Volunteers of America–Oregon (VOA—Oregon) has been in operation since 1896, addressing community challenges including poverty, child abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, family safety, affordable child care and adult day care services. In addition to her passion for VOA’s mission, Kay Toran, president and CEO, is passionate about creating diversity-rich workplace cultures. Raised in Portland’s predominantly African American community, Toran previously served as director of Oregon’s Child Welfare agency and as the director of Oregon’s Affirmative Action Office.
What are your thoughts on the importance of DE&I initiatives?
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) has long been a passion of mine. When I was part of the governor’s leadership team, it was my principal job function. At that time, we called it affirmative action. One of our goals was to increase the diversity of the Oregon state government’s workforce. To achieve that goal, we not only reviewed policies and practices and the need for legislation to support certain practices, but we also ensured that state departments, including higher education, cast the net widely in the recruitment process to include a diverse pool of talent of the best and brightest people committed to our missions and values. Having people from different backgrounds, perspectives, cultures, origins, gender, age and so on enabled us to be more effective at serving others.
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What are the critical components for employees to be successful in and supportive of a DE&I-rich environment?
Self-awareness and genuine curiosity about other people.
What is VOA—Oregon currently doing?
We’re in the midst of a three-phase DE&I project. Phase One focused on baseline knowledge and awareness. We held a series of interactive classes and workshops on various DE&I-related topics.
In Phase Two, we hired a consultant who not only continued with classes and workshops for the organization but also hired a group of community coaches to provide ongoing coaching for supervisors and managers, including how to communicate performance issues effectively. Coaches and VOA—Oregon managers and supervisors engaged in role-playing and reverse role-playing. The focus was on how to interact with employees without unwittingly polarizing or alienating them.
How effective was the coaching?
According to our managers and supervisors, it was incredibly effective in helping them understand and communicate with diverse employees and develop self-awareness. I was told again and again how helpful the coaching was.
What about Phase Three?
We’re currently in Phase Three, which involves a higher-level analysis and assessment, including how we function in the community in a way that supports DE&I principles. We are working now with the organizations and people we collaborate with. We’re on the journey with them.
Where do white men fit in DE&I initiatives?
Great question. Too often, DE&I initiatives mistakenly fail to reach out to white male employees. They are made to feel that they are the obstacle or the guilty party. Everyone should be actively engaged in the DE&I process. This includes white men.
Frankly, as an African American woman, I’m probably less effective than a white man in reaching out to another white man. We need to be open to what interventions work most effectively at building trust and respect across race, color, origin, gender and other lines.
In a prior government job, I worked with police officers. In my presence, a white male officer made a sexist remark and followed it by saying, “Women need to get over it.” Another white male officer responded, “I wouldn’t want you to say that in front of my wife or my daughter.” This had an instant sobering effect on the offending officer who apologized.
What’s most important in a DE&I initiative?
Stay committed to the process. Be open to the inevitable lapses. Racism, sexism and other ‘isms’ have been part of this country for far too long. We can’t truly be one nation until we rid ourselves of ‘ism’ mentality.
What’s the role of HR?
I work closely with my HR director Mike Wiebe. When I joined VOA—Oregon 20-plus years ago, HR was “old school,” such as the annual performance review that told you once a year what you were doing well and what you were not doing well.
Things have since changed. Mike is the kind of HR professional who I believe represents the future. Although compliance is important, he’s not a compliance cop and sees himself more as a facilitator and coach.
I see Mike as my partner. He’s on the front lines to assess the needs of our employees, and what supports them and our goals including our DE&I initiative.
What about HR policies and procedures?
HR policies, procedures and processes don’t drive our culture. It’s the other way around. HR ensures that these policies, procedures and processes are supportive of our mission, goals and values at a system level. This includes formal communication and informal communication, day-to-day interactions, sharing of information and positive, constructive exchanges with our stakeholders.
Has HR been helpful during the pandemic?
HR support has been crucial. We have had to be extraordinarily nimble in how we deliver services to the population we serve. Due to state government shutdown orders, we had to mobilize in a 24-hour period. This required great effort and commitment of all of our people, and HR played an instrumental role in making this happen. During the initial phases of the pandemic, HR hosted a daily meeting at 9:30 a.m. for half an hour, focused on employee needs. It’s now weekly.
As a CEO, I’m a huge proponent of the CEO-HR partnership. From coping with COVID-19 to leading a DE&I initiative, when the CEO and HR join forces and achieve big picture alignment, great things happen.