The world is a different place today than it was just a few short years ago, especially in how diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is handled in the workforce. The nationwide demonstrations for social justice in 2020 strengthened the already growing spotlight on DEI issues and applied increased pressure on organizations to sharpen their focus on making major strides in the area and addressing shortcomings that have existed for generations. The port industry was among those to take a much closer look at their practices and their workforces and to strive to be better.
Leaders in the port industry say it is imperative to proactively address DEI, understand the issues surrounding it and support initiatives that ensure fair treatment of everyone who works at your company or port, ensuring that you develop and promote a diverse and inclusive workforce. The Montréal Port Authority, for instance, began to increase its emphasis on DEI issues four years ago, recognizing that they needed to improve for reasons both cultural and operational.
“We have been doing this not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the smart thing to do,” said Julie Dubé, human resources director for the Montréal Port Authority. “Numerous studies have shown that a more diverse workforce and teams generate higher creativity and innovation as well as increased productivity and performance. With organizations fighting for top talent, we need to be on top of the game and make sure we attract, retain and mobilize all of our workforce.”
Port leaders agree that the benefits to embracing DEI are widespread and enduring.
“Research shows that more diverse teams are better able to solve problems and that companies with more diverse workforces have higher revenues, more customers and greater market shares,” said Bobbi Steadman, chief administration & equity officer for the Port of Portland.
Peter Deragon, global practice leader of the Supply Chain, Logistics and Transportation Practice Group for Stanton Chase, said there are clear reasons to emphasize DEI from a performance and competitive standpoint.
“Data proves that organizations that have a diverse workplace are more profitable,” Deragon said. “Another factor is that [diversity and inclusion]can be attractive to people who are considering joining a company, so it’s essentially a recruiting tool that gives you an advantage over other companies that are not as diverse as your own. There are other factors, too, like there’s less conflict and better inner culture and gender interaction with a diverse workforce.”
Deragon said there also is a greater diversity of thought, particularly when the emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion extends to the makeup of the leadership team.
“Innovative thinking comes from people that have diverse ideas,” Deragon said. “A monochromatic leadership team just doesn’t have that diversity of thought. Diverse leaders also serve as role models for a larger group of people and that will infuse organizations with a greater number of diverse leaders and more diverse thinking. It also allows leaders to grow within the [organizational]ecosystems.”
Steadman noted that the population itself is becoming increasingly diverse, and it’s important for organizations to follow suit.
“Several states and major cities throughout the United States are already a majority people of color,” Steadman said. “This means that a majority of the U.S. workforce is or will be employees of color. Employers who create workplaces that create a sense of belonging – where all employees feel seen, heard, are safe and valued – are the employers of choice and the companies that will thrive.”
An Intensified Commitment
In the wake of the 2020 protests, the City of Los Angeles established a new citywide workplace equity policy and issued executive directives calling for city departments to make DEI a priority in every department function, prompting new steps to address related workplaces issues at the Port of Los Angeles.
“As the nation’s busiest container port, the Port of Los Angeles has a social responsibility to ensure its workforce reflects the diverse communities it serves,” said Angela Brown-Simpson, director of human resources for the Port of Los Angeles.
Brown-Simpson said the racial equity action plan created by the Port of Los Angeles in the wake of the protests served to promote “a cultural shift toward a more diverse and inclusive workforce.”
“Having a diverse workforce that is inclusive enables the port to serve our customers, surrounding community, employees and other stakeholders more effectively,” Brown-Simpson said.
The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey established a steering committee in June 2020 to examine and address elements of race dynamics within the port authority. The committee held 30 employee listening sessions with approximately 2,400 participants, leading to extensive comments and recommendations for improving workplace culture, diversity and fairness at the agency and its facilities. In response to the input, the port authority released a report, “Taking Action on Race Dynamics,” which featured steps toward building “an anti-racist and inclusionary workplace,” according to Carol Bennett, acting chief diversity, equity & inclusion officer at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
“In today’s competitive marketplace, top talent is looking for employers who offer opportunities to learn, grow and make an impact,” Bennett said. “To improve our employee experience and be considered an employer of choice, we continuously work toward creating an environment where people feel they belong, feel respected and valued, and can be authentically themselves.”
