MLK Day of Service 2019.jpg

One of Helios’ Tysons-based teams helping to distribute food at the Arlington Food Assistance Center on the Martin Luther King Day of Service this January. From left: Katherine Riedel, Troy Scott, Bob Croker, Rod Durham, Justin Kidwell, Noor Oweis, Fiza Petro, LeAndria Streeter, and Mesfin Tibebu. 

The Business Voice asked two area consulting firms, Helios and Slalom, about their inclusion programs. What they shared can be utilized by companies of all sizes. "The power of collective differences enables all organizations - small and large - to have perspective on tough challenges. You’re able to problem solve for clients or your business to a greater capacity when you have more diversity of thought and perspective,” said Natalie O’Loughlin, Helios’ director of communications.

After watching the horror of the George Floyd footage, Melissa Walker, a management consultant at Reston-based HR and recruiting firm Helios, shared a heartfelt message to all 40 employees: “In the spirit of ally-ship and solidarity, I want …to acknowledge what has been happening in our country and in the news. Dr. Maya Angelou said it best when she said, ‘We’re more alike, my friend, than we are unalike.’ I acknowledge many of us are feeling hurt and confused as we grieve the losses of Amad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. If Helios is the sun, we are the light. Continue to let your light shine as we live by example through hope, love and understanding.”

CEO Kathy Albarado responded with her support immediately. “I’m sensing that most of corporate America is paying attention and engaging in a level of conversation I’ve never seen before. I am hopeful this results in positive change. Although we see some progress being made, we still have a long ways to go,” she wrote.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” says O’Loughlin. “I felt grateful we have…strong enough relationships internally to have the hard conversations. And then to have the power to help other organizations help be the driver of change.”

Though Helios had always been engaged in internal and external diversity and inclusion programs, the firm formed a Conscious Inclusion Committee after Walker’s message. Twelve volunteers launched further conversations about change.

The key to this open dialogue and action? Creating not just a diverse culture but an inclusive one, where each employee feels they matter, their voice heard. According to George Mason University’s Compliance, Diversity and Ethics Office website, if diversity is the characteristics that make us individuals, “inclusion is the state of being valued, respected and supported.”*

“It needs to be sustainable, weave it into core values,” O’Loughlin said she would advise others. “Diversity and inclusion are important, so it should be a longstanding program. Don’t do something because it’s all over the news, then table it when things get busy. It needs to be intentional.” And, she adds, top leaders need to make it a priority, so committees have impact.

Over the years, Helios initiatives have included: Respectful Workplace Training modules (the firm delivers these to clients, too); diversity certification for recruiters; reviewing terminology in handbooks and job descriptions for unintentional bias (after internal feedback, references to “articulate” were deleted, for example); and pods in which teams discuss race and belonging, piggybacking from questions provided by Leadership Greater Washington’s Anti-Racism Series. “Use facilitated questions, because starting conversation can be hard,” O’Loughlin said. “It’s interesting to see the bonds created out of it. You get a greater understanding of people, what makes them them. The conversation goes deeper.”

Last year, the company hosted a sold-out event in which diversity and inclusion leaders from Thomson Reuters, Capital One, NFP and Volkswagen spoke. The takeaway was “focus on inclusion if you want to be an employer of choice and be competitive,” O’Loughlin said. “Value the brainpower diversity can bring, which also leads to innovations. The power of collective differences enables all organizations - small and large - to have perspective on tough challenges. You’re able to problem solve for clients or your business to a greater capacity when you have more diversity of thought and perspective. Because if everyone was thinking the same way, you’re going to get the same results.”

She added: “It’s not just treat others how you want to be treated, but treat others how they want to be treated.”

‘Building an inclusive and diverse team is non-negotiable’

Inclusion is also crucial at Slalom, a consulting firm specializing in strategy, technology and business transformation. Headquartered in Seattle, with 170 employees in its Tysons office, Slalom was named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For in 2020. It also made the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index with a perfect score of 100.

“Our core value is to celebrate authenticity. It’s not something we do but who we are as a company,” said Regional General Manager Luanne Pavco. A member of the Inclusion & Diversity Steering Committee, she notes the firm puts the “I” before the “D,” because it leads with inclusion; what is the value of diversity if people don’t feel included? “Everyone has to feel like their voice is equally important and they’re heard, so they can be who they are…all our employees should feel understood, included, connected and safe.”

They want employees to share culture, ideas, celebrations and stories. “People can be empathetic and walk in their shoes,” Pavco said. They stress transparent, two-way communication and dialogue in a safe environment.

Slalom’s I&D workshops include “Widening the Circle” about inclusion; “Covering,” when people hide a portion of themselves at work (colleagues learn to help without asking and how to give space); sexual orientation and gender identity; and multi-generational workforces.

The firm has formed affinity groups over the years: WLN (Women’s Leadership Network), REACH (Black), Prism (LGBTQ), veterans, ASPIRE (Asian), UNITOS (Latinx) and Horizons, (mental and physical disabilities). The groups hold training and networking events and offer information on career development. “We use affinity groups as a way to gather, listen. We want to walk the talk. Action is louder than words.”

To that end, when Slalom published an anti-racism statement after the death of George Floyd, they stood behind it. The firm hired a Chief Inclusion Diversity Officer (they’ve had an I&D executive steering committee, local I&D councils and ambassadors) and formed an anti-racism committee to keep the conversation going. It launched a Juneteenth employee donation matching program, donating in excess of $410,000 to more than a hundred organizations supporting the Black community. In the Washington area, this included Offender Aid and Restoration, Black Girl Ventures, National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, National Lawyers Guild, and Center for Black Equity. In addition, Slalom and Slalom Foundation pledged $1 million to fight racism and social injustice; their number-two funds recipient is the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Pavco suggests companies examine recruitment closely. It’s about engaging people in different backgrounds, setting interview panels, using language that’s open and welcome. But to retain a diverse workforce where people grow with the company, she says, you need an inclusive environment. In their case, “It helps drive who we are, and they want to stay and grow with Slalom.”

Her most important advice to other businesses? “Get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s the time to have dialogue, learn, take action. One colleague said everyone’s looking at 2020 and Covid being the worst year, but… it’s such a pivotal year for our country. [I&D programs] are not just words on a paper. Numbers are indicators but don’t dictate success. Numbers don’t mean anything if you’re not respected and your voice isn’t heard.”

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