DEI Best Practices For Credit Unions

Three executives share success stories learned from their cooperatives’ DEI journeys.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Affinity Plus is embedding diversity, inclusion, and belonging into every area of the organization.
  • TDECU hired a director of DEI last fall; its CEO formerly served as a chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
  • UFCU works to ensure there is no authenticity gap between daily realities and what leaders say the cooperative is about.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion have taken center stage in industries of all types, including at credit unions, but it can be difficult to keep these transformational elements moving forward.

In February, Callahan Associates hosted a panel discussion in which credit union executives discussed how DEI was progressing within their own institutions, offering successful approaches, positive experiences, and lessons learned with attendees.

Here, excerpts and summarizations from the webinar offer insights from Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union ($3.7B, St. Paul, MN), TDECU ($4.5B, Lake Jackson, TX), and University FCU ($4.0B, Austin, TX).

All The Dimensions Of Diversity

Affinity Plus began its journey in diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB) six years ago with conversations at the board and management level. The Minnesota cooperative considers different dimensions of diversity and is committed to kindness and inclusivity for its employees, members, and community.

The credit union is intentional about using words like “belonging” to define its DIB journey, as listening sessions revealed that stretches employees understanding of the concepts and creates a more inclusive environment for employees and members.

“It was important to recognize we weren’t all coming from the same place,” says Julie Cosgrove, chief talent officer for Affinity Plus. “People might have different definitions of these terms. We already had a lot of cultural components built on inclusion, so we started our work by ensuring our environment from the time you apply for membership, walk into a location, or visit our website feels inclusive.”

Unlike determining net worth or delinquency, tracking progress in DIB isn’t always so precise. However, Cosgrove says everyday actions taken by team members at all levels drive change in DIB as well as financial ratios.

“Its how we treat one another, what questions we ask, what our products and policies look like, and how we write procedures,” she says. “All of those components help us evolve in this space.”

One of Cosgrove’s favorite sayings is, “Just take a step.” That’s exactly what the credit union has done. It has taken one step, and then another, in the right direction.

The talent officer admits the credit union has had some missteps; however, they have created momentum and opportunities for learning.

Affinity Plus takes into account many different dimensions of diversity. Its statement of diversity, inclusion, and belonging acknowledges the importance of embedding DIB into the culture of the credit union and stipulates that DIN should not be an initiative or project or have a beginning and end date.

For example, Affinity Plus initially started with a small diversity and inclusion working group of five leaders who wanted to drive change across the organization. But the credit union quickly realized that approach wasn’t going to work.

When somebody owns it, somebody else doesn’t, Cosgrove says. We all have to own it.

For Affinity Plus, that collective ownership across 21 senior leadership team members, the entire management team, and all credit union employees has helped the cooperative identify opportunities for change in every area. For example, a card leader enhanced DIB when they added non-English languages to the credit unions ATMs. And Affinity Plus recently published its first annual DIB report for 2020-2021, which is available publicly.

Cosgrove reports to the board on the credit unions DIB activities, but tangible steps like these are bubbling up throughout the organization.

In terms of advice for others, Cosgrove recommends inviting employees to share what the credit union is doing well and where it could improve. She also advises against trying to have all the answers or solutions in the moment. Instead, responding with empathy, appreciation, and humility is a good starting point.

Align DEI With Mission And Purpose

TDECU has a simple mission: We help people navigate their financial journeys.

The cooperative’s approach to DEI is likewise straightforward. The credit union strives to create an organizational culture and climate in which every voice is valued, employees have a sense of belonging and connection with one another and to the organization, and employees feel empowered to do their best work.

Employees as well as leaders at Houston-based TDECU serve as DEI advocates internally and within the community. In fact, the current CEO formerly served as TDECUs chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer.

That helps with buy-in, says Qiara Suggs, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for TDECU. And buy-in at all levels is critical.

Like many organizations, TDECU has deepened its commitment to DEI in recent years. Today, it aims to incorporate DEI into every business decision. It hired a director in November 2021 to focus on moving DEI forward but believes engagement and kindness across the organization including at the board level is essential for success.

This journey requires vulnerability, Suggs says. “There has to be room for grace, open-mindedness, and understanding.”

TDECU regularly discusses DEI during meetings, and those DEI Moments that dig deeper than surface-level conversations put skin in the game for senior leaders. So does partnering with organizations like the National Diversity Council to provide opportunities for individuals to gain certifications and participate in discussions outside of the credit union.

TDECU leverages diversity of thought to promote healthy dialogue, provide an environment ripe for learning, and create a safe space for employees to share what makes them unique. It’s solid groundwork for DEI, and it’s not an accident.

“You have to meet people where they are and ensure everyone understands the foundations of what DEI means,” Suggs says.

Among other things, TDECU employees share an understanding that DEI is not a one-and-done project. To that end, the cooperative is working on a diversity calendar to ensure employees and members have ongoing opportunities to learn from one another and celebrate what sets them apart. TDECU also offers e-learning courses, including an unconscious bias course. And, it has created toolkits to help leaders have brave conversations in which they can build a safe space for thoughtful questions instead of avoiding controversial topics.

“If we don’t know what to say, too often we simply go silent,” Suggs says. “We have to continuously create safe spaces for people to speak up and take a stance for communities and causes. One person can’t carry all the weight.”

To learn what’s happening within the walls of any organization, Suggs says to throw out assumptions and start with data. There are ways to collect data about employee and member treatment. There also are training opportunities for employees and other stakeholders to ensure they truly understand the why behind the DEI journey.

In addition to committing internal resources, TDECU is pulling in support from outside experts to ensure the cooperative isn’t missing the mark.

“We continually ask other organizations what they are measuring to check our focus,” Suggs says.

To date TDECU has tracked event participation, interest in employee resource groups, turnover, and demographics. It has plans to look deeper at promotion rates, succession, and engagement survey data.

Suggs is intentional about continuing her own education and recommends a book called “Diversity Beyond Lip Service,” which includes a practical workbook to support and encourage leaders to commit to courageous actions.

“As a woman of color, I’ve had to share openly that I don’t have all the answers,” Suggs says. “Do your research, understand what others are doing, and don’t put the burden of trying to know everything on yourself.”

Bridging The Authenticity Gap

Austin-based UFCU has a history of advocating for social justice but wants to ensure its policies are moving forward with the nation and that it remains on the right side of history.

“In 2020, the CEO and I conducted a series of listening sessions to ensure our own house was in order and gather information,” says Heather McKissick, UFCUs executive vice president of community impact, communications, and marketing.

Employees said they felt safe and respected at UFCU, but they had concerns about the national climate and wanted to be part of decision-making at UFCU so it remained a safe place for employees and members.

Like others, UFCU knows buy-in at all levels is essential to the success of DEI within any organization.

“No one person can own this; it needs to be a shared responsibility,” says McKissick, who partners with HR as dual executive sponsors for DEI within the credit union and the community.

DEI at UFCU has evolved beyond listening sessions and warding off assumptions, and although it might seem counterintuitive, the credit union earned early success by starting at the tactical level. After listening to employees, it made progress on what mattered most to them, such as codifying and amplifying policies for employee and member conduct. In doing this first, the credit union built trust and set the pace for the long game that is DEI.

“We’ve learned along the way not to bite off more than we should,” McKissick says. “Including our people as part of the decision-making process and rollout of all the programs takes time and intentionality. So, we need to pace ourselves.”

Even with policies in place, people can misstep. UFCU reviewed its policies to ensure they were up to date and clearly communicated expectations for how employees and members treat one another as well as the consequences for when they don’t. For UFCU, ensuring employees felt protected and respected from the beginning made a big difference.

The cooperative put together a 12-step plan and worked down a list of tactical steps for the first 18-months while simultaneously working with a consultant and pulling together a DEI council with broader, more strategic goals. Now, UFCU has three primary strategic goals with action steps and objectives the organization hopes to accomplish in the next five years.

The first of these strategic goals is ensuring there is no authenticity gap between what employees and members experience daily and what senior leadership says UFCU stands for. The credit union has taken several steps related to hiring, education, and language to ensure all 800 employees are on the same page.

UFCU also has a strategic goal focused on ensuring its leadership is representative of its employees and membership base. The cooperative also wants to ensure there are strong succession and development plans in place and educational barriers don’t stand in the way of more diverse candidates.

“We want to ensure its not just a one-time fix but an ongoing practice when it comes to leadership opportunity,” McKissick says.

Lastly, although the credit union is proud of its culture it wants to improve it. It has plans to build employee-led structures to support different cultures and heritages while celebrating the shared organizational culture that unites everyone.

There are a lot of best practices, but, ultimately, McKissick advises those on their own DEI journeys to listen to the people who are genuinely and most affected by issues.

“Reflect on what you’ve heard to make sure you’re on the right path,” McKissick says.

And where the rubber hits the road, McKissick offers one more bit of wisdom.

Keep objectives simple when communicating with strategic bodies like boards and executives.

March 14, 2022

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