‘Feel Good’ D&I v.s. ‘Real Good’ D&I: How HR Professionals Can Make the Most of Their Diversity and Inclusion Strategies – A conversation with Sheri Crosby Wheeler
January 29, 2021
Diversity and inclusion
Diversity and inclusion has been a large topic of discussion lately for many human resources professionals in America as society continues to hold conversations on the rising political and social tensions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As Sheri Crosby Wheeler puts it, it isn’t enough for companies to simply implement “feel good” strategies, they need to implement diversity and inclusion strategies that are “real good.” We recently had a conversation with Ms. Crosby Wheeler to discuss her experience with diversity and inclusion and where she believes companies can, and should, be doing more for their employees.

Diversity and inclusion

Sheri Crosby Wheeler is currently the Vice President, Diversity & Inclusion at Fossil Group, a global watch, wearables, and accessories company headquartered in Richardson, Texas. Ms. Crosby Wheeler specializes in diversity and inclusion at her current company where she primarily focuses on ensuring her organization is effectively planning and applying strategies to benefit their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Prior to becoming a human resources executive, Crosby Wheeler worked as an employment attorney with an extensive background in employment law. All views and opinions expressed in this interview are that of the interviewee and do not reflect the views and opinions of the company of employment.

Q. What does diversity and inclusion mean to you?

Diversity is the representation piece. It’s the facts about someone, so it’s what makes them who they are…Inclusion is something that is an action; it’s something you have to do. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, we have a diverse workplace and people are included.’ People aren’t included if you’re not doing anything to make sure that people feel included. It’s an action; you have to take steps to make sure people feel included.

You’ll hear about the terminology belonging, and when you’re thinking about inclusion, it’s an action I have to take to make someone feel included. With respect to belonging, that’s how someone feels after you’ve taken that action to make them feel included. That’s not anything that you can control. Whether or not that person feels like they belong, based on what you’re doing with the actions that you’re taking, they may or may not feel like they belong, even though you are taking actions to try to include them.

Q. How has the pandemic changed how HR professionals are approaching diversity and inclusion? Even more so, how is it affecting learning and development initiatives in regards to diversity inclusion?

A lot of other different areas within corporations have had to look at how they deliver content. They’ve had to focus in on the employees because employees are working from home…With D&I, we have had to shift to a virtual mindset. Some companies who weren’t able to make that shift at the beginning of the pandemic were concerned. They let their diversity and inclusion work fall to the wayside. You have to focus in on trying to connect people; making sure that you’re learning; making sure that leaders are connected with their employees.

Q. From what you’re seeing, is the social and political climate, especially this being an election year and there’s been so much going on in the country, is that impacting diversity inclusion as well? How is it impacting it? How much do you think those political or social factors from outside the organization are impacting it internally?

I know they’re impacting organizations greatly…What happens outside of the walls of the organization are not left at the door of the company or when you click on your computer in the morning. It’s not like you shed that; those things are still happening…Now what you’re seeing is more and more companies, because of what we’ve experienced over the last year and this radical shift, are finding out they can no longer be on the sidelines and not speak to what’s going on. They’re having to say something…Even if you don’t say something, that’s saying something.

Really smart organizations are taking control of the narrative themselves. Instead of letting silence frame the narrative, now companies are becoming more comfortable because their employees and shareholders are wanting to hear from them on different topics and issues. If you focus in on your employees or you focus in on doing well for the community, I think that you will be able to go in the right direction and to make the right moves if you keep that focus and not let yourself veer off of that course. Unlike before, a lot more companies are taking a stand and having a say in what’s going on.

Q. When it comes to these companies having to say something, who might have been passive before, what are some examples you’ve been seeing of companies that are doing really well in those aspects? What’re you seeing from some companies that aren’t doing so well? For those companies who aren’t doing well, where are they failing?

