What does inclusion mean? Brandy Smith of Lincoln Financial defined inclusion by describing the following scenario.
Think of a time when you attended an event and discovered you were seriously overdressed or underdressed for the occasion. You probably were embarrassed and wanted to leave as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. But maybe the someone said or did something that made you reconsider and want to stay instead.
“That is inclusion – when you make that person want to stay,” she said.
Smith is Lincoln Financial’s vice president of workplace diversity and counsel. She spoke as part of a panel discussion on diversity and inclusion in the life insurance industry as part of the virtual NAILBA Engage on Wednesday.
She said her company’s diversity and inclusion efforts changed focus last year as the rest of the company moved to remote work when the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in March.
“We had to stop and think about how we would connect with our employees while they are at home,” she said. “Studies show that people of color thrive in the workplace, being able to interact and have relationships. So we had specific reach-outs to workers so we could continue to engage them. Leaders and managers targeted people to reach out to and start conversations.”
The pandemic may have stopped a lot of things, but it didn’t stop Lincoln Financial’s diversity and inclusion efforts, Smith said. “We said to our volunteers in multicultural groups, ‘Do we want to pause or go virtual?’ And we all agreed to go virtual.”
Smith said her company also noticed that the pandemic was affecting black and brown communities at a high rate. “We realized our employers are not able to separate their home life from their work life now that we are working remotely. So we brought in a doctor and some external resource groups to provide guidance and answer questions about COVID-19.”
COVID-19 provided what Martina Wilson called “a gift.” Wilson is vice president, senior human resource partner and diversity and inclusion leader with Protective Life. That gift, she said, is that the pandemic forced her company’s leaders to think about their employees differently.
“Our leaders had to be intentional about scheduling meetings. They had to ask their team members, ‘How are you doing? Are you OK? How is your family?’ Our leaders weren’t wired that way previously.”
Wilson said Protective Life scheduled a 30-minute “coffee chat” with employees every Friday. “We have discussions on things such as how they are coping with home schooling. It’s an opportunity for employees to be vulnerable and tell us what’s on their minds.”
Prior to the pandemic, Protective Life created a series called My Story. “It’s a space for our employees to tell about themselves and what they’re passionate about,” Wilson said. “It created a space for our employees to see we are alike more than we are different. I see that as an effort toward inclusion.”
At Securian Financial, the past year brought “so much more for employees and managers to support and manage” in terms of diversity and inclusion, according to Jennifer Ortale, national vice president of sales and executive benefits.
“We had the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, social and racial inequities – they all impacted our employees,” she said. Securian has offered a pandemic benefit to its employees are they juggle responsibilities and face issues relating to COVID-19, Ortale added.
Securian was able to continue its summer internship program remotely in 2020, Ortale said, and the program emphasized attracting a diverse population to fill the 41 internship slots. But the pandemic provided what she called “a silver lining” in terms of its impact on the company’s diversity efforts.
“This has allowed us to offer a hybrid approach to how we work,” she said. “With remote work, we can increase our geographic reach in terms of recruitment. We now are able to engage with a broader and more diverse population.”
Susan Rupe is managing editor for InsuranceNewsNet. She formerly served as communications director for an insurance agents' association and was an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @INNsusan.
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