Powering Strong Communities

Open doors and welcome spaces: Bolstering diversity, equity and inclusion in public power

Public power utilities are taking a look at the diversity of their workforce and how they can address and counter disparities inside their utilities and in their communities. From supporting a diverse talent pipeline to setting and monitoring performance metrics related to diversity, equity and inclusion, utilities are working to make lasting change.

“This is not a feel-good function; it’s not there to judge anyone; it is actually a business imperative,” said Nancy Harvey, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer at the New York Power Authority. “To do well financially, you need to attract diversity of thought, diversity of perspective, and you need to value people’s differences. And leverage it so they feel like they belong.”

“It is a strategic imperative for us to think about diversity and inclusion,” said Tim Burke, president and CEO of the Omaha Public Power District in Nebraska. “Those are important elements because our customers are diverse, and we have to think about that in our delivery of what we do.” OPPD has had a manager of diversity and inclusion since 2005.

Measuring change

Manar Morales, president and CEO of the Diversity and Flexibility Alliance, a group that advises organizations on developing a culture that embraces diversity and flexibility, stressed the importance of measuring diversity and inclusion in a variety of ways.

“The numbers tell you some of, but they don’t tell you the full story,” said Morales. She said that organizations should look beyond simply counting the demographics of employees and take a granular look at where these employees are and “are people advancing across the board — who are we retaining, who are we losing, what experiences are they having?”

Morales helps clients create metrics dashboards that not only show employee representation across all levels of the organization, but also map out how effective certain activities are in driving change.

“It isn’t just about throwing out and doing a bunch of different things, but is what we are doing effective to move the needle,” she said. She noted that having conversations with employees on these topics, such as through focus groups or insight interviews, can help utilities to “start to solve for the right problem.”

She stressed that organizations have to dig deeper and explore how employees actually experience the organization. “Do people feel valued for who they are? Do they feel like they are valued as individuals and that they can bring their whole self to work?” asked Morales.

“Often, organizations have a mission statement, but if you actually ask them what they are doing, they aren’t doing much,” said Morales, adding that organizations truly committed to diversity, equity and inclusion will ensure leadership can communicate the organization’s strategy of what it means to be diverse and inclusive, have looked at how to align its activities accordingly, and invest the time and resources into measuring progress.

She encourages looking at every aspect of the organization — from how it recruits, advances employees, retains them, and more. At each step, she said, look at how diversity and inclusion play a role, and where bias might be serving as a roadblock to being the kind of organization that you want.

Alignment and accountability

Morales emphasized how having specific data points for leaders to work off of makes training and policies on these topics more meaningful. If there is only training held or policies created, but no way to assess how individual managers play a role in supporting diversity and inclusion efforts, then “they aren’t really thinking about how they need to be changing their behavior or making sure that people are getting the opportunities they need,” she said. 

“If we say it matters to us, are we actually holding people accountable for it? Are we asking people if they are inclusive leaders, what are they doing to advance diversity and inclusion, are we setting expectations, are we giving them a toolkit to understand what they should be doing?” asked Morales.

Accountability is a big part of how we will mature our programs,” said Harvey, who mentioned that NYPA will be working toward setting dashboards that capture metrics year over year for managers to gauge where they are in hiring diverse employees or in developing internal talent. Harvey was recently elevated to the C-suite as part of NYPA’s new initiative to increase representation within its workforce.

We’re looking at what is the best way for us to keep ourselves accountable and to keep leaders accountable, at least for this lofty goal of improving representation across NYPA,” said Harvey. “At this moment, we know what we look like from an HR perspective, but the goal is to make sure the entire organization knows what is happening.”

Harvey said that NYPA will measure progress against industry benchmarks and is planning to expand and train leaders on better recognizing and measuring for diversity and inclusion within their departments. She hopes this approach will help leaders across the organization to identify and discuss where overrepresentation or underrepresentation is occurring and determine where processes should change. NYPA has included a question on diversity and inclusion in its annual workforce survey, and Harvey plans to conduct a separate survey that will go more in depth on the topic.

Harvey said that NYPA is forming a governance committee on diversity and inclusion that would gather feedback from a representative cross section of employees in all departments and report back to her office. Her office’s charge is to capture the metrics, measure where progress is happening, understand where gaps are, and reassess the strategies needed to deliver on the commitment. She said the office will also be looking at all processes to make sure they are equitable.

Rethinking recruiting

As for recruitment strategies, both NYPA and OPPD emphasize developing a diverse talent pipeline within the community.

According to Harvey, the new initiative will “touch on all aspects” of business — from how NYPA attracts and retains talent to the roles it plays in building a pipeline of STEM-focused workers and supporting businesses owned by women and people of color in its supply chain.

In 2002, OPPD participated in a program called InRoads, which brings in college freshmen, primarily from communities of color, for internships focused on building technical talent. Burke said that students could intern throughout their college career and that OPPD hired many of the participants for full-time positions once they graduated. OPPD has since developed a program for high school students, called the Legacy Initiative, which provides insight into all kinds of jobs the utility (and energy industry overall) offers, such as line technicians, call center representatives, engineering, and accounting.

For utilities who have found it difficult to recruit diverse talent, Morales emphasized that it is important to reflect on the recruitment process and where it might need to change.

“If your hiring is done [through] word of mouth, and if all of your employees are from one particular identity, then likely their circles are also from that similar identity,” said Morales. “If your employee base is not diverse, then likely the types of recommendations you are getting [are] just replicating the types of people you already have within your organization.”

