October 17, 2019

Awareness makes diverse workplace inclusive - Daily Leader Extra : Local News

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Awareness makes diverse workplace inclusive

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Posted: Friday, October 4, 2019 4:30 pm

Five panelists shared with the South Dakota Board of Regents their thoughts on diversity in the workplace and answered questions posed.

Representing two associations, industry and healthcare, the panelists were invited to speak with board members on Wednesday about educating future employees on diversity and cultural awareness. Before fielding questions, each had an opportunity to make an opening statement.

Nicole Freesemann, vice president of human resources for Raven Industries, said that "diversity is a hot topic for employers today." She explained that in the past, the focus was on being compliant with diversity policies, but there has been a shift, placing emphasis on inclusion.

"We have to respect our differences," Freesemann said. "We have to treat one another with dignity and respect."

She said Raven Industries places an emphasis on respect.

"When you respect one another, you typically have inclusion," she indicated, saying people live in an increasingly more multicultural society.

David Owen, president of the South Dakota Chamber of Commerce and Industry, indicated the Chamber is a diverse collection of businesses including retail, healthcare, finance and manufacturing. He talked about diversity as an idea which was first introduced in the 14th Century.

He demonstrated, using census data, that South Dakota is becoming more diverse. In 1920, the Census showed the state's population was 98% white. In 2000, census data indicated 84% of the population was white, 9% Native American, 4% Hispanic and 2% black.

Owen said exposure to diversity leads to more thoughtful CEOs and managers, and he talked briefly about some of the Chamber's advocacy efforts, including having the state's driving manual translated into Spanish.

"We want those people to be safe on the road getting to work," he said.

Nathan Sanderson, executive director of the S.D. Retailers Association, said the majority of businesses in South Dakota are owned by white males over the age of 50, and he noted that today everything is seen through a politicized lens.

"The way we communicate these views is so critical," he said.

Carla Gatzke, vice president of human resources at Daktronics, talked about their global market and indicated their workplace environment is "multicultural on a daily basis." She said humility is among the attitudes which help to create a respectful and trustful environment.

She said a diverse employee base enables the company to "have a better understanding of what customers value." She said curiosity and questions enable their employees to "pull the best" out of each other.

Gatzke noted that 80% of Dakotronics employees have degrees they earned in South Dakota.

"What we see you doing is really, really critical to our success," she said.

Sandra Ogunremi, manager of diversity, inclusion and equality at Regional Health in Rapid City, said her organization focuses on inclusion. She said that in hiring, they don't look at gender, race, political views or religion.

"Everyone is welcome to work for us," she said.

Regional Health places an emphasis on learning to understand cultural differences in order to close the gap that a lack of understanding can bring.

She used the example of a patient who does not respond to questions immediately. Some cultures expect the listener to wait while the speaker prepares an answer. Others consider a delay to be uncooperative.

"You cannot use one set of standards," she emphasized. She said it's important to choose treatment that is culturally appropriate.

Ogunremi believes that cultural training and awareness is important and said "people want to learn to understand the people they are working with."

In response to questions from board members and students, the panelists agreed that in hiring they look for individuals who are a fit for their organizational culture. Sanderson said different organizations handle training in cultural awareness differently, depending upon their resources.

He went back to the theme of communication when asked about negotiating the delicate balance of policy and politics. He said board members should keep this in mind when communicating with legislators.

"How is this going to be viewed by those who are in the position to make your life difficult?" he said they should ask.

Freesemann said negotiating the balance requires individuals to be open-minded and to have a willingness to collaborate, appreciating that their diversity will enable them to solve problems.

When asked what employers seek from college-educated applicants, Gatzke said Daktronics strives to create a welcoming environment where diverse perspectives are welcome because communicating these brings out the best in each.

"We would want the students from our universities to be able to do that," she said.

When asked about hateful behavior in the workplace, Ogunremi said it's necessary to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes it becomes necessary to educate employees that others are offended by behavior that is culturally appropriate to them.

Sometimes, in moments of frustration, language can prove to be a barrier, she said, especially for those who speak English as a second language. They may not be able to articulate their thoughts effectively.

"You have to help people see through a different lens," she said.

Throughout the discussion, those at the table communicated the importance of seeing differences and diversity as positive. Toward the end of the forum, Ogunremi made a comment in response to a student question which seemed to sum up the tone of the discussion.

"It's important to find a way to create an environment where people can blossom, where people can walk around and hold their heads held high," she said.

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