Seeking Synergy through DEI

September 16, 2022

By: Rachel L. Richardson

DEI (shorthand for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) has been and continues to be a hot topic as individuals navigate delicate matters of race, gender, and other facets of personal and community identity—and work to create space for conversations and action.

When done well, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts promote openness and welcome fairness, impartial treatment, acceptance, and belonging. In the healthiest workplaces, individuals of all backgrounds thrive in a connected, safe, collaborative environment—in synergy. By contrast, when DEI initiatives are reactionary or inauthentic, or communication about them is unclear, it can instead create apprehension.

Jennifer Benton, Appraiser, Valbridge Property Advisors | Southern Michigan, and Jennifer Dewberry, Director of Client Services, Valbridge Property Advisors | Minneapolis-St. Paul, experienced some level of this apprehension when they considered joining the Valbridge Women’s Council’s newly formed DEI committee last year.

“I had reservations about it,” Benton remarked, “because I am one of a very few black women in the company, so I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into DEI. But at the same time, I’m thinking: How would I feel if I saw a DEI committee with no people of color on it?”

Dewberry recalls wondering, “What do I as a white woman have to offer in DEI?” She doesn’t discount her contributions to the conversation but said she “had the same concern” over the committee’s possible composition since the appraisal industry has historically not had much racial diversity.

Overcoming their reservations, both Benton and Dewberry chose to join the group and quickly became its co-chairs, dedicated to the sense of what DEI is at its best, and striving to calm the worries and misconceptions surrounding it.

Recalling one of their first tasks on the committee, Benton and Dewberry described the process of creating a mission statement. The members parsed out the words that would define the essence of the committee’s role within Valbridge: to promote a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment where everyone can achieve their best work. After much collaboration and deliberation, the committee created

The next step was to get a sense of company culture, since, as Benton said, “In order to establish a plan, you have to figure out where you are.”

To provide a baseline for the sentiment and experience of all Valbridge team members across the country, the committee compiled a short, anonymized survey that included a brief questionnaire and a write-in answer section.

“Within any large organization, you’re not going to get 100% cooperation,” Benton remarked, “especially, with diversity and inclusion, because it’s such an uncomfortable and misunderstood topic. But we got some really good feedback on where people within the company want to move forward.”

“Overwhelmingly,” Benton adds, “the results were positive.”

Benton and Dewberry presented the survey results to the company via a webinar, noting how members of Team Blue largely believe Valbridge offers a culture of respect and opportunity, without discrimination or preferential treatment (at both a local office and national level). While overall the profession needs to move toward greater diversity, respondents agreed, it will take more intentionality to accomplish it. Managerial and HR respondents expressed that while they very much wish to hire more diverse candidates, few if any apply.

“I don’t think any of us were surprised that there is a lack of diversity in this industry,” Dewberry said, as Benton nods.

“The problem is,” Benton says, “people don’t know how to get diverse talent into the door.”

“People are interested,” Dewberry affirmed. “They want more diversity in the industry and want help figuring out how to make that happen.” As an example, she pointed out that DEI committee membership nearly doubled after their presentation.

“We are getting a lot of support,” Benton says, “from people at all levels of seniority in the company.”

Based on the feedback, the DEI team is turning its focus to strategies for hiring, beginning with launching a new program: ADAPT (Attracting Diverse And Professional Talent). The brainchild of Jen Benton, the initiative will identify organizations and programs with which Valbridge can partner to broaden recruiting efforts, reaching a more diverse group of talented people that may not have otherwise considered careers in appraisal.

“People do want to see concrete actions,” Dewberry shares. “They have good intentions and are trying to figure out what to do. So we can be a resource for people to figure out what they can specifically be doing.”

Benton agreed. “I am pleased,” she said, “that there is a clear effort to move beyond rhetoric and good intentions and take some actionable steps to see some change.”

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