Northern Trust: strategy and data are key to boosting D&I in the workplace

Northern Trust's Sarah Boddey knows first-hand the benefits of attracting junior staff from diverse backgrounds.

Sarah Boddey became Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer – EMEA and APAC at Northern Trust in 2017.

But it was while running the graduate recruitment team at a major bank, ten years ago that she experienced first-hand the benefits of attracting junior staff from diverse backgrounds.

Sarah has worked in D&I ever since and here explains why a focused strategy, backed by good data, are essential to D&I.

First, why do you think it’s taking such a long time to move the dial on D&I?

We have come a long way in a relatively short time, but there’s still so much further to go, yet more progress to make. 

A lot of the problems that we’re trying to tackle as part of our contined efforts sit at that societal level. And obviously, a company is part of an industry, which in turn is part of society. If you look at why we don’t have 50:50 gender representation at the top of most big organisations, it’s a reflection of how women have historically been perceived in society — it is the same when it comes to race and ethnicity and many other areas of under-representation. 

We are trying to tackle complex, deep-rooted problems, which are often fuelled by bias, both conscious and unconscious.

Bias is a very human trait but, to change that, you’re asking people to fundamentally change the way that they’ve been thinking and behaving for most of their lives. 

For someone who has been in the workplace for many years thinking and behaving in a certain way, particularly if it was unconscious, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to change that into conscious thought, to look at all your decisions and your people processes. 

Which areas do you think have made the most progress?

There are three areas that need to be looked at: the company, industry and individual level because each will have different needs and therefore strategies.  

We have made good progress at Northern Trust over the last few years ensuring we have a diverse senior management team because that’s where we needed to focus.

Progress is being made as a result of some very deliberate strategic actions that we’ve taken, but like many companies we still have work to continue. 

Can you expand on what those actions are? 

We started by deep-diving into our people processes to see where bias could present itself. We then looked at what can we do, particularly our managers and our leaders, to mitigate that bias. 

For example, in recruitment, having an awareness that someone’s name can influence bias, led us to instead use blind CVs; determining whether the slate of people that you’re considering for a job is as diverse as it could be — broadening where and through whom we seek talent. Also, ensuring our interview panels are diverse. 

It’s too easy to be complacent and fish in the same pools that are closest to you.

Do you measure the success of these processes?

Yes. A significant change over the last decade or two is the availability of data. Systems are much better, and at Northern Trust we mine data from our recruitment systems to help inform our strategies. We review data not only the diversity of those we hire but also the applications and people who go through the different stages of the recruitment process.

When someone joins Northern Trust, we track their progress, including promotions and talent development programmes. We use the data available to look at areas of concern, best practice, and how we can share that across the organisation.

What’s been the impact since you have been at Northern Trust?

In the last 12 to 18 months we put a lot of focus on ensuring we have diverse slates of employment candidates and we’ve seen a real difference in the diversity of the people we hire into our more senior grades. 

We compared the diversity of our candidate pools and hires to before we had this focus on diverse slates and have seen a very positive difference in the numbers. It shows how a well-implemented and targeted strategy can work. 

How would you advise organisations to develop the right strategy?

Start with the data you have and use it to help you pinpoint your areas of concern. Otherwise, you can end up trying to do a little bit of everything for everybody, and not making as much of an impact. If you don’t have the data, ask for it, but have a strategy for that too. 

So many of our decisions can and should be data-led but with compassion. Focus your efforts, your strategy, your thinking, your budget, your resources – everything on where the data shows you have the greatest need. 

What would you say to those who suggest that they don’t have C-suite buy-in?

Firstly, focus on the business case for diversity and inclusion and trying to understand why c-suite isn’t already supporting it. Why are they not connecting all the research about the performance of diverse and inclusive teams and the bottom line? 

You need to meet each c-suite executive where they are in their understanding, and not where you would like them to be. Understand their hesitancy and talk to them about how you can help them see value in having a diverse and inclusive team. 

Until you have your organisations’ business case sorted, it will be challenging to get the resources to move your strategy forward. The good organisations know that they can make a difference now that will continue to impact the business in a very positive way in the years and decades to come. 

Which areas are businesses finding it hardest to make progress?

At Northern Trust, we focus on all the protected characteristic and, importantly, intersectionality. We all have multiple identities. A black woman isn’t black for five minutes and then a woman for five minutes. She’s a black woman all the time. Intersectionality, and understanding people’s individual needs and the nuances between all of those is important. 

That said, I do think the more traditional strands within diversity and inclusion – gender, race, disability and LGBT+ – will undoubtedly dominate and there is a lot more progress that society needs to make on those. 

