S03 E02: Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging in the workplace – From policy framing to effective implementation

Season 3 episode 2 of CultureClub X is here! And this time, we have with us Aysha Alawadhi, MSc, GPHR, Director of Culture Transformation & Organizational Performance @ Anthem Inc. who discusses DEI&B in the workplace – From policy framing to effective implementation.

About Aysha

Aysha is an HR operation, employee engagement and corporate culture specialist who has over 10 years of experience in working with organizations in the fields of finance, education, healthcare, and insurance.

Prior to working for Anthem Inc. she has worked for some famous organizations like Emirates NBD, Launchpad UAE and IBM. She also sits on various boards where she advises on HR technology and analytics, culture transformation and talent management.

Throughout her career, Aysha has concentrated on people practices locally and internationally. She has successfully merged the usage of process, policy, data, and coaching to create highly productive organizations that are powered by their people.

An alumnus of New York University & Northern Arizona University, she also holds many professional certifications such as the Global Professional in Human Resources from HRCI, as well as Diversity and Inclusion for HR & Employment Law from Cornell University.

She is also a certified Executive Coach certified by International Coaching Federation (ICF) and European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC).

Here’s a gist of what Aysha speaks about in this video:

  • The importance of leadership teams to understand that company culture is something none of their competitors can copy from and what works for one organization won’t work for another. Leaders must realize the value of employee engagement initiatives and make company culture a USP for their brand.
  • Importance of inclusivity in change management efforts, how it can bring about a positive shift in the company culture and why HRs should be the custodians of employee engagement and not the owners in an organization.
  • Why equality in the boardroom is the need of the hour, and the importance of having a gender and power balance on the board to send a message of diverse company culture to the employees.
  • The role of hiring in DEI initiatives, as that’s the stage where the company culture begins and why having metrics around measuring diversity is important.
  • The importance of setting up processes for protecting people who report DEI-related issues and how that can lead to a sense of trust and belonging for the employees which will in turn reflect the values of the company culture.
  • How technology can enable HR leaders to constantly listen to their employees using pulse surveys, lifecycle surveys, and the importance of exit surveys in gathering insights that can be implemented for the betterment of existing employees.

Catch all this and more with Aysha Alawadhi in S3 E02 of CultureClub X and read the full episode transcript below!


Nicole – Hello everyone and welcome to the latest episode of Culture Club. I’m your host Nicole Patrick. And in the second episode of season three, we have with us a very special guest, Aysha Alawadhi, who is the Director of Culture Transformation and Organizational Performance at Anthem Inc.

Aysha is an HR Operations, employee engagement and Corporate Culture specialist who has over ten years of experience in working with organizations in the field of finance, education, health care and insurance.

Nicole – These include the likes of Emirates, NBD, Launchpad UAE and IBM. She also sits on various boards where she advises on HR technology and analytics, cultural transformation and talent management. Throughout her career, Aysha has concentrated on people practices locally and internationally, merging the usage of process, data, policy and coaching to create highly productive organizations that are powered by their people.

An alumnus of New York University and Northern Arizona University, she holds many professional certifications such as the Global Professional and Human Resources from HRCI, as well as Diversity and Inclusion for HR and Employment Law from Cornell University.

Nicole – She is also a Certified Executive Coach certified by International Coaching Federation and European Mentoring and Coaching Council.

Aysha,We’re very pleased to welcome you to our discussion on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the workplace, from policy framing to effective implementation. We hope to learn immensely from you and your experiences and expertise.

So before we dive deep into this topic, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself?

Aysha – I’m so happy to be here. I could talk about this stuff all day and my poor husband has to suffer and listen. But yeah, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a really fun career. I started my career in Dubai in the financial industry and then I worked in a BPO. I was the second person hired onto the BPO and helped scale up to 2000 people. That was really fun.

I worked in Manila and got to experience a massive culture difference as well as a working difference. I got to work for the sovereign wealth fund and I’ve worked in various areas in my consulting firm, from Defense to all of these other industries. And I just saw that there was this amazing array of potential and things that were happening that were kind of the similar thread that I saw everywhere I went and that kind of created this obsession with culture and inclusion.

Nicole – That’s amazing. And I think in life, if you can learn a little bit about different people, you really do see the similarities that we all have with each other and in that you can learn how to

work together better, how to have different kinds of organizations within bigger organizations and microcultures for your businesses.

