NOD: Five Questions with Alicia 'AJ' Petross of The Hershey Company

Petross has a track record of success in building trust throughout the organization and leading new and exciting approaches to diversity and inclusion.

National Organization on Disability Chairman (NOD) Tom Ridge and The Hershey Company's Alicia "AJ" Petross / NOD

(Originally published on NOD.org)


Alicia "AJ" Petross is a leader in diversity and inclusion.  As Senior Director Global Culture, Diversity and Inclusion, and Engagement at The Hershey Company (a DiversityInc Noteworthy Company), AJ  has a track record of success in building trust throughout the organization and leading new and exciting approaches to diversity and inclusion. Because of Hershey's exemplary employment practices for people with disabilities, the National Organization on Disability recently named the company a 2017 NOD Leading Disability Employer.

NOD recently sat down with AJ to find out what drives her passion for workplace inclusion—and how Hershey's is leading the way.

1. WHAT LED YOU TO CHOOSE A CAREER IN DIVERSITY & INCLUSION?

From a young age, I remember my father helping a relative of ours to gain employment. She suffered from narcolepsy and was plagued by psychiatric boarding even though her disability was manageable. My father removed her from facilities by finding her employment, which meant she could regain independence. Having a job meant everything. The opportunity to earn a living is vital for everyone of working age. Having a disability should not prevent people from being employed. Seeing her journey was a powerful experience, one that stayed with me and influenced my career decades later.

2. WHAT INFLUENCES YOUR COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY, AS YOU CONTINUE TO BUILD A CULTURE OF INCLUSION AT HERSHEY?

At Hershey, diversity and inclusion is a commitment that is ingrained in who we are. It's about advancing our vision, our culture, and our environment so everyone can bring a meaningful contribution to the table. We have comprehensive strategies for diversity representation and retention and for making diversity a cornerstone of our corporate reputation.

We cannot be innovative without diversity of thought.  That's why the diversity of our C-Suite is intentional. Changing demographics, socio-economic trends, technology and globalization are converging on our workplace and marketplace like never before – and 85 percent of consumer-packaged goods purchases are made by women. At Hershey, our gender representation in C-suite roles is peer-leading and very influential to inclusion at our company. Women are at the helm of The Hershey Company's most profitable businesses and hold powerful C-Suite positions. Examples include: Michele Buck, who became the company's first female CEO earlier this year, other top ranks such as our Chief Financial Officer Patricia Little and General Counsel Leslie Turner and the leaders of the Hershey's and Reese's brands, Melinda Lewis and Veronica Villasenor.

As important as the diverse perspectives of our C-Suite are, we've learned that their actions continue to improve the diversity and inclusion of our workforce. Diversity, inclusion, and culture are incorporated throughout our company strategic plans, our corporate vision and values, and our global Hershey leadership behaviors. We will continue to use this foundation as we advance our culture of inclusion at Hershey.

3. WHAT IMPACT HAS HERSHEY'S INCLUSIVE EFFORTS MADE ON THE NEIGHBORING COMMUNITY? THE COMPANY?

Hershey dedicates time and attention to civil, human rights and social justice issues. Most recently, efforts in this space resulted in a facilitated dialogue session with local business and civic leaders to discuss the marginalization some have experienced in the local community and at the national level. The dialogue focused on reaffirming our commitment to fostering a culture of respect, safety and acceptance within the greater Hershey community.

Whether hosting Former Pennsylvania Governor and National Organization on Disability Chairman Tom Ridge for a disability awareness education session with employees or signing Hershey's commitment for the Federal Equality Act, we work to ensure we are actively committed in our attention to civil rights, human rights, and social justice issues.

Another example includes our participation in President Obama's White House Equal Pay Pledge, First Job Compact, and Fair Chance Pledge, which highlighted Hershey's commitment to creating a contemporary workplace. Through these initiatives, we built a commitment to equal pay for equal work, giving more people opportunities to gain experience in the workforce and eliminating unnecessary employment barriers.

Hershey's investment in the communities where we do business is important and enduring. I am proud to work for a company that is visibly committed to inclusion.

4. WHY IS IT IMPORTANT FOR THE HERSHEY COMPANY TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION ON DISABILITY? CAN YOU SHARE AN EXAMPLE OF ANY PROGRAMS THAT SUPPORT DISABILITIES?

The Hershey Company has been a proud member of the National Organization on Disability's Corporate Leadership Council for 5 years.  We value our partnership because NOD is a leader in disability inclusion. Hershey's purpose is bringing goodness to one another and to the world.  As I mentioned earlier, being able to be employed regardless of ability is essential.

Another example is our partnership with Susquehanna Service Dogs, which trains service dogs on the company's campus.  This raises awareness on our campus, which contributes to our "disability friendly" environment.

