Building Workplace Diversity

Building Workplace Diversity

Di & Associates, owner of Madison’s Spherion staffing company—a certified minority- and women-owned business—is among many organizations retooling their recruitment strategies to meet the evolving demographic changes taking place in today’s labor pool. “We know from our own day-to-day operations and proprietary market research that recruiting highly-skilled talent requires a new focus on diversity and tailored sourcing and attraction methods,” says Margaret Leitinger, vice president, Spherion.

“Finding qualified workers to fill talent gaps in organizations today has become increasingly challenging, given that the number of younger workers entering the labor market won’t be enough to replace those who are exiting the working environment. Additionally, the generation entering the market is the most diverse in our country’s history,” says Leitinger.

In fact, Spherion has conducted a study annually for fifteen years in conjunction with polling firm Harris Interactive to uncover changes in the workplace, employee attitudes and HR challenges facing companies today. Its latest study found that seventy-nine percent of organizations named diversity as an initiative for workplace planning goals, and thirty-eight percent said they considered it a major initiative. 

Fortunately, Spherion has a long-standing passion for and focus on diversity recruiting. “We continue to partner with community-based organizations—such as the YWCA, Urban League, Madison College and Globe University—to attract a diverse candidate pool ready to apply their skills and knowledge,” Leitinger says.

She also says companies hesitant to include disabled candidates in their recruiting efforts are eliminating a key source of talented workers. Particularly for smaller organizations that have difficulties competing with larger companies’ resources, hiring these valuable workers can help attain talent acquisition goals and needs. 

“With assistive technology, people who have great skills sets but are hearing- or sight-impaired, for example, make amazing employees,” she adds. “We get training every year on different technologies so we can be inclusive with this sector.”

Despite a sluggish economy, hiring levels are beginning to improve, which means many organizations will face difficulties in finding the talent they need. Spherion’s study found that sixty-four percent of HR executives named finding and recruiting qualified candidates as their biggest HR challenge. In Madison, where unemployment is lower than national averages, the market is highly competitive.

In order to compete for talent, Spherion is also leveraging social and digital recruiting efforts to reach hard-to-find workers. “We know that in order to reach younger workers, for example, we must adapt to their expectations and behaviors by communicating via social and digital communities,” says Leitinger. “In fact, our study found that sixty-four percent of organizations believe social/digital initiatives are usually the most effective way to recruit candidates.” 

With roughly 350 million personal computers and 1.7 billion mobile devices in use, many Americans are plugged in to technology throughout their days. Texting, once a nonexistent recruiting strategy, is now an integral component in attracting talent. 

“If you’re a hard-working, ambitious person in Madison, there are many job opportunities within your reach,” says Leitinger. “We’re seeing particularly high hiring activity in finance, accounting, information technology and other service sectors.”

Today’s diverse workforce offers opportunities for employees to develop respect and appreciation for one another’s cultures and differences, notes Chestina Schubert, a respiratory specialist at UW Hospital and Clinics. “The more we do that, the better we are at doing our jobs,” she says.

Schubert—who was named Team Member of the Year in the hospital’s Trauma/Life Center—says the organization is welcoming to all workers. “We have physicians from India, Africa, Columbia … all over the world,” she says. “Our workers range from teenage interns to retired volunteers, and UW really values its employees, recognizing their skills and talents rather than their demographics.”

UW Hospital and Clinics creates an inclusive environment, confirms Betty Collier, director of recruitment. “Having multiple perspectives fosters new ideas and increases the quality of our decisions. We’re very focused on patient- and family-centered care, and diversity helps us do a better job.”

Diversity is not only a part of our recruitment strategy, it’s a part of our overall mission, vision and values, observes Anthony Dix, human resource services manager at sister organization, UW Medical Foundation. “Betty and I are continually working together to proactively look for strong, diverse candidates.”

The organizations have several internship programs focused toward underserved individuals. This includes participation in the national INROADS program for college students and, for younger students, the AVID/TOPS program in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County and the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

“We bring in young people from different backgrounds and prepare them for leadership,” Collier explains. “Our goal with the college students is to hire them freshman year and have them work all four summers. They’re so sharp—we’ve hired several as fulltime employees.”

Partnerships with organizations such as the Urban League of Greater Madison, Dane County Job Center, Veterans’ Affairs, and Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development programs have also yielded trainees who later became fulltime

“We serve as a host site for a Project Search program, which is dedicated to providing education and training for young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities,” adds Collier. “The goal is to get them ready for employment, whether it’s at our hospital or another employer.”

When it comes to advertising, the organizations use social media, along with websites catering to various demographics. “We’re also including people of different ages and ethnicities in our ads, and it’s working,” Collier says.

Once people get in the door, retention is strong, notes Dix. “We have a great benefits package and an excellent work environment that keeps employees wanting to come to work and to stay with us.”