So I’m sure it sounds like you really know what you’re doing with that from having so many different arrays of businesses that you’ve worked with so it’s very exciting to get a little bit of your expertise.

Nicole – It’s come to our attention that board members often overlook what’s essential while formulating policies around culture. It could be because of hurdles or because this is just low on their list of priorities. So we’d love your insight on, according to you, what are the key focus areas for senior leadership to build a better culture for their organization, and how can they ensure that this is embedded in the company culture in a meaningful way?

Aysha – Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t think that the board does it in any purposeful manner. I’ve never been in a board meeting where it was excluded purposely. I think what ends up happening is that it is thought of as something very secondary and something that HR will take care of. Right?

It’s something that they do, and I think so what needs to happen to kind of create a very meaningful and intentional culture is that it needs to be put front and center and HR’s job, I believe, or the HR leadership or the people leadership is to become the custodians of that, to advocate for it and say, hey, guys, let’s remember that this is important and we need to make sure that everything we’re doing is kind of taking that into consideration.

And the other thing I would say is that ensuring you have a culture that is a certain way, obviously, it needs to be inclusive to be competitive, quite frankly. But there are different kinds of company cultures, and that’s okay. There’s no one correct culture. And so what you need to have is also that understanding of what is the business goal, what are we trying to achieve strategically in the next 3,5,10 years, and your culture aspirations should align to that.

The reason business and your CFO becomes extremely bored with these culture conversations is that you are doing everything that is seemingly antithetical to business strategy. So he or she will look at it as a nice thing to have.

Does it really make any sense to our bottom line? So you need to make sure that you are speaking to the business because what you’re doing is you’re creating something that is going to be very beneficial to attracting talent, to attracting your customer base if you do it right, and creating an environment where you have a competitive edge that no one can steal because people can have a bigger budget, they can steal your technology or have better technology. But if you have amazing people who are innovative, you’re going to win.

Nicole – Which brings us to our next topic that comes up often, which is the idea that there’s no set company culture framework that can be replicated as a copy paste mechanism. So in your opinion, once formulated, how can people leaders ensure organizational wide scalability and permeability of good culture practices? And what roles can managers play here? Yes, absolutely.

Aysha – It can’t be copy pasted. I love that once it’s formulated, the way that you get adoption here is by including people. Again, as I say, HR is the custodian, but it’s not the owner. And so with any change management, you have to include the people that it`s going to impact. Right?

So instead of having a very top down approach where this tiny group of people who may be experts and maybe extremely excited about it, but they can only do so much, especially if you have a large organization. The way to kind of really see that change is to ensure that the messaging is going down correctly to everybody, and everybody understands what their role is in this and how it benefits them. Right.

What’s in it for me is extremely important. Otherwise, it’s just going to be another thing on their extremely busy Todo list. And it’s not fair to expect that. So they need to understand why we’re doing this and they need to understand how they need to be involved. Right? And then after the how and the why there needs to be this constant health check.

Aysha – Are we doing what we say we needed to do? And then also, if we are, how are we rewarding those people who are really taking this on and are informal Champions? How are we doing that? There are many creative ways to get people excited about this.

Maybe you have a champion program, or maybe you have just a simple, like, thank you letter that comes from your CEO or there are so many ways to do it, but you need to make sure that you’re highlighting the pockets of excellence where they are happening so that in the other areas they can start to feel like, oh my gosh, I want to be part of that win. And you will see. And I have seen, quite frankly, where it just happens, people are competitive, people want to be in the group.

And so if you create that environment that is rewarding the behavior that you’re asking for, that is including people, and that is giving them very clear instructions on what they need to do, then you will see a very positive shift. It’s kind of like a snowball. Once you get people into it, then everyone gets into it. And before you know it, you’ve got just this momentum. Right.

Nicole – People jumping on board. And there’s two things there. One of the positive things that happens out of that is that you will automatically weed out people who don’t fit into your culture. And that’s not a bad thing because quite frankly, if I join an organization and I don’t fit the culture, I don’t want to be there. It’s not that I’m good or they’re bad. There’s no value judgment.

It’s just we don’t fit. So if you have that, like you said, that snowball is going to also exclude others who don’t fit, and hopefully they’ll find a place where they do.

But what needs to happen to make sure that this doesn’t become a disaster is that you have to constantly do that health check. Are we doing what we say? And also maybe what we said five years ago is no longer applicable today.

