One of the things I love about HR is that– when it’s done in an ethical manner– it creates opportunity for people from all walks of life. It’s a function that emphasizes fairness and an equal “playing field” in the workplace. And more discussions than ever are centering upon diversity and inclusion (D&I). The challenge, though, is how to take an abstract concept like D&I (which even those who have no interest in advancing will likely never criticize in front of others) and relate it to business needs.
Last night, I was honored to meet Todd Corley, the former Chief Diversity Officer at Abercrombie & Fitch. As part of Business Excellence 2, he shared with the class his background and his responsibilities at A&F– and sparked very insightful conversation about the role D&I plays to ensure organizational success (it is not just a social cause). His role was created as part of a consent decree by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission– in short, after a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination, the EEOC forced A&F to create the role and Todd was hired. Imagine stepping into that.
Todd described growing up in New York, the son of a single mother. He also shared a pivotal moment in his career. He was attending an event on the top floor of a major employer on Wall Street and had noticed that several women were intermittently leaving the table. The time in which they were away seemed long. He later found out that these women were taking awhile because they had to go to a different floor of the building to use the restroom. In this lavish business environment, a women’s restroom wasn’t present and no one seemed to find this unacceptable.
Tales like this remind me of how insidious discrimination remains– and how what underrepresented groups ask for is often something others would see as nothing more than a basic right.
He described his three categories of co-workers: strugglers (who don’t value D&I), neutral observers (people who are not active proponents, but will “go with the flow”), and diversity champions. Each category requires a different leadership approach to yield the change that’s sought.
The most fascinating part of his discussion came when he described how millennials helped spark a lot of his success. At the time he began his role at A&F, Facebook was in its infancy and Twitter didn’t even exist. So, the millennial generation was ready to take advantage of social media– and to use the media as a platform for sharing progressive views about diversity. For as much as millennials are criticized, he stressed the value they brought (and still bring) to the proverbial table when it comes to speaking up. I was impressed by his humility– and thought it was refreshing to hear a positive opinion of millennials.
During the entire time, Todd was candid, kind, and helpful. He went out of his way to ensure that everyone’s questions were answered– and stayed after class to continue the conversations. His presentation is one rewarding benefit of having the MHRM program inside a college of business. We’re introduced to (and sometimes, build relationships with) people who are at the forefront of change– at leading employers facing large-scale challenges (like Abercrombie & Fitch). We are helped to understand how our HR duties help resolve (or prevent) these challenges. And we are inspired to do the right thing.