5. WHAT'S NEXT IN HERSHEY'S COMMITMENT TO DIVERSITY & INCLUSION?

Hershey is partnering with the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation on a Food Manufacturing Training Curriculum for Individuals with Disabilities. We are in discussions about developing programs that expand our pipelines for qualified candidates for potential hiring into manufacturing roles and retail positions at Chocolate World. Our hope is that our partnership will drive disability hiring in food manufacturing beyond The Hershey Company across Central Pennsylvania.

Learn more about career opportunities at The Hershey Company. 

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Originally Published by National Organization on Disability.

On November 1st, the National Organization on Disability held our Corporate Leadership Council Fall Luncheon and Roundtable. Hosted at Sony's New York offices, the event centered on the topic of mental health in the workplace.

Members of our Board of Directors and executives from nearly 40 companies held a candid conversation, heard from business leaders, and participated in an insightful Q&A where successful strategies were discussed to accommodate and support employees with mental illness in the workplace.

"Mental illness is the single biggest cause of disability worldwide," said Craig Kramer, a panelist at the event and Chair of Johnson & Johnson's Global Campaign on Mental Health. "One out of four people will have a clinically diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives," he continued. Another 20 to 25% of the population will be caregivers to loved ones with a mental illness.

The costs are staggering. "In the coming decades, mental illness will account for more than half of the economic burden of all chronic diseases, more than cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases combined…. It's trillions of dollars," said Kramer.

From an employer's perspective, the need for a successful strategy to deal with mental illness in the workplace is clear. But what are the most effective ways to confront this challenge? Roundtable participants discussed a wide range of ideas and success stories aimed at de-stigmatizing mental health and incorporating the issue into wider conversations around talent, productivity, and inclusion.

6 KEY TAKEAWAYS ON MENTAL HEALTH IN THE WORKPLACE:

  1. Be empathetic. "The most important workplace practice [with respect to mental health] is empathy," said NOD President Carol Glazer. Empathy is critical for normalizing conversations about mental health, but also for maximizing productivity. "A feeling of psychological safety is important," said Lori Golden, a panelist and Abilities Strategy Leader for Ernst & Young; and this sense of safety requires the empathy of colleagues to flourish.
  2. Tell stories. "Nothing is more activating of empathy than for people to share their powerful stories," said Dr. Ronald Copeland, NOD Board member and Senior Vice President of National Diversity and Inclusion Strategy and Policy and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer for Kaiser Permanente. Copeland's organization partners with the renowned nonprofit, Story Corps, to capture the stories of Kaiser Permanente employees, and also provides a platform on the company intranet for employees to communicate in a safe space. Both Craig Kramer and Lori Golden also shared examples of how their companies provide opportunities to share their stories and "start the conversation, break the silence," as Kramer put it.
  3. Model from the top. Carol Glazer received a standing ovation at the luncheon for her account of her own experiences with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This type of executive-level modeling sends a powerful message that a company is committed to improving mental health for all employees. Lori Golden shared how EY had experienced great success with a program where top-level managers host office-specific events and share stories of mental illness or addiction that they are personally connected to – either about their colleagues or loved ones or, in a surprisingly high number of instances, about themselves. Senior leadership setting the example conveys that this is a forum in which employees can feel comfortable sharing.
  4. Communicate peer-to-peer. "We all know that there's greater trust of our own peers than there is of the organization," said Lori Golden. So to build trust, EY "took it to the grass roots," creating formal opportunities for employees to have conversations about mental health and asking other ERGs to co-sponsor these events. Craig Kramer also noted that Johnson & Johnson had simply folded mental health issues into their global disability ERGs, eventually building the world's second-largest mental health ERG by piggy-backing on existing infrastructure and leveraging existing connections.
  5. Be flexible. Accommodating [the fact that people live busy, complex lives] gets you better buy-in…and keeps production pretty high," suggested Dr. Copeland. A representative from one Council company concurred, explaining how their company has recently instituted a new policy of paid time off for caregivers on top of federally-funded leave. "Being in a culture in which we measure what you produce and not whether you show up in person all day, every day, and where if you can't be there, you negotiate how the deliverables will get done and in what time frame…is immensely helpful to people who themselves have mental illness issues or addiction or are caring for those who do and may need some flexibility," summarized Lori Golden.
  6. Build a trustworthy Employee Action Plan. Many employees do not access or even trust their organization's internal resources. According to Craig Kramer, the percentage of calls placed to most company Employee Action Plans (EAPs) regarding mental health is "in the low single digits," while "if you look at your drug spend, you'll find that around 50% is [related to] mental health." The people answering those calls must be trained in mental health issues, and employees also need to be assured that EAPs are truly confidential.

While revealing and accommodating mental illness remains a massive challenge in the workplace and beyond, a number of successful strategies are emerging for tackling this challenge – many of them pioneered by companies in NOD's Corporate Leadership Council.

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