Increasing diversity starts with expanding the size of your applicant pool. “We use a combination of tactics to reach applicants we may not have in prior years,” says Anne Carter, director of corporate diversity and inclusion at Alliant Energy Corporation

“We have an evolving strategy to identify what works best, including an increasing emphasis on leadership accountability in the hiring process,” she continues. “Diversity is an operational metric for us that’s linked to compensation.”

Carter is relatively new to the organization. “One thing I’m focused on—with the talent acquisition group and the overall company—is finding external partners who can help recruit those who may be underrepresented in utilities and in the corporate sector as a whole,” she says.

“We look for ways to identify talent early on, to pique young people’s interest and follow up with educational opportunities,” says Carter. “That leads to relationships with universities and professional organizations.”

She also focuses on internal partners. “We have an employee referral program, where the referring employee receives a bonus if we hire the candidate. Those referrals and networking are the most important elements of our recruiting strategy.”

For utilities in general, the aging workforce is an issue. “That challenge tends to be more prominent in utilities,” Carter says. “So we have internship opportunities to attract people new to the workforce. We want to ensure a seamless transition as current employees transition to retirement.”

Developing existing employees is as important as recruiting new ones. “We have learning experiences available for our entire employee population,” says Carter. “They include our ‘Generations in the Workplace’ program, where people learn about the four generations currently working, and our ‘Crucial Conversations’ and ‘Work Styles’ sessions, which cover ways to communicate across our differences.”

She’s particularly proud of Alliant Energy’s employee resource groups: AE Pride (LGBT-focused), Emerging Professional Connections, Multicultural Network, Veterans’ Alliance, and the Women’s Network. The groups are designed to promote awareness, networking opportunities and community outreach.

Strategies that foster inclusion also foster innovation, observes Cassy Van Dyke, practice consultant for talent & succession at QBE North America. “And sometimes innovative strategies are the simplest. One of our recruitment strategies is to build broad relationships and diverse networks. This not only supports our recruitment efforts, but also allows us to understand our customers’ changing needs. 

“As QBE employees continue to develop and broaden relationships in their communities, they’re out talking to more people, spreading the word about their work at QBE, and gathering inspiration for innovative ideas from the people they meet,” she adds. “Consumers are a great source of inspiration for their future needs.”

QBE’s global reach helps it stay connected. “With an increasingly widespread population throughout the fifty-two countries in which QBE operates, diversity and inclusion is a business imperative that’s woven throughout our global strategy,” says John Rumpler, president & CEO. “This allows us to work together to better understand and serve our customers, be more innovative, and generate new business.

“We strive to attract and retain talented professionals who bring their different perspectives and experiences to work with them each day,” he continues. “We value diversity and are an equal opportunity employer.”

The company’s fundamental recruiting principles have remained consistent: to attract and retain top talent and be an employer of choice. “But with new ways to connect, including social media, we’re continuously looking at how we source new employees,” Van Dyke explains. “We want to ensure that we’re connecting with a diverse candidate pool as opposed to reaching out to the same types of people—such as exclusively those from the insurance industry—ultimately, we want the best person for the job.”

She sees the company’s workforce continuing to evolve as demographics change. Some of the changes she’s seeing in the broader workforce include an increase in women and minorities—particularly in more senior roles—and multiple generations working together.

“We want to reflect the communities and customers we serve,” she says. “If we’re doing our job with recruitment, we’ll achieve that.” 

-Judy Dahl


Bankers Life and Casualty Company’s business model builds in diversity. The company sells insurance products such as Medicare-supplement, long-term-care coverage and life insurance, and its agents are independent contractors from all walks of life.

“We have a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and both genders,” says Steve Meyer, branch sales manager of Bankers Life and Casualty Company, headquartered in Chicago. “I used to be a high-school football coach, we have a mechanical engineer, a soccer coach, recent college graduates … people from just about any industry you can name.”

The company doesn’t have specific diversity goals. “We’re open to everybody,” Meyer says. “We’re focused on finding people who have a great work ethic and attitude. If you’re willing to learn, we have training programs that enable you to be successful.”

While the company welcomes potential agents with insurance knowledge, most come from other fields, notes Meyer. “We have extremely good training—this year Training magazine ranked us in the top 125 companies worldwide.”

Agents go through two weeks of training initially and further training as their careers progress. “There’s more training at three months, six months, and ongoing, with each course building on the last and on people’s experience,” Meyer explains. “You get different levels of training when you’re ready for it. It never stops.”

Prominent Madison musician and former firefighter Leotha Stanley has been an agent for over a year, and is very successful. “He came to a career briefing and heard what I had to say, and we connected,” Meyer recalls. “I think he’s pretty happy with his decision.”

It’s a thriving industry, partly because of our aging population, and Bankers Life and Casualty is growing along with it. “This growing market needs services and we have great opportunities for agents,” says Meyer.

Many people are drawn to the company for that reason, he observes. “They also appreciate the flexible schedules and unlimited income potential.”