S03 E09: Data-Driven DEI Policies: The Key to Talent Attraction and Retention

In the ninth episode of this season of CultureClub X, We have Holly Danko, Chief People Officer at Unison, who discusses how data driven DEI policies can be the key to talent attraction and retention in an organization.

About Holly –

Holly is a people leader, employee development expert and an up and coming HR influencer who has a proven track record of building strong teams, and company culture.

Prior to Unison, She has worked with organizations like Morgan Stanley, Novation Ventures, and SmithBucklin & Information, Inc.

Holly is a seasoned HR professional with more than 10 years of experience in Talent Acquisition, People Operations, and Learning and Development.

She is also extremely passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion and has had her thoughts on DEI featured in Forbes, Quora, and on several podcasts.

She is an alumni of University of Maryland and Penn State University.

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

  • Why having a strategic plan for DEI is essential and how crucial is the role of senior leadership in planning and establishing the company culture that aligns with their business goals
  • How company culture is not just about having fancy ping-pong tables, snacks and other perks and how it’s all about how you treat your employees and hold them accountable for the company culture.
  • The importance of creating a diverse and inclusive workforce and how even from a business standpoint it will attract more talent as people would want to work at a place where they feel respected and heard.
  • The need for employee surveys in an organization, and how it can help you convert employee sentiments into measurable metrics to enable you to come up with a data-backed DEI culture strategy.

Catch all this and more with Holly Danko in Episode 9 of Season 3 of CultureClub X.

Transcript –

Nicole – Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey. I’m your host, Nicole Patrick.

CultureMonkey is a complete employee engagement platform that helps people leaders to measure and improve their workplace culture. In the 9th episode of this season of Culture Club X, we have with us Holly Danko, Chief People Officer, Unison.

Holly is a people leader, employee development expert, and an up-and-coming HR influencer who has a proven track record of building strong teams and company culture.

Nicole – Prior to Unison, she has worked with organizations like Morgan Stanley, Novation Ventures and Smithbunklin and Information, Inc.

Holly is a seasoned HR professional with more than ten years of experience in talent acquisition, people operation and learning & development.

She is also extremely passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion and has had her thoughts on DEI, featured in Forbes, Quora and on several podcasts.

She’s also an alumni of University of Maryland and Penn State University.

Nicole – Holly, it’s great to have you here with us today. And welcome again to CultureClub’s video cast on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the modern workplace.

Holly – Thank you so much, Nicole. I’m really excited to be here.

Nicole – Yeah, us too. So before we begin, please just give us a little bit more information about yourself and your organization.

Holly – Sure. As you mentioned, my name is Holly Danko and I’m the Chief People Officer at Unison. I’ve been here for about four years and Unison is a company that works in the residential real estate industry and we allow homeowners to access their equity without incurring any additional debt or taking on any monthly payments.

And as you mentioned, I focus very heavily on diversity, equity, inclusion, creating an amazing place to work, talent acquisition, and a variety of other areas within Unison.

Nicole – Great. Well, then you will have a lot to say about the questions that we have today.

Holly – I can’t wait.

Nicole – So let’s get started. What according to you are the key focus areas for senior leadership to build a better culture for their organization and how can they ensure that it is embedded in the company culture in a meaningful way?

Holly – Sure. Well, before we get into the key areas, let me just start off by saying that I think culture has to be very intentional. Culture shouldn’t be approached in a blasé way where it just is a result of the way that the company operates. You should have a strategic plan for culture just like you do for your business operations.

I also believe that culture starts off at the top, so it should start off with your founder, your CEO, and even your executive team to figure out what type of culture you want in.

A high growth startup may have a very different type of culture strategic plan than a large established company. So I’d start with leadership. I would start by developing your vision, your mission and your values and then aligning your entire people strategy with all of those.

Holly – And like I said, it looks very different for very different companies. Also, I believe that culture should be led by the leadership team and the leaders should be living it and exemplifying culture every single day. And it’s up to the people team and the HR team to really instill that through your onboarding, through your policies, your procedures, your processes, the way you recognize and reward your team.

