D&I COVID-19 Recording: DOW Chemical's Karen Carter 5-19-20

In response to the rapidly developing coronavirus outbreak and its unprecedented impact to business and employers, i4cp has launched a series of weekly standing calls specific to Diversity & Inclusion Leaders.

Karen Carter, Chief Human Resource Officer and Chief Inclusion Officer for the Dow Chemical Company spoke about her organization’s commitments to diversity and inclusion, and its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in a spirited interview on i4cp’s May 19th D&I Action Call. Conversing with i4cp CDO Board Chair and call leader Jacqui Robertson, Carter engaged the audience in topics ranging from the activities of employee resource groups (ERGs) to return-to-workplace strategies and ensuring inclusion’s place as a business imperative.

 Key Takeaways: 

  1. ERGs are drivers of engagement. During the health crisis, Dow has moved half its workforce to work-from-home status, and ERGs have stepped up to help keep people engaged. The groups are at the center of the company’s inclusion strategies. Because Dow is deemed an essential industry, 40% of its workforce (of more than 36,000 people) has continued to work onsite in company facilities.

    ERGs have done things for employees regardless of work location: virtual coffee breaks, weekly virtual happy hours, an ERG in Michigan donated needed supplies to the National Guard in hard-hit COVID-19 hotspot Louisiana. Another group put together a survival series for working couples. An ERG provided recognition for Dow frontline workers, and some ERG members are training to enhance their effectiveness in providing mental health support to colleagues through one-on-one phone check-ins and connecting people with professional services if needed.

    “ERGs are keeping us socially connected while we remain physically distanced,” says Carter. “They are our first responders to engagement.”
  2. Inclusive behavior is important. As Dow navigates through the pandemic, Carter says, the importance of inclusive behavior is paramount. That means “making sure we trust our colleagues even though we can’t see them”—understanding that working from home or working varied or non-traditional hours still means that people are working. They are simply doing so more flexibly to accommodate family or other responsibilities. Leading with those inclusive behaviors, reminding leaders of that expectation, and “extending grace but not tolerating exclusive behaviors” keeps inclusion at the forefront. 
  3. Ensuring that inclusion is a business imperative. The company CEO incorporated inclusion into Dow’s ambition to become the most customer-centric, innovative, inclusive, and sustainable materials science company in the world. His dedication to making inclusion an imperative included selection of a business leader (Carter) to become Chief Inclusion Officer. Leaders engage at the top, from the top, and are out front on inclusion, actively participating in the company’s Inclusion Council, serving as executive sponsors for Dow’s 10 ERGs, and including their own I&D strategies in their respective businesses and functions. 

    Accountability is also an important ingredient. Inclusion is embedded in Dow’s annual Performance Award for top company leaders. Further, inclusion is reflected in financial, safety, and customer experience metrics. In the last three years, ERG participation has tripled and Dow is #22 on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.
  4.  A phased return to the workplace. Dow has made its Return to the Workplace plan public and available on its website as a potential source of assistance to others. The company’s plan is structured in three phases and differs by region. It also allows for flexibility for employees with family responsibilities, risk concerns, or other factors affecting their readiness to return.

    Phase 1 will only return employees who actually need to work onsite, and safety remains the company’s top concern. Screening of employees already takes place before admission to work facilities and protective gear is required in some situations. Pay continuation policies address financial concerns of those who become ill or need to care for loved ones who are ill. Phases 2 and 3 will not be implemented until the first phase is successfully completed. Further, actions to retract the return will take place if a second wave of the virus occurs.
  5. Empowering women … everyone. Women are being impacted at greater rates by the pandemic, as are people of color – especially Native Americans and African-Americans – and individuals with low incomes. Experiences differ for women versus women of color, women with low incomes, etc. Inclusion progress must be made for all. 

    “This is about everybody and ensuring that everyone has a fair chance,” Carter says. At Dow, it isn’t about women speaking up, she explains, but about everyone speaking up. Focusing on inclusive behaviors, transparency, diverse hiring practices, and a “speak-up culture” enabled by psychological safety are key strategies. 
  6. A view into the office of inclusion. Carter created a small office of inclusion, reasoning that she wanted to bring together a minimal staff that could infiltrate the rest of the organization and embed inclusion. It is outside of HR and reports to the CEO. There is an Office of Inclusion Director, a Regional Inclusion Leader for each region of operations, a person focused on data analytics and insights, one focused on public affairs, and one focused on global supplier diversity. