Industry Watch

Tawanna Black, executive director of Northside Funders Group

Hiring and training in a multicultural Minnesota

Workplace diversity is a competitive advantage

By Brian Martucci
Monday, February 22, 2016

Though white Europeans remain Minnesota’s largest demographic group, the state is more multicultural than at any point in the past. Estimates differ on when the state will become “majority minority,” but that milestone is likely to come before mid-century. In some counties, including Ramsey and Nobles, the under-20 demographic is already majority-minority.

Inclusiveness isn’t optional

Minnesota employers that haven’t yet thought intentionally about diversity, inclusion and multiculturalism are likely to face increasing pressure to do so in the coming years. Otherwise, they risk losing talent to competitors.

More broadly, Minnesota’s future economic competitiveness depends on equality of access and opportunity for all Minnesotans. That means finding ways to narrow the state’s woeful academic achievement gap between white children and children of color, strengthen partnerships between employers and vocational institutions, build workforces that more accurately reflects the state’s population and foster inclusive, nurturing company cultures that serve all employees.

“This is an urgent problem, even if there’s not a widespread sense of urgency around it yet,” says Tawanna Black, executive director of Northside Funders Group, a Minneapolis-based philanthropy coalition focused on economic and educational empowerment in North Minneapolis. “[The business community needs] to address it now, before the pain is widely felt.”

A diversity leader

For more than 20 years, Bloomington-based HealthPartners has made the business case for a workforce that reflects Minnesota’s increasingly diverse patient populations. Their key initiative is “Embraces Diversity,” a motto that informs every major organizational process, and factors prominently in the annual business plan and in the company’s “health equity” plans.

“‘Embraces Diversity’ is about much more than ‘one-and-done’ diversity training programs or multicultural months,” says Tonya Jackman Hampton, EdD, HealthPartners’ senior director of diversity, inclusion and engagement.

It’s paying off. In 2014, about 17% of HealthPartners’ 22,000-plus employees, and 9.1% of its leaders, were people of color. In 2004, fewer than 10% of HealthPartners’ employees were non-white.

Hampton uses employee engagement surveys to assess whether employees feel valued, respected and able to voice their opinions openly in the workplace. Senior leadership team members attend periodic diversity and inclusion summits, such as a 2015 “custom production” created by Pillsbury House’s Breaking Ice theater team. Leaders saw a performance that explored tough issues around diversity and inclusion, and received key takeaways on how to help cultivate a diverse and inclusive work environment. HealthPartners works also with the YWCA to produce “It’s Time to Talk,” a recurring forum devoted to frank discussions of race, religion, LGBT issues and language.

The most recent “It’s Time to Talk” topic was on unconscious language bias — the practice of assuming that a patient needs an interpreter based on his or her appearance, or making judgments based on a patient’s use of English.

“It’s important for employees in any diverse organization to be self-aware,” says Hampton. “Self-awareness is a learning process.  When you don’t understand something, it’s important to seek to understand to broaden your viewpoints.” She encourages HealthPartners employees to “understand their own diversity journeys” — their evolving relationship with people of other faiths, cultures, ethnicities and orientations.

Diversity & inclusion in any size

The biggest obstacle to hiring and training for diversity isn’t outright resentment or resistance from supervisors and management, says Tawanna Black. Instead, it’s lack of knowledge on how to create and maintain an inclusive workplace. Because they struggle to relate to employees from different backgrounds, supervisors sometimes treat them unequally, without consciously intending to do so.

“When issues arise between people who have lots in common, it’s easier to work through them,” she explains. It’s more difficult between people from different backgrounds, who may have fewer shared experiences. Often, the best remedy is simply, well, more experience.

Tackling a persistent challenge

Northside Funders Group aims to create that experience for more employers and employees. Earlier this year, NSFG launched North@Work, a “set of innovative interventions designed to help African-American men” in North Minneapolis.

Over the next five years, North@Work aims to place 2,000 African-American men in “meaningful, sustainable, living-wage employment,” an ambitious goal that, it’s hoped, will “catalyze systems changes [and] eliminate racial employment disparities.” Such changes are sorely needed, says Black: Currently, African-American males are less likely than any other Minnesota demographic group, save Native American males, to achieve stable employment after participating in workforce training programs.

North@Work takes a bottom-up, inside-out approach, rather than the more traditional top-down, outside-in empowerment model. Candidates are referred by “trusted” community networks: church and community groups, friends and family, educator networks, social services organizations. They take “aspiration and aptitude” tests to identify strengths, weaknesses and preferred career tracks. Next comes customized training programs that cover technical, job-specific competencies and soft skills. Finally, they’re placed in jobs, mostly in construction, healthcare or transportation, that offer opportunities for on-the-job training and advancement.

North@Work participants stay connected to members of their cohort — other North@Work participants who entered the program at the same time, as well as fellow employees with similar life experiences. They also receive support from dedicated, onsite Northside Funders Group liaisons responsible for strengthening employers’ “capacity for effective hiring, training and retention.”
North@Work focuses on African-American men in North Minneapolis, but Black believes the model is applicable to any marginalized population, on any scale — and hopes that North@Work’s success will demonstrate what’s possible when employers, philanthropic organizations and community leaders team up.

Real-world change

Black may be onto something. Even before North@Work launched, Hennepin County — an NSFG partner that recruits across the Twin Cities metro, including in historically disinvested areas of Minneapolis — began looking at its employment policies through an inclusive lens.

According to a research synopsis published by the Hennepin County Aging Initiative earlier this decade, the county expects 54% of its 2011 workforce to retire by 2030. To fill the resultant vacancies, it’s looking at relaxing education prerequisites for certain positions. Rather than screen out entry-level candidates without four-year degrees, the county would accept candidates with two-year degrees, vocational certificates or high school diplomas, make smart hiring decisions, and then offer tuition credits, internal training opportunities and other forms of career development.

According to Black, public and private employers alike can follow Hennepin County’s lead. “Employers are stronger when they take a holistic look at the workplace and commit to broadening their candidate pools,” says Black. “It starts with a simple question: ‘How can we do things differently?’”