So it’s a team effort. And I think the key is creating a plan that is working through that plan.

Nicole – Totally, I agree that I think it’s everyone’s responsibility from the highest of the high to set that tone of this is who we are, this is who we want to be. And as you said, it can be totally different for a very fast growing start up than a more established company that really has their feet sunk in a certain way that they are. So it’s an interesting take on it.

There’s no set company culture framework that can be replicated as a copy-paste mechanism. Once formulated, how can people leaders ensure organizational wide, scalability and permeability of good culture practices? What role can managers play in the process of change management?

Holly –  Yeah, absolutely. And I agree. I don’t think culture is not one size fits all. As I mentioned, startup may be very different than a large established company, but there are established frameworks out there for culture, right?

Like, McKinsey has the 7S model, you have the Iceberg model. There are proven frameworks, but they have to be customized for your unique company and for your culture.

And I think the biggest thing is holding people accountable to culture. Once you feel like you’ve done a good enough job training and embedding culture into your company and making sure that everyone truly understands what culture is. And I always think of this great podcast that I listened to one time about what is culture?

Holly – And a lot of people think culture may be having a ping pong table in your office or having snacks or something like that, but those are perks. Culture is really how do you make decisions, how do you treat people, how do you hold your employees accountable to performance?

And that’s truly the foundation of culture in my eyes. So I think it’s really important that you let your team know that you are holding people accountable to culture.

Holly – There’s a lot of different ways that you could do that. The best, I think, is incorporating culture, your vision, your mission values into your performance reviews and allowing managers to incorporate into your performance conversation. Are you living the company values? How are you living them? Are you instilling them throughout the company?

So I think if people know that they’re being held accountable to this, if the company truly cares about it and it goes into your performance review, at the end of the day, it’s a great way to make sure that you’re really having your team look your values and respect them as well.

Nicole- I think that’s a great idea in a very smart way to do it. I’ve spoken with a lot of people, and they’ve got these similar questions, and I think you’re the first person to come to say we should be having this in our reviews and having people accountable for it. And I think totally, if in your reviews, you’re showing, this is important to us.

This isn’t just something that we say we like and then sweep it under the rug for the rest of the year that that really will make employees continuously stay accountable with it, that’s a very cool take.

It’s important also that to get to that point of where you are holding people accountable too, there’s a ton of pre-work that comes to that. You just can’t say, here’s our vision, our mission, our values, and our culture.

Nicole- And we’re now grading you on this. You have to have an education process. You have to have an entire system in place to get to that point. Recently, many big companies known to have a good company culture have reported a lack of proper DEI initiatives. How do you think the lack of proper DEI initiatives in an organization can affect the company culture?

What can people, leaders do to bring more acceptance, openness and equal opportunities in the workplace?

Holly – Yeah, so I think a lack of DEI initiatives or even a strategy is truly, truly detrimental to a company. And I think now you see that more than ever. If you look at business ten years ago, we weren’t talking about DEI like we are today. And I think now you see the benefits. I can sit here and quote all the statistics on how a diverse workforce makes you better.

It makes you more profitable. You have diversity of thought. You’re targeting different customers in different ways. There’s so much data supporting this. But more importantly, it’s just the right thing to do, Right?

Holly – It is the right thing to do to create a diverse and inclusive workforce. So to not have a strategy, to not be targeting this, it’s detrimental. It’s detrimental from a talent acquisition standpoint, because talent wants to see this. It is critical.

I can’t tell you how many interviews I go through where they ask me what my DEI strategy is. Do we have the DEI committee? What does our executive team look like? What does our board look like?

People care about this. So if you don’t have it, you’re not going to be competitive. You’re also not going to be a good company to work for. So how could it affect a business? And I think just from a business strategy standpoint, people want to come to a place where they feel respected.

