advisory Council. Forgoing the more traditional route of having a single figurehead such as a Chief Diversity Officer dictate strategy, a DEI Advisory Council ensures the influence of a broader set of experiences and viewpoints.

“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.” The goal was to have the strategy and implementation of a dedicated DEI initiative be led by a diverse set of individuals who not only understand the breadth and depth of the company’s offerings, representing the various business segments that make up First American, but could also connect directly with the employees within those business segments. As Karen explained on our podcast, the council “helps us also socialize and introduce new ideas and programs and communications across those business segments in the country.”

Even with oversight spread across this larger group of individuals, the DEI Advisory Council recognized from the start that there are far too many aspects of DEI to have them all be addressed by one governing body. Thus came the structured emergence of Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) at First American. ERGs are employee-led groups who come together to support and advocate for a particular gender, ethnicity, religious affiliation, lifestyle, or interest. Two of First American’s earliest ERGs include one dedicated to the LGBTQplus community and one focused on providing greater exposure, networking and development opportunities for new professionals called the Early Professionals Networking Group.

“We’re a very dispersed workforce and the ERGs give people an opportunity to come together, talk about topics that are meaningful to them and to get to know people across the First American family of companies.” offered Karen. “The response to the ERGs has just been phenomenal.”

Anyone within First American can join one of its ERGs. They don’t even have to necessarily self-identify with a particular ERG characteristic–they may simply want to provide their support. These individuals are called allies. As Karen explains, “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?” These are the kinds of varied and employee-directed programs that allow for greater awareness and ongoing learning throughout the enterprise.

Make it relevant. Make it authentic.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, First American already stood on solid cultural ground before putting a lot of these DEI initiatives into action. People First is an employer brand based on authentic truth–it reflects First American’s long-standing philosophy that its own employees come first. If the company treats its people right, they’ll take care of the customers. And as a result, the company will deliver superior results to shareholders. It begins with how First American cares for and empowers its people. “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,” shared Karen.

The question then became, how does First American infuse DEI into its employer brand and serve to make it stronger for it? What emerged was dubbed “For All”, making it known that the principles behind People First were “For All” employees of the company, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. “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.” DEI became an authentic extension of the People First mentality–allowing employees to confidently grasp its rationale and seamlessly make it part of the employee experience.

All of the initiatives and efforts discussed here are designed to empower and promote First American’s commitment to a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. They would all be for naught, however, if they didn’t deliver results. As BrandingBusiness aided First American in this endeavor, we asked “How will we know we’re having an impact?” Measurements for success must be more than a series of statistics or survey results. Success should be felt by employees across the company. By opening minds to new information and ways of thinking via its educational efforts, First American’s DEI program certainly has a large number of wins already under its belt. But as one DEI Advisory Council member put it, “Success is when DEI is common conversation and built into everything we do.” And this can only become reality when employees at all levels are engaged in that conversation.

I would like to once again thank Karen Lanning for sharing her opinions and insights with us. Click here to listen to the complete podcast.