So do we need to pivot? Do we need to evolve? It’s alive and you have to always take care of it, much like a child.

It’s constantly growing. You have to nurture it for it to become healthy. Well, that brings us then to our next idea,

Nicole – Which is exactly kind of what we were saying. And we found recently that many big companies that are known to have good company culture have reported lack of proper DEI initiatives. How do you think leaders can prevent such fallout and draft frameworks to convey the right message of DEI being an essential component of company culture?

Aysha – I love that. And there’s so much to unpack there. So first, I would say we need to question, what does a good culture mean? Because if your culture and I’m not trying to call anybody out here, but if your culture, for example, is one that’s good because everybody is of a certain demographic and gender, then is it really good for everybody or only that particular group of people? Right. So as leadership needs to assess, when we say we have a good culture, everybody clicks on the smiley face and their engagement scores are high.

Do we have a homogeneous culture or what do we have happening? Right? So again, that constant health check needs to happen. And then in terms of implementing and bringing DE & I to the forefront, I think there needs to be an understanding of, again, what is the company strategy? What are we trying to do here? And then also to look internally.

Aysha – I actually was recently consulting on a project where if you looked at the numbers at face value, it looked like they had a really strong gender equality in terms of the numbers of the different genders. But when you actually dug a little bit deeper, you saw that the power distance between who was sitting positions of power versus what gender was sitting in the majority of the population of entry level work, that becomes problematic.

And so we have to understand, what do we want out of this. Right? And so there’s many different elements of diversity, inclusion and equity.

Is it diversity of age? Is it diversity of experience? Is it diversity of ethnicity? Is it a gender thing?

What do we need to do? So as a board or as leadership, you have to first define that, and then you need to put metrics in place because people will do what they are rewarded for. Right?

Aysha – And so when I hear board members or leadership talk about their focus on the DE & I, and then I look at the C suite score cards, and that doesn’t showcase itself there. There’s nothing on there. Then actually, you’re not that focused on it because you are kind of digging people for everything else. But this doesn’t make the cut. So you really need to look at that and also then not just at this.

Nicole – So maybe you have it at the top level, but it has to trickle all the way down. So for your management, how does it go into your performance management. How does it go into your reward structure?

Is it part of your hiring, your screening process? So you have to look at it from all levels and make sure that it exists. So you actually are literally bringing me into my next topic, which is the factor that often employees face inequalities on the basis of color, race, gender, and that can result in, as we know, lower pays, but also emotional depth of feeling neglected or maybe feeling inferior.

Nicole – So as a people leader, what have been your major learnings in this space? And how would you advise board members to intervene and address these problems at a grassroots level for longer term impact?

Aysha – I’m smiling because I am going to be a little bit unpopular here. You need to be real. You need to take a look in the mirror as an organization and say, do we have a problem here? Do we have representation? Do we have a process that really protects people when they put up their hand and say, I’m facing discrimination? Because a lot of times we have those policies.

But I’ve been in HR for a very long time, and I can see how that can be ignored or glossed over or manipulated to where the person who this policy is supposed to protect is actually suffering without anywhere to go. And so I think that moral courage is absolutely vital.

Having that moral courage is there. And then you need to then go back and look and see what is happening. And the best thing you can do as a leader is talk to your people. Right, get their voices, because what they are dealing with is going to be very different than what the people of potentially the same race, ethnicity, everything in another company, because it’s just different beasts altogether.

Aysha – And so I think that in the companies that I’ve seen that have been extremely successful, you had the CEO walking the floor and having random conversations with people, and you had much more than just this one year or every six months employee engagement survey, because, by the way, those can be manipulated. Right.

And I’ve seen it happen where, for example, you have the best data analytics possible. So you’re very confident in your analytics, but managers know that and they actually tell their people. If we score low, all of you guys are not going to get a really great bonus. So now it behooves me as a staff member to say, well, I’m just going to rate my manager super high because I don’t want it to impact me. At the end of the day. And there’s no particular mechanism.

Like if you do just one thing, it’s going to work because I think everybody puts these policies in place with the right intention. But we are such smart creatures as humans. We find ways to work around everything. So you have to have multiple avenues in which you’re constantly checking the health and checking the reality of your organization.

