Diversity and Inclusion: Creating a Best Place to Work

An engaged fulfilled workforce is a key factor in growing a successful business. Creating a Best Place to Work, one that is diverse and inclusive is important to our local economy, to the community and to the bottom line of your organization. The Boston Business Journal talked to three organizations whose commitment to diversity, inclusion and the other factors that make a great work environment stand out and provide some behaviors and strategies to model for your business.

BBJ Market President Carolyn Jones talked with Ellen Mann, Assistant Vice President of HR, Arbella Insurance Group, Beth Chandler, President & CEO of YW Boston and Vicki Keenan, Principal, Cresa Boston to get their secrets to success.

BBJ: What makes your organization a best place to work?

BETH CHANDLER: There are a couple of things. Since our focus is working with organizations on creating more inclusive environments we also take that seriously internally. We spent the past few years looking at what policies and practices may not be as inclusive and/or equitable. For example, wages and staffing across positions. We don’t have that many men that work for us or that identify as male. Are there discrepancies in wages? If so, are there reasons that explain that? And if not what changes can we make?

VICKI KEENAN: At Cresa, the culture is built on a foundation of trust, mutual respect and accountability. Accountability to one another is as important as accountability to our clients, which results in a high level of employee engagement and inclusion. In our office there are no bad ideas and no bad pursuits.

ELLEN MANN: It’s a very collaborative culture. Our leadership focuses on the whole person, looking not only within their role and their career, but how we can support them beyond that. Career advancement and development is an important piece. When we talk about Arbella’s values our employees are #1.

BBJ: A diverse workforce that is welcoming and inclusive, certainly creates an atmosphere of being a best place. How much of an investment in time, people and resources does your organization spend on D&I?

VK: We are looking for people who haven’t come through the traditional commercial brokerage routes. We desire individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, and education. But most importantly, we want people who believe in our culture and values.

BC: It’s thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion as part of the DNA of the organization. For companies that we have worked with that are successful it’s really because it’s been a part of what they do and how they think, and their decisions are made with that lens. We try to do that internally too. When we’re thinking of hiring, for example, it’s thinking about what is the language in the job description. Does that trend to a particular gender or not? It’s really having that equity lens on all of the decision making.

BBJ: Diversity and inclusion means many things to many people. How would each of you define it; what does that mean to you organizationally?

BC: We look at it in a variety of ways. It’s really thinking about how people define themselves. And given the mission of our organization – race and gender are both important. There are also ethnic differences. There’s whether you’re a parent or not. How are people defining themselves? Thinking about equity means thinking about what are the policies, practices, and procedures within an organization that are really fair across the board.

VK: I think what’s interesting at Cresa is that they’ve done a great job mentoring and giving employees the opportunity to see all aspects of our business. This approach results in well-rounded and happy employees, which is evident in the tenure of the team. We have well thought-out growth plans, that include continued diversification of our workforce.

EM: I feel pretty strongly our BBJ results reflect this that we treat everyone equally and fairly. We’re in a really good place around that perspective. Our ongoing leadership programs reinforce that we are a culture of accepting of all differences and similarities of all employees.

BBJ: An important part of retention is the opportunity to grow and advance. How do you signal to women, to the people of color on your staff that there is an ability to advance and grow. How do you signal to them that those opportunities are there?

BC: I think it continues to be a challenge. We need to make more of an effort and be more conscious of looking at more diverse candidates for our positions. We do promote a lot from within. We realize that it’s better if we have the right culture fit and we’ll train people on the skills.

VK: I think what’s great today, which is very different from when I started in the business 22 years ago, is that there are many more women entering real estate. I spend a lot of time with young women asking them “What is your why story”? I try to understand what their career goals and objectives are and help them develop plans to achieve them.

EM: This is evident in the fact that Arbella’s Board of Directors is represented by one-third females and our senior leadership team is over 50% female.

BBJ: Beth, can you talk about when employers say, we don’t have a good racial balance or ethnic balance. Is that area where you have to do a different search? Talk about recruiting and what you see as some of the challenges or opportunities that you could share with employers.

BC: Sure. You know I think there are a couple of things, right. So one of them is when people are looking for roles they look at who’s in leadership? I am less likely to want to work for an organization if I don’t see people that look like me—whether it’s in leadership of that organization, whether it’s on the board. But if there aren’t people that are being profiled anywhere, even when they’re just pictures of staff, if I don’t see people looking like me anywhere, why would I think I’m going to be successful there? Why is it worth necessarily being the first if I can go someplace else where there are other people of color.

BC: And when we talk about culture if we don’t have a diverse organization then what is the culture? If there’s a fit and there’s nobody of color in there then what is that fit? And is that really going to be a fit that feels inviting and opening and warm to people that don’t look like the folks that are already there if it’s not a diverse group? That matters. People look at that, candidates look at that. So it might be that you can do all the recruiting you want but if those things aren’t different then people aren’t going to come. And then there certainly are things you can do on the recruiting side. And part of it involves where are looking. But if your employees all look the same, they’re probably not going to have a broad and diverse network to be referring candidates to you. You’re just recruiting people that look like yourself. I think that there are lots of organizations in the city of Boston that work with diverse candidates. I know there’s Amplify Latinx. There’s The Partnership. There’s work that we do with our LeadBoston program, just to name a few. There are lots of avenues where organizations can be reaching out to get a more diversity, particularly when it comes to race and ethnicity, than they currently are. It just is being willing to make that effort. I often say that is this is really important to an organization, if there’s any initiative that’s important you will move mountains to be successful. You figure out what resources are needed and put a foot on the gas and not take it off because it is important for success.

BBJ: Culture covers a lot of different areas. What are specific things that you have done to grow and improve culture.