The companies that aren’t doing as well say things that do not match with what their culture is and has been previously…For an organization like Nike, their statements and their messaging around social justice issues is in line with their company and their values and what their brand stands for. It wasn’t like they were saying something that was inauthentic because they’ve always gone that way versus a company that hasn’t taken those types of stances before. And they come out as really strong, some people will say, ‘No, that wasn’t what your stance was before.’ It’s not to say that you can’t say anything; it’s to say, ‘We’re speaking out because the times call for it. We know we have work to do in this space, and we’re willing to connect with other organizations who are working on this issue.’ Companies who aren’t doing it well are the ones who just are not being true to their corporate values.

Diversity and inclusion

Q. For these companies who either haven’t spoken out or have been hesitant to speak out and then companies who speak out and have people calling them out for being inconsistent with their words and actions, what should they be doing to kind of fix those situations?

They have to be real and honest about where they are and what they’re doing. When they communicate those things, they have to say, ‘Look, we want to speak out on this issue. We know that we haven’t been perfect in the past. We know we have a lot of work to do on our end. And here’s what we commit to do going forward.’ When you put those statements out there, then you do it.

Whoever’s looking to see come next year, two years, or five years; however long the case may be, is going to look and say, ‘Did that they do what they said they were going to do?’ That’s not even just companies; it’s people. When we’re dealing with each other, if somebody says they’re going to do something, and we’re looking to them and we want to trust them, we’re looking for them to do what they said they’re going to do.

You can speak on issues, but you have to do it in the right way and in a nuanced way, so that your employees and your stakeholders and your customers [say], ‘Okay, this fits with our company.’ If you say we care about diversity when someone looks into your organization, and they see that your leadership is not very diverse, what that company could say is ‘We do care about diversity, and we know we have work to do. And here’s what we’re going to do to try to make it better in our own house.’

Q. In your opinion, especially when we’re looking at those companies who are in that hot seat, do you think these leaders are prepared to handle those topics?

Some are and some aren’t. For the ones that aren’t, they have to be self-aware enough to know that. If they need someone to come in and help me to navigate these waters, they should reach out for it. They’re good leaders for a reason. They know when they need help or not. They’ve gotten to where they’ve gotten to based off of being knowledgeable and savvy and smart. Those same attributes can be brought to bear in making a decision like this. ‘Am I able to speak on this? Or do I need to bring someone else in to help me to craft the right message to give them the right tone of what I still want to authentically say?’ Because no one wants to hear inauthentic things from someone or something that they think is not true… You have to be smart and sharp crafting whatever it is you’re responding to.

Q. We discussed a lot of the external factors and communications that are happening. Are you also seeing a lot of that happening internally? What would you say the trend is for employees? Are they also pushing for a lot of this? Are they calling out companies? If you are seeing that, how are HR professionals handling that? How can they be better for their employees and for their team?

A lot of companies have been putting in really good work over time. Some companies are caught out there flat-footed. But there’s a lot of companies that have been prepared too. They’ve been working on diversity and equity and inclusion strategies…And their employees are aware that they’re working on it. From the companies that haven’t been working as much in this space, some of them are like, ‘Whoa, what do we do?’ They’re scrambling. It’s a good thing that everybody who is starting to work on this is getting on board because ultimately, it benefits their organizations…It benefits the employees and benefits communities.

If you look on Glassdoor, yes, employees care about diversity and inclusion…Things are more heightened, but employees have always cared and it’s just to a greater extent. Employees now are just more so vocalizing it and letting it be known how much they care about these issues…It’s always been the case that those employees who really care about diversity, equity, and inclusion are talking to their leadership. Sometimes leadership listens, and sometimes leadership doesn’t. Smart leadership listens.

Q. Was this trend we’ve been seeing inevitable? What trends do you expect that we’ll see when it comes to diversity inclusion in the next five years?

This kind of awakening, if you will, I don’t know that it was inevitable…In the summer of 2020, the diversity and inclusion space was pushed forward faster than it would have been without what we’ve experienced in 2020. Some things I think you’ll see come out of progressive companies, there’s going to be more accountability. In the past, there’s a lot of people talking about diversity and inclusion, but no one being held to account for it. I think that’s going to change. We’ve already started to see it with some companies pointing out that they are attaching bonuses and compensation of their leaders to the results that they are showing in the diversity space.