Holly – They want to come to a company that they feel like that they’ve heard, that they can be their true self. And this is a shift that we’ve seen from an employee perspective over the last two years with the Pandemic and working from home. I’m sitting here in my house right now and it’s important that you can come to work and you could be your true self and you can be respected.

So if you can’t attract from lack of a strategy, you certainly can’t routine if you have lack of a strategy. So in my mind, having a DEI strategy, having DEI initiatives, it’s table stakes right now.

Nicole- You cannot succeed as a company if you don’t have that. Nor should you, in my opinion. So nice to hear that because I completely agree. Nor you shouldn’t succeed if you don’t make those things important.

And when employees are showing up to work and they feel like they’re being heard and they feel like they’re in an inclusive environment, they’re going to want to work harder and enjoy being at work and feel as though everyone is there valued. And everyone is valued.

Holly- Absolutely. And just go back to the second part of your question a little bit. I think education is really important, much like vision, values and establishing a culture plan.

We can’t walk in as people leaders or executives and assume everyone knows what to do, Right?

So I think educating is critical and that could come from outside speakers, it could come from community groups, from volunteering, it could come from so many different areas.

But educating your team and creating a safe space is also really, really important.

Nicole – How can people leaders pay attention to their organizations pulse and constantly listen to their employee feedback despite their workload? What methods can they use to empower managers and use the right tech to gain actionable insights?

Holly – So this goes back to my last comment of changes that we’ve seen in the last two years of the Pandemic. Another change is employees want to be heard. They want to feel like they have a voice inside of their company and they’re not just a cog in the machine. So for me personally, I take a very data centric approach to our people strategy.

I think it’s critical to have surveys at minimum. And there are a lot of great tools out there where you could have eNPS, you could look at engagement and there’s a ton of different metrics you could collect.

Holly – But sometimes I also think the qualitative data is just as important as the quantitative data. I’m looking at our numbers, I’m looking at our Likert scales, but I love reading our team members’ comments because that’s where I truly get the pulse of the company.

I see the sentiment. I think at minimum you have to have quarterly company surveys.

Holly – At Unison, we also do basically an end of year people check in where we’re lucky enough that we’re still small enough for our entire people. Team can divide and conquer and just have one on one with their team members, collect data, see how they’re feeling and use that into our yearly planning session. So I think, again, kind of like DEI table stakes, you have to collect data, you have to collect employee sentiment, engagement and use that in your planning process.

There’s also a lot of companies that don’t have budgets for tools. You could just use a Google form if you need to in Excel spreadsheets. There are lots of easy ways to do this if you can’t afford one of the nicer tools.

Nicole – Absolutely. That’s where tools like CultureMonkey come in and make it super easy for everyone in the company to be able to give their opinion. You can track their pulse and actually take action based on what they’re saying, which is so important nowadays, especially with so many people working from home and not really having the same workplace environment that we used to have, where you could go to the water cooler and have a quick chat with people and see how they really feel.

We don’t have that same face to face interactions like we used to, so we have to kind of step it up a little more in other ways.

Holly – Yeah, it’s so hard not being able to walk around the office and take a look at different teams and seeing how they’re interacting. Like you said, the water cooler conversations, you have to embrace technology to start getting that feedback.

Nicole – What, according to you, should top business leaders focus on with respect to DEI & B, policies to avoid attrition due to DEI related issues in an organization?

Holly – That’s a great question. And truthfully, I think that policies are the least important thing when it comes to DEI initiatives. Hear me out for a minute, because this could be controversial, but you should have policies that already support DEI initiatives, Right?

Like from a legal standpoint, we can’t discriminate, you can’t retaliate. There’s all these policies that are supported. So every company should have that in place to begin with, I think from a retention standpoint, which is way more important than policies because again, that’s the legal side of it, is your culture.

Holly – Are you creating an inclusive environment? Do people feel like they enjoy working at your company and they’re heard, do they feel respected? Do we embrace different mindsets?