Structured to Succeed
For DEI to truly be a priority in the workplace, the organizational structure needs to be in place to support that emphasis. Otherwise, initial efforts can fall by the wayside over time.
That means integrating DEI efforts throughout an organization. In that vein, Dubé said it is a mistake to view DEI as simply an HR project.
“DEI should be a value that is shared by all team members, and should not only be supported but made a priority by your executive team,” Dubé said. “In our case, it is embraced by our board and will be part of our 2030 Strategic Plan. We would like it to be part of our employer brand.”
Similarly, Steadman said companies should decouple DEI instead of viewing it as a single body of work. In addition, they need to invest in resources for the work so that it can succeed.
“Companies with successful DEI programs ensure [their]programs are staffed and funded, and sit outside the human resources department,” Steadman said. “This isn’t one department’s work, it is everyone’s work.”
Other keys to building a strong DEI culture include prioritizing education and awareness and having a DEI committee in place to help build concrete action plans to improve inclusion and representation, Dubé said. At Montréal Port Authority, the internal committees – such as strategic planning and sustainable development – all have diverse representation.
Brown-Simpson said a common misstep that employers make related to DEI is not recognizing their obligation to their workforce to ensure they have the skills, knowledge and abilities they need to get promoted to the next level.
“Mentoring or receiving assistance should not only come from supervisors/managers, but it should also come from employees in the same network,” Brown-Simpson said. “Employers should also try to offer training – including cross-training – opportunities to everyone. It is also important to understand the cultural differences and practices by getting to know employees as individuals.”
Emphasis on Accountability
For DEI to truly take root in an organization, there needs to be a concerted effort to hold the organization and its leaders accountable. Steadman said accountability systems on DEI should measure outcomes – not progress.
“At the Port of Portland, we established a social equity policy that leads with race and sought policy approval by our nine-member commission,” Steadman said. “We were not required to get their approval, but we chose to do so for accountability purposes. Once we had the policy approved, each division created an equity plan and we measure outcomes from the equity plans on a quarterly and annual basis. We share this information with employees, port commissioners and the public via the port’s website.”
Ongoing accountability is essential, Dubé said, including with annual reports to the governing board and executive team on benchmark DEI metrics and measured progress on DEI strategy.
Deragon said a team focused on DEI can make a major difference.
“The presence of a task force that meets regularly and raises the visibility and the priority of [diversity and inclusion]in an organization is a big step toward making sure that things are going to get done,” Deragon said. “These task forces can set concrete goals, and they can pressure executive leaders who are resistant to change. It’s an effective mechanism within an organization.”
Deragon said employee engagement surveys can be effective in examining where you are as an organization and where the most improvement is needed, tracking how well the organization is doing and where it is falling short of its aspirations. For surveys to be effective, though, they need to be taken seriously by leadership. That means developing an organized approach to analyzing the surveys and responding to the findings of them, setting goals that address concerns and assigning responsibility to team leaders to meet those goals.
“You need to be intentional and mindful and focused about reviewing progress every quarter in this area,” Deragon said. “The same way you go over your financial numbers and do your business reviews. you should be looking at how you’re progressing with your diversity goals.”
A candid, open environment is integral to having an inclusive one. Deragon said one of the keys to creating a culture that understands and supports DEI is having broad discussions on the topic that include everyone throughout an organization. These discussions offer a critical way to make sure an entire organization has opportunities to weigh in on those issues within the workplace and understands the benefits, expectations and policies connected with DEI.
Steadman emphasized the importance of engagement and conversation as part of the process.
“When focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion work, be sure to center and amplify the voices from the most marginalized communities,” Steadman said. “Engage those communities in the change process. This includes white community members. They serve as important allies [who]need to be part of the conversations.”
Steadman said it’s important to understand that organizations will always make missteps when working on DEI issues. “It’s part of the learning process and the journey,” Steadman said.
For ports and other organizations, growth will require determination and a steadfast focus on DEI. Although Dubé said the port industry traditionally has been predominantly white and male, there have been signs of progress.
“This is changing with logistics opportunities, digital transformation, innovation, energy transformation,” Dubé said. “There will be more and more competition for talent and hot or specialized skills. This will naturally bring more diverse candidates into our industry. We need to make sure that our organization is all set to include them and ensure that they are in a work environment that fosters creativity, equity and collaboration.”