Call it enlightenment. Call it a greater sense of community. Call it a matter of commitment and pride.
While there are some in the national business community that are beginning to question the importance of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs (see related story on page 57), there are plenty of companies in the Greater Cleveland area that are very much committed to the concept. Count Oswald Companies, a risk management firm headquartered in Cleveland, among them.
As a part of its DNA, Oswald believes that true organizational strength emanates from its team members who embrace the values of DEI as well as integrity, community and collaboration. But it’s more than just instilling these values as a part of its mission. Its about building them into the DNA of every personal interaction and transaction.
Indeed, Oswald has taken the DEI process one step further. A few years ago, the company hired a consultant to conduct unconscious bias training.
“It was one of the most memorable sessions ever,” says Jessica Jung, president of Oswald. “Most people feel as though they have no biases, but you realize you do when you go through the training.”
The company also introduced a program called Rise that invites employees to help the company achieve goals outlined in its strategic plan.
“We had such a cool, diverse response, bringing a diversity of thought,” Jung says. “Rise helps leaders realize there are people who can contribute, people they might not have realized, instead of leaders always tapping the same people on the shoulder.”
In addition, Oswald hired Boston and Associates, a North Carolina human resources consultant, to evaluate its DEI efforts, and the company is using a DEI analysis by Greater Cleveland Partnership to determine if its efforts are working.
“The whole point is that talent is our greatest asset,” says Jung. “We are client-focused, but happy employees make happy clients. To be happy, employees need to feel part of a thriving culture, and a thriving culture has great talent feeling like they belong here.
“When you have the right people in the right seats feeling like they belong, and they feel like they are part of a thriving culture, that is what I call rocket fuel,” Jung adds.
In addition to its efforts with its DEI programs, Oswald Companies is also quite active with Employee Resource Groups (ERG). ERGs first emerged in corporate America in the 1960s. They were part of the civil rights movement, giving Black workers combating discrimination better roles in their companies.
When Shawn Hoefler started working at Oswald 10 years ago, he knew little if anything about ERGs. Today, he’s co-chairing one.
The ERG is called Oswald Pride, and its purpose is to provide a safe environment for LGBTQ+ workers, along with their friends and allies, to gather, share their concerns, connect with managers and coworkers not in their group and ensure that they have the same career opportunities as anyone else.
“The Pride ERG not only shows that we have a warm and welcoming environment at Oswald,” says Hoefler, a senior design specialist in marketing, communications and media at the company. “It also helps with talent acquisition. It’s an outward showing that, ‘Hey, folks, we invite you to bring your full and authentic self to work.’”
Oswald has established several ERGs over the last 10 years and hopes to create more. The ERGs represent various worker subgroups, including women, young professionals and people of color.
Melanie Myers, Oswald’s organization development specialist who helps oversee the ERGs, says the groups give voices to everyone in the company.
“ERGs bridge gaps between and among employees and between employees and management,” Myers says. “They give visibility to employee populations that might be underrepresented so that they are recognized, and ensures they have career mobility.”
Pride and Aspire, ERGs representing Black, Indigenous people of color (BIPOC), were launched in 2022 and 2023, respectively. They were the third and fourth ERGs at Oswald.
The first ERG at Oswald was the Women’s Leadership Council, formed in 2013 after the company’s executive team realized that white men dominated the leadership.
“Women in the company felt that leadership opportunities weren’t as obtainable for them,” Jung says. “The executive team worked hard to fix that and change how it would feel for women.”
Oswald Climbs, an ERG that focuses on recruiting, retaining and advancing younger professionals, followed in 2016. Six years later, Pride kicked off on Oct. 11, which is the annual National Coming Out Day.
“We knew we had LGBTQ+ employees in the organization and knew Pride would be a profound ERG,” Myers says. “We had a lot of people raise their hands and say they wanted to be part of it.
“So we talked about what it means to come out at work and how it feels not to be your most authentic self when you go to work,” Myers says. “We want people to feel safe.”
That’s not to say that LGBTQ+ workers didn’t feel physically safe. They just wanted to be safe from judgment if they let down their guards and feel free to be themselves, while also having the same opportunities to reach their potential as their coworkers.
“It takes a lot of effort and stress to try to be someone you’re not,” Hoefler says. “Work has a social nature. When a coworker asks what you did on the weekend, that can be hard to answer if you have a same-sex partner. That can be hard to hide or admit.”
ERGs give their members a chance to foster understanding with coworkers who are not part of their group.
“I’m a young Black woman so my experience is different from someone who isn’t Black, female or young,” Myers says. “There’s a benefit to sharing that experience. Even if it’s not understood, it’s my job to find the resources to educate people who don’t experience life the way I do.”
Toward this end, ERGs invite nonmember coworkers and leaders to panel discussions where they can build new communication channels. These events can lead to professional relationships like mentorships.
The first step is establishing trust in management. Myers says Oswald works hard to earn that trust. She sits down with new hires for a “cultural conversation,” explaining that the company values their “fresh eyes,” thoughts and opinions.
“We make sure there are no consequences for speaking out and that we do something with employee feedback,” Myers says. “The worst thing you can do is ask for their input, then do nothing.”
Oswald’s ERGs also reach out to the community outside the workplace. Pride has participated so far in two career fairs, including The MetroHealth System’s annual Transgender Job Fair, as well as a job fair at the LGBT Center of Greater Cleveland.
“ERGs are places where people can respectfully and genuinely ask questions they are not sure about,” Hoefler says. “Maybe they grew up sheltered and didn’t meet a lot of diverse people. We explain what we have experienced in our careers, perhaps some uncomfortable situations.
“When you bring your talents to work, and when you’re good at what you do, there’s no reason to be uncomfortable or to make someone else uncomfortable,” Hoefler says.