Recruiting for diversity and inclusion isn’t just about diverse demographics, stressed Harvey, but also about making sure that employees and managers share the commitment to championing these values. She suggests that utilities define required competencies for leaders to help employees reach their full potential, such as active listening, taking intentional steps to counter and confront microaggressions, and being mindful about employee development.

Burke also makes an effort to share OPPD’s values on diversity and inclusion throughout the community. He serves as chair of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, where he has put the conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion front and center. OPPD also takes measures to show support of different communities, such as flying the Pride flag in June.

From a talent recruitment perspective, I need to show the public that we are a diverse and inclusive organization,” said Burke. “I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have come to our organization … ‘I knew I was coming to an organization that was going to be accepting of who I am and that I could bring my authentic self to work’ — and that’s what we want.”

Developing leaders

“You can always attract diverse talent, but the real question is can you keep them,” said Harvey. “One of the things that is really important is how we measure and look at compensation and movement across an organization — whether it is up or out in the experience of certain demographics.”

OPPD looks at what kind of community representation exists at all five levels of the organization. Burke noted the change he has seen in his more than 20 years as part of OPPD’s executive team. “In 1997, when I started, I was one of 10 white guys. In 2020, [of the same set of] 10 senior managers, five are female, and of the five males, one is Hispanic and one is part of the LGBTQIA community.”

This leadership development is intentional, said Burke, in that OPPD looks at inclusion and diversity when training and developing its people. He said the utility looks at “how can we begin to stimulate that training and development, so when senior level positions become available, we can have people ready to take on those accountabilities and responsibilities.”

Burke said that OPPD’s human capital division looks out for any “unintentional inequities” on a regular basis. For example, he said, if there are engineers with similar tenures and performance records but who have differences in salary, “we might find differences in how they came into the organization or how we work our merit process.” Burke said that the discovery and remediation of these inequities usually only affects a handful of employees in any given year, but that employees have moved to different parts of their salary range. The process also helps OPPD reflect on — and resolve — factors behind any differences.

Support amid change

Morales pointed to how new or expanded flexible working arrangements, such as remote work opportunities, don’t take out the legwork for managers in supporting an inclusive environment — they just change the approaches.

“It is important that with less face-to-face time, people don’t feel like they are out of sight, out of mind,” said Morales. “Within flexibility, we still need to create inclusive leadership. Often times, people will say ‘I didn’t feel seen or heard in the office, and now being out of the office, I’m worried about getting the kind of face time that I need, the kind of feedback that I need.’”

Morales advised that in a flexible environment, managers should continue to look at who is getting work, who is being included in meetings, and making sure that they are creating an environment where everyone is being seen or heard virtually.

“This is a place where people care about each other — it is a very collegial environment — but we could be more active to make sure we are as inclusive and diverse as can be,” said Harvey. “In this moment, there is no denying all the different ways that we have been affected these past few months. We have become more in tune, or sensitive to, what people of color have been enduring — from the murders of unarmed Black men and women to the disproportionate way that we’re impacted by the pandemic.”

Harvey credited a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion program and organizational mindset in supporting employees in the pandemic and social unrest that have occurred this year.

Harvey said that membership in employee resource groups has risen during 2020, and that the virtual format has allowed the groups to meet more regularly. The groups have discussed disproportionate impacts to certain communities and shared ideas and needs for staying safe.

NYPA’s president and CEO, Gil Quiniones, also produced weekly videos that aimed to reassure employees and keep them feeling connected. The video topics range from what NYPA is doing to keep people safe to general reminders about resources that are available. Harvey also cited daily virtual standup meetings that helped people feel connected and identify any needs.

“The big takeaway was to treat each other as human, and not so much as manager and employee. And really meet people where they are,” she said.

Over the past few years, more than 125 OPPD employees have participated in various “gatherings,” which Burke described as cohorts of people with a common interest, such as a women professionals group or a professionals of color group.

“If and when things occur within the organization, they have a support mechanism to talk and can raise issues as a cohort, which sometimes is easier than raising issues as an individual,” explained Burke.

Some of the solutions from the gatherings have been to expand on employee resource groups. OPPD has a wide variety of such groups, such as for women, veterans, Latinos, and LGBTQIA individuals. Burke mentioned that employees also suggested starting a parent’s group to share challenges and strategies for coping during the pandemic.

Intentional leadership

Burke noted that the white male executives at OPPD have been taking a 3.5-day training and deep dive to “focus in on white male privilege and culture, and also to examine racism, sexism and homophobia.” Burke was among the first group of 17 leaders who participated. “It has been one of the most powerful trainings I have ever been in in my life,” he said. “It may not be my fault that I have white privilege, but I certainly have an accountability and responsibility as a leader to understand that and to use that in a positive way for the organization.”

Burke says the plan is to find a way to have conversations on these topics with the rest of the employees by the beginning of 2021. “It’s to make sure that we have folks that have a support mechanism and that we have leaders that can now answer some of the tough questions from their own perspective, because they’ve done the deep dive and engaged in this conversation.”

Burke credits the intentional leadership focus on diversity, equity and inclusion for annual increases in OPPD’s employee engagement scores in each of the past five years.

Harvey stresses that support from the top, including the utility’s board, is important. “If there are no resources, and if it’s not being made aware to other leaders that this is a priority … then it will not go as it should.