What would you do if you were picked to head the diversity function at a company with 167,000 employees? How would you know what issues were important to them and what would increase engagement and innovation? Karyn Twaronite, partner and Americas inclusiveness officer at Ernst & Young, No. 6 on The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, had exactly this concern a year ago, when she took over as head of diversity. Her strategy? She hit the road to meet with as many employees as possible and hear what they had to say about feeling included.
"Our leaders are so moved by our people and they care so deeply about what they think that I knew if I brought their voices to our work, they would really hear me," she says.
Twaronite launched a "listening tour" in October 2011, when she started her position. Beginning in Dallas, she traveled all over the Americas region—Atlanta, San Jose, Detroit, San Antonio, São Paulo, Brazil, Mexico City, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Secaucus, N.J., Memphis, New York City, Stamford and Hartford, Conn., Charlotte, Orlando, McLean, Va., and Washington, D.C.
In each location, she met with different types of employees—diverse in racial/ethnic/gender/age/orientation/disability demographics, diverse by position and job function, diverse by level of technical skills.
"I worked with our HR department to make sure they preselected people who had proven track records in their day jobs. I wanted the best perspective on what makes people high performers," she says.
The HR representatives gave the employees topics in advance and lots of direction about being candid and open with Twaronite. Her main questions concerned whether people felt they could bring their whole selves to work, what made them feel included or excluded, and how their team leaders factored into their feelings of inclusion or exclusion. Sessions generally had between 10 and 35 participants, and her team met with a few thousand employees total.
Simultaneously, Twaronite reviewed numbers from an engagement survey and compared them with employee ratings and what she heard directly from the employees themselves.
"We are an accounting and consultancy firm—we really like the numbers. So if I see data with extreme positives, we can replicate it in other places," she says.
Her key findings were that when people said they felt included, they better absorbed real feedback, like on-the-job coaching. Flexibility in their workplace and from their manager correlates to higher inclusion levels. And employees who had more interaction with clients and senior executives also felt more included.
What made employees feel excluded? "When people acknowledged that someone was different but didn't want to learn more about them," Twaronite says, noting as an example a young Muslim woman who is a star performer but felt excluded because no one on her team asked about her religion. "She wanted to share who she is and her coworkers felt they needed to be respectful and cautious," Twaronite says.
Although Twaronite's schedule is understandably extremely busy, she plans to continue her traveling listening tour indefinitely. "It's really relevant to be sensitive and close to your customers [in this case, the employees] so you can see consistencies and inconsistencies," she says.