When we start the conversation about race, people are often thinking about BAME individuals, black individuals, Asian individuals. We all have a race; even me as a white person has a race. Saying I’m straight, that doesn’t mean that when the conversation around LGBT+ happens that I can’t be an ally to that community. But again, I have a sexual orientation, I have a gender identity, and you can use that as a way of making people feel included in the conversation. 

So that means working on individual strands and being more inclusive to everyone around you as well?

Everybody wants to feel included. But we can all think of a time when we weren’t and how that made us feel. That, to me, is the essence of what a good strategy around inclusion should do; helping people in majority groups understand what somebody in an underrepresented one is going through and how you can help. 

Is it possible to define a strategy that appeals to everybody?

You must focus your strategy and your resources on the areas that show most need, so that comes back to the data point. But I do think you can devise a diversity and inclusion strategy that speaks to everyone. It is about making sure that people feel included and part of the conversation. 

We all have a role to play in making a workplace inclusive; regardless of who we are, where we come from or the traditional diversity boxes we tick on a census or a survey.. A good strategy makes sure it speaks to as many of those different groups as possible. 

Should culture be a starting point for driving D&I?

There are so many, often quite intangible, elements that go to make up a company’s culture and diversity and inclusion is just part of that. The two will always go hand-in-hand. 

But the company culture is very different as well. We often think of companies as having one culture, and they do. But the day-to-day experience for one team versus another could be quite different, depending on micro-cultures. So, I’d encourage leaders and managers to focus on those micro-cultures. Ask every team to focus on what can be done to make it as diverse as possible to create an overall company culture to be proud of.

Are Northern Trust senior managers accountable for D&I?

Yes, our leaders are held accountable, and I think that’s an important part of any diversity and inclusion strategy in the same way that leaders are held, rightly, to account for how a business is managed. 

How do you manage your strategies across geographies?

The international side of things is what I love about my job. I cover all of Europe, the Middle East and Asia and you can never just copy and paste from one country and expect it to work in another — even sometimes different locations within a single country. Our Ireland offices are a great example of that. We have offices in Dublin and Limerick. What I do in those two offices sometimes has to be slightly nuanced. 

You need to get on the ground physically and virtually and understand those cultures and the practices. Sometimes you can take a best practice from one country and at least use it as a starting point in another.

What is Northern Trust doing to make sure diverse candidates progress through the company?

We have a great talent development programme for BAME staff here at Northern Trust, called the Diverse Leaders Programme.

The programme is unique compared to traditional career development programmes, in that it encourages our BAME employees to focus on what they feel has influenced in the past or may have held them back in other organisations and companies. Have they been able to be their full authentic self? And if not, why? What impact did that have on them? What impact has that had through their career? Then, if they still feel they are in the same place, we help them build the tools to be able to bring their full self to work. 

What’s remarkable about the programme is that it also shines a light on the organisation. We work with their line managers, leaders and mentors because we don’t want to send the participants back into a system which isn’t supporting them.

Have any non-BAME talent questioned the need for this programme?

Yes. When the programme was launched. Five years on we don’t get as many questions because we’ve been able to explain the purpose of the programme, why we don’t have the representation of BAME people at the more senior levels, including some relevant statistics.

Race and ethnicity have been a taboo subject in the workplace. How has Northern Trust dealt with that?

The programme I’ve just described has allowed us to start a lot of those conversations. We have held sessions with our executive leadership team, talking to them around some of the issues that BAME employees might be facing more broadly in society and within our organisation, again using data to really help them understand. 

We’ve also worked with human resources on what role can they play to help further this as they’re supporting the business to develop and recruit talent. 

We host panel sessions where we invite people to open this debate. And we always make sure that we allow lots of time for discussion. We’re just about to start a BAME reverse mentoring programme with our executive team. We did one last year where our exec team were mentored by LGBT employees, which was very successful.

We’re repeating that this year with BAME colleagues to enable them to tell their personal stories. But, more importantly, I think to enable the executives that safe space, to ask the questions around language and what to do and say.  

Finally, what is your priority over the next year?

We are currently running our ethnicity pay gap data – we didn’t want to wait until legislation may or may not come in. We’re expecting the first results soon which will further add to that data set which we have around BAME – helping us understand exactly where the challenges may be.  

More broadly, the development of our people through our organisation is our key focus. We want to ensure we develop and retain good diverse employees; that they have all the opportunities to build their career. Northern Trust has some excellent best practice that has worked in specific locations around the world, so we’ll be looking at how we can replicate them, with the local nuance layered on top if needed. 

If we have something that works, we intend to make the most of it across the globe. 

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