Nicole – It’s so true because there’s so many I’m just thinking now back to all the different jobs that I’ve had in my life. I was an actress and then had more day to day office jobs. And it seems like up until recently, you really couldn’t speak out about anything that you were uncomfortable with, especially being a female. And thinking back to being a younger female in my first job in an office setting, unless you really have those things in place and those programs in place and you’re encouraged to share real feedback, it can be really scary to feel empowered enough to say, you know what?

This program, this isn’t working for me that well. Or I feel like maybe I’m not being heard as much as this other person. And it’s nice to hear that we’re finally taking a look at these things and making sure that DEI & B is something that’s really taken care of and fostered in office communities. Yeah.

Aysha – Look, it’s intimidating.It’s intimidating to be even as children when we’re playing in a group, we don’t want to be the odd one out. Right. And so I think it’s natural for human beings to want to fit in and to not stir the pot or whatever the saying is. So how do you create an environment where people are less afraid? People will always be afraid to do stuff like that because it’s scary because whenever you’re put in that situation of maybe somebody has abused their power or somebody who’s crossed the line, it’s just naturally uncomfortable.

And you can’t take away the fear completely, but you can create an environment where people feel like if I do talk, somebody’s going to listen. And if they listen, they’re not just going to pat me on the back, they’re going to do something and help me. And again, the way that you do that is by building that trust. Right.

Aysha – Like, if you and I were friends, if you and I spoke daily and you trusted me, when something bad happens in your life, you will come to me. But if we’re very surface level and we just smile at each other in the morning, I don’t think you’re going to bare your deepest, darkest secrets.

Right. So it’s not hard. It’s just that we don’t sometimes equate that, oh, wait, I do this in my personal life, so it’s applicable in my work life as well. And then from an organizational perspective, too, there’s also this power dynamic that we need to think about. You’re paying this person to work for you. Therefore, there is automatically a power differentiation because you can take away their pay and ruin their livelihood.

This goes into the whole don’t make people managers who are not capable, who don’t have the emotional intelligence to manage people because you basically have power over their life at that point of time. And so how do you create that environment and how do you as a people leader, as an HR leader, as whoever in a position of authority, demonstrate that go and be open, literally. Well, no, we’re not in the office anymore, but literally leave your door open.

Aysha – If it’s virtual, tell people from nine to eleven, I am office hours. You can come in and it’s private and we can talk about it. You want to talk about your dog or about the shoes you bought this weekend?

We’ll do it and be there for them. If you say you’re going to be there, be there. And if you say you’re going to listen, listen, you can’t just say these nice, beautiful words. And then when you show up to talk to me, I’m disinterested.

Yeah, exactly. So have you found that during this time of working at home, it seems like people are more afraid of speaking to their HR leaders or that because they are behind a computer, maybe they feel a little bit more empowered to do that. It’s interesting. I think it just depends on the person.

A friend of mine recently was sharing a story with me how he left his organization.

He was fully remote. He left his organization because he felt that he was being bullied in a very passive aggressive. I can’t quite put my finger on it and say it was that one thing that you did. But he felt that he was being mistreated and bullied. And he didn’t know if it was because he was African American or if it was, he didn’t know why. He’s a very outspoken individual. And he asked his manager a few times, he’s saying, I noticed this, and that what’s going on.

And from his telling, it was easier in the virtual space to be kind of boxed in and isolated because if I don’t invite you to meetings and you’re new a company, it felt like you could walk around the office and look where everybody is. You’re really at the mercy of others and just kind of knowing who to connect with. So that’s one perspective. Another perspective is you could feel a little bit more empowered because I’m in the comfort of my own home right now. But I’m also in a position where if I wanted to walk away from a job, I can financially do that.

And that is not something that everybody can do. And so it’s a hard one to answer because I really think it would depend on the situation and the people that you’re dealing with. Really? Yeah.

Nicole – Interesting little food for thought. So we really have touched upon some good topics here. I think you could keep this conversation going for hours and hours, probably. But I’d like to close out our session with one last question, and that is – How can people leaders pay attention to their organization’s pulse and constantly listen to employee feedback despite the workload?

What methods can be used to empower managers and use the right tech to gain actionable insights?

Aysha – Yeah, lots there, too. In terms of the tech, I think that whatever technology you’re comfortable with, don’t try to get something too complicated when you’re so busy, try to figure out the tech that you can’t gain. What you’re trying to do is gain the voices of your employees. And then I would say it’s as simple as doing it frequently. If you have a Pulse survey or whatever the method is, do it frequently and also change it up.