EM: One of our highest scores on the BBJ survey is trust in senior leadership. Communication is key. We conduct annual town hall forums with our CEO, we have an employee blog and an employee advisory council that meets regularly with Executives to ensure the employee voice is heard. As an organization we are always looking at ways to continue to improve and implement employee suggestions.

VK: There’s a high level of transparency within the organization. We talked earlier about trust and accountability, which breeds a great culture. We put a lot of effort into events related to fun, wellness and charity. Those three pillars are important to our team and we have created focus groups to support these initiatives. The wellness committee events are programmed around the whole person and not just a spin or yoga class. It’s really focused around everything we do from sunrise to sundown and how we help each other to be more successful, personally and professionally.

BC: I think part of what we’ve seen particularly with organizations that we’ve worked with that are successful are organizations that can talk about why it’s important. Why is it important for the success of the organization to be more inclusive and not just because it’s a business? Not just because it’s a moral thing. Not just because it’s the right thing to do. But how do you get people to understand for all of those reasons why it’s important for your organization. Organizations that are able to do that have generally been more successful because it’s a way to get staff really bought into this. And so, we partner with organizations through our InclusionBoston program. And we do it both internally and with other organizations where people talk about race and ethnicity. How has it impacted them? How has it impacted other people? And how are equity issues showing up in the workplace? And the beauty of this, it’s not just talk. We also have assessments that go with it. And then being able to have the assessments to say OK, how are we doing? How are things changing? At YW Boston, we provide all new employees as part of the onboarding process with what we call Foundational Learnings. It consists of some videos and readings that talk about racism and issues around gender so that there’s a common understanding about what some of the key issues are and a common language so that people can feel comfortable talking about things and speaking up when they don’t understand something. Being able to have this sort of common understanding from the top of the organization all the way down has been very helpful as well.

BBJ: I think sometimes that the topic of diversity and inclusion is scary for people. And no one wants to talk about race or gender. I think it’s getting out of that and realizing it’s not so scary the more you talk about it. That really more open and inclusive and really better the workplace will be.

BC: We’re finding that particularly with Millennials -- they want to talk about this. They want to be in workplaces where this is front and center. And so for organizations that we’re working with they realize this. They realize how important Millennials are to the success of the organization, the future success. So they want to be able to create the opportunity to have these conversations.

EM: Our workforce is evolving especially now that Millennials make up one-third of our workforce. This generation is more inclusive than any other generation and as we will continue to see it evolve as we support and encourage this evolution of openness.

BBJ: What are one or two foundational best practices that you think contribute to making your organization a best place to work. Your companies are positive work environments - is there any advice you might give others?

VK: Leadership fosters a workplace that welcomes opinions and feedback. I know from experience that working in an environment where people fear speaking up or sharing ideas can be difficult. Nurturing and encouraging people to speak, be themselves, accept challenges and be fearless creates a really great place to work.

BBJ: Be fearless. I like that. Beth?

BC: I would add being reflective. I think one of the things that we have certainly learned over the years is we have to be mindful of the things that we do. And what are we learning from that? How are we able to talk to staff about that? And mistakes that we may have made organizationally, things that we’ve done well. How do we engage staff in those conversations and demonstrate that we as leaders are willing to be reflective and challenge some of our own assumptions and biases. If we’re able to do that, staff will be able to do that as well. And we’ll all grow and be able to move forward, particularly when it comes to issues around race and gender. Because they are hard. We all have our own assumptions and biases going into this. So being able to challenge those, allow ourselves to be challenged, and then talk about our learnings is really important.

EM: I agree that this is a subject that needs to be talked about. Our ongoing sensitivity training focuses on challenging perceptions and encourages open mindedness. Further it starts at the top. The Insurance industry as a whole could do a better job at attracting a more diverse employment population. It begins with grass roots efforts. I am proud to work for an organization that supports all employees but in particular women in the organization. This has set us apart from other companies in our industry. We need to build on that.

BBJ: Thank you all so much. Some key things we talked about: transparency, a culture that allows people to be different and do different things. Being purposeful and mindful about what your organization looks like and looking at it through a different lens. Are we doing the things we need to be doing? Are we asking those tough questions or having those uncomfortable conversations with ourselves? It really starts at the top and really starts with good communication and great leadership.

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Assistant Vice President of Human Resources, Arbella Insurance Group

Ellen Mann’s career at Arbella Insurance Group has spanned 12 years. As Assistant Vice President of Human Resources, her responsibilities include Talent Development, Management and Acquisition, Employee Benefits, Payroll, HRIS and Security. Ellen plays a strategic consultative role to the business leaders and employees, balancing work performance with the interests, values and needs of our valued employees and the company. In addition, Ellen provides customized coaching and lends her guidance to all levels of leadership on strategic staffing plans, compensation, succession planning, employee relations, development and performance management.


President & CEO, YW Boston

Beth Chandler joined YW Boston in November 2012, with more than 20 years of experience in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. In August 2018, she was appointed President & CEO. Prior to working at YW Boston, Beth served as vice president at the Achievement Network, a national non-profit dedicated to helping urban public and charter schools close the achievement gap. A former professional basketball player, Beth received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University and an MBA from Columbia Business School.


Principal, Cresa Boston

Vicki has 22 years of experience in the commercial real estate industry representing landlords and tenants. Her experiences ranges from leasing and asset management to acquisitions, dispositions, and redevelopment. She works closely with our advisors to provide consulting services to occupier clients, both locally and around the globe. These services include workplace strategy, financial analytics, labor analytics, transaction management, portfolio optimization, business analytics and more. While Vicki’s greatest strengths lie in high-level thinking and the development of holistic strategies, she thrives at motivating teams and leveraging their skills and expertise to execute on those strategic plans.