So that goes up to really your overall people and culture strategy and creating a great inclusive place to work. So policies, they’re important, they’re critical, you need them. But I think that is just again, I keep saying table stakes. I think that’s table stakes. I think what is important is your culture and your sense of community and making sure you’re treating everyone fairly and embracing differences.

Nicole- There’s nothing more exciting than differences and making sure people have a chance to share their different opinions, their different backgrounds. That’s what makes the place really exciting and brings new innovation and ideas to your company and your product.

Holly – Exactly. And it all is with the authenticity of it. If you’re just doing this because you need the policies and you need to check off that box, and that feeling is going to trickle down to everybody.

But if the company is really authentic about these things being important to them, then that’s going to spread to everyone in the community, in the workplace community.

And everyone ultimately, hopefully, will feel that and want to come to work and feel included and feel that these initiatives are actually being taken care of and really being lived out throughout the workplace.

Nicole – I agree. You’ve said one of my pet peeve words, which is check the box. I hate checking the box exercises. And you do see check the box DEI initiatives and there’s nothing that’s more frustrating and disheartening. Honestly, I just feel like you’re better off not doing anything if you’re not really going to commit to it and honestly ingrained as part of your company culture.

Nicole – I think, luckily, just like you said, it’s such an important thing nowadays that it is pretty transparent when companies do those kinds of exercises. And hopefully we’re aware enough as a people now that we’re like, okay, this isn’t really how it should be.

You’re not really getting the point right now.

Holly – Absolutely. Your team, your employees see that, right? Like, if you’re not committing, you’re not really giving resources to this initiative. Your team knows it’s a check the box exercise, so you want to go back to retention. It’s a great way to get rid of initiatives.

Nicole – Totally. Do you agree that HRs are the custodians of employee engagement and the subsequent culture practices, not just the owners? If so, what are your thoughts on this?

Holly – Custodians – yes, owners – no. I look at my role as Chief People Officer. It’s very important for me to make sure we’re holding everyone accountable to our culture.

It’s my role to make sure we’re having difficult conversations when we’re not. But when it comes to overall culture, the entire company has to own it. It cannot just be HR. And again, that’s where you see, I think, culture initiatives fail. When it’s an HR initiative, it needs to be from the top down and from the bottom up, and every manager, every leader, every team member needs to own that.

And it’s up to you. Leadership is up to HR for us to educate the team on what our culture is and how it should be lived. But it’s up to the rest of the team to own it and to live it every single day.

Nicole – Absolutely. I completely agree. And it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep that in action and keep that kind of candle burning. And definitely HR leaders and the top team set the tone and pace for things, but it really is everyone’s responsibility.

Nicole – Very interesting take on a sensitive topic that’s trending around the world, and it was so insightful seeing it from your perspective to add to what you said. I personally think that it’s so important for people leaders to constantly listen to their employees and cater to their DEI and Belonging needs as well.

And post dealing with pandemic and remote work, leaders have realized the role of continuously listening to their employees takes more spotlight now than ever before.

CultureMonkey actually enables people leaders to take action on these realizations. As an employee engagement platform, it helps people leaders to listen to their employees, analyze their feedback and enable them to act on them efficiently. So if you want a super swift tool and to improve your company culture, visit  www.culturemonkey.io  today.

Nicole – And with that being said, thank you so much for your time, Holly. This has been such a great learning experience for all of us.

I’m sure our viewers at home will agree. And before we finish, please let our viewers know how they can connect to reach out to you in case you want to have a quick chat or share their thoughts with you.

Holly – Absolutely. There’s nothing I love more than talking about culture, talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. So happy to connect. And first, Nicole, thank you so much for having me on this episode. It was a true pleasure talking about things that I’m very passionate about. So if you like to connect with me, LinkedIn is the best way to do so.

My name is Holly – H-O-L-L-Y Danko D-A-N-K-O And look forward to connecting with all of you about culture, DEI and everything people.

Nicole – Great. Well, that’s all we have for you in this episode of CultureClub X powered by CultureMonkey.

Until next time, this is your host, Nicole, signing off.