So if the method, let’s say in this example, is a survey that we run a pulse survey, or whatever it may be, look at the results. If you’re seeing certain things, just like pick and go and have a conversation or maybe run an informal chat with random people or there’s many, many ways to do this.

And as I said earlier, you really want to touch on this. You want to come at it from many angles because your view will change. And I think one of the areas that is such a missed opportunity is talking to employees who have left the organization or have about to leave because exit interviews are somewhat normal now, but we have exit interviews with people, and then we expect them to be completely honest with us. And it’s extremely scary, vulnerable time where

Aysha – They don’t want to burn bridges. They may not feel comfortable to tell us why they’re leaving. And so I would say, why not have an exit interview and then have a three month follow up and then a six month follow up and then a year follow up? Because what ends up happening is that the person is far enough away from the incident that they’re no longer.

And maybe it’s not a bad incident, but just in case it was, they’re far enough away from it that they can be honest. And you’ve kept up with them over time so they see that you care, and then the answers that you get will be very surprising.

In fact, this was something that I had tried in one of my projects, and it was a goldmine of information which really helped us actually work backwards from the feedback that we were getting.

And not all of it was negative. Some of it was great. I left because I had a better opportunity, but Aysha – I loved this organization, and they gave us such great feedback that it helps with our recruitment engine and it helps with our policies. And it was so valuable to us. And the employees or the ex employees were like, thank you for taking the time I feel so important.

And then also what that did was that it created this revolving door of talent because they wanted to come back. They’re like, you know, I went to X, Y, and Z company. I did my time there. It was great. But actually I want to come back. And we knew who our talent was and why they left us and how we could ensure that that doesn’t happen.

It’s such a valuable and quite overlooked piece. And then again, in terms of your pulse technology, I don’t have one specific technology that I’m in love with.

I’ve seen so many that are great, but I think that once your people give you your voice. Right.

Aysha – So what are you doing with it? If people feel like they’re giving you their voice and it goes into this black hole after a while, when they’re busy, they’re not really going to take the time. They’re going to have fatigue and whatever. But if you take their voices and showcase, like, here’s what you said and here’s actually what we’re actioning based on what you said. That is extremely powerful, and that doesn’t take much. So that’s my advice for organizations looking to do that.

Nicole – Yeah, well, it’s true, because if you’re able to show them, like, here’s this piece of tech, and this is how it’s actually helping you down the line, you’re going to be more likely to take that five minutes out of your day to go and take the survey and to see actionable things happening three months later and say. Okay, well, my life is getting better because of this. My co-worker’s life is getting better. My manager seems happier. It’s good for everything and everyone in the organization.

And that’s one of the big things about CultureMonkey is that it is an HR tech platform, and it gives employees the opportunity to reflect and share their feedback and in turn helps the managers to measure their employees pulses and evaluate the survey results and act on the feedback to actually enact within an organization. It’s important to have a piece of tech that grows with you, which is one of the great things about CultureMonkey.

It will grow with you and just help to scale and to scale your business, as well as making sure that employees are still staying happy, even when you have 100 more employees than you did a few months ago. Well, it was very insightful having you and thank you so much for your time. I was recently reading one of your blog posts about how it’s imperative for HRs to now become strategic partners for workforces as opposed to just busy bodies.

Nicole – And it’s become so much more important for HR leaders to prioritize implementing initiatives like DEI & B instead of just formulating them. And I thought that was really interesting and cool. And it’s no surprise that that stuck with me after speaking with you. Clearly, you know so much about this space and it’s really interesting to be able to speak with you. I think that reviewers will agree. I think they’re all going to get a ton out of this.

So with that, can you tell our viewers how they can connect or reach out with you in case they want to have a quick chat or share their thoughts with you?

Aysha – Yes, you can find me on LinkedIn. That is my platform of choice, Aysha Alawadhi on LinkedIn and then on Instagram. It’s @therealayshaalawadhi, that is a little bit more fun and let’s chat. But thank you so much. I really enjoyed speaking with you. Yeah, thank you. And I go back with a wider perspective on diversity and inclusion and it was such a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to seeing more of what you’re doing and more on your Instagram. Thank you.

Nicole – Thank you. And that’s all we have today for this episode of CultureClub. Until next time, this is your host Nicole signing off.