Another thing that is going to be happening is that there’s going to be more serious emphasis in the D&I space. You’ve had before of people just thinking of it as ‘Oh, it’s a program. Oh, it’s over there in HR. There’s just something nice to have.’ We’re getting away from that ‘nice to have.’ You’re going to see more resources point towards diversity and inclusion…People are starting to understand that it’s a business imperative. More companies are going to have chief diversity officers or individuals that it is their sole job to focus on this.

Diversity and inclusion

Q. Going back to when you mentioned Corporate Social Responsibility, how is that being affected by everything going on?

It depends on what a company looks at as their CSR strategy because some companies look at that as outreach and community involvement. Some companies, that’s more of their connection to ESG, environmental, social, and governance. So the D&I can be an integral part of both of those areas of an organization…D&I will rise in prominence as it pertains to both of those areas.

Q. What would you recommend for companies and HR professionals to start implementing now to make sure that they’re on the right track when it comes to diversity inclusion?

You definitely want someone in the role and probably not just one person…It’s too much, it’s too big. If you’re really trying to move forward, you need more than one person focusing on this. What they should start doing now is really focusing and making sure that there’s somebody that’s there full time, so that that person can stay on top of new strategies, cutting edge ideas, thoughts coming up in this space. So that their company can stay on top of what is moving organizations forward. Because of what you’ve had happen in the past, it’s somebody’s ‘sometime’ job or someone’s hobby, or they had three other jobs, or somebody who didn’t have the authority and the level to be able to make decisions within organizations, so nothing was happening. It can’t be that way anymore if companies are serious about moving forward.

Q. Is there anything further you’d like to add?

It’s hard sometimes to change culture and to rock the boat…A lot of companies are coming to this space brand new, so they’re going to think, ‘I’m going to do what everyone else has done and I’m going to do things that are comfortable and easy.’ I call this ‘feel good’ D&I, and ‘feel good’ is not always going to get you to where you need to be…There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t know that it’s going to make an organization grow the way that they want to. If you have a heritage month celebration, that’s all well and good. But you can’t just stay there…You celebrated, and yet, that’s not changing the system. That’s not change in policies, procedures, that are making things better for employees there or making things better in communities.

That’s where ‘real good’ D&I comes in…You have to also do the real work if you’re going to see real changes…You know you’re growing because it wasn’t comfortable…And that’s where the ‘real good’ D&I comes into play. 

Q. For companies who use ‘feel good’ D&I as baby steps, what comes next?

You can start there, and then you continually evaluate each and every year looking at their strategic plan. What’s the next step for us? What is our organization ready for? Some companies, they’re not so ready to share the [statistics]. So maybe you don’t start out with that…You keep [the numbers] to yourself. You know what they are. Nobody knows that you’re working on it. So if you fail, nobody knows. If you put it in a report that you share on the website, now people know what’s going on. And when you say we’re going to work on it, and it doesn’t change, now you’re held to account. And that, to me, is one of those ‘real good’ steps.

People have to see. Are we there yet? But you can’t just stay in the ‘feel good’ space forever. At some point, you got to get into some things that are ‘real good’…They just have to want to, and some organizations don’t want to…That’s their prerogative. I feel like those organizations will be left behind. They’re not taking advantage of all that the market has to offer as it pertains to employees, as it pertains to customers. If they decide they don’t want to go on this journey, they can decide that. But I think it’s harmful to that business in the long run if that’s what they decide.

Diversity and inclusion is beginning to take on a much larger importance for businesses across the nation, as it rightfully should. Ms. Crosby Wheeler put it best, it isn’t enough to settle for D&I strategies that are comfortable. Real change occurs when there’s real effort.

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Emily is BrandResumes' Content Specialist and is an Associate Resume Writer. She completed her Bachelor of Arts in Publishing Studies with double minors in Marketing and Journalism from Hofstra University. She has had editorial experience working as an editor for various publications from Hofstra and worked as a writing tutor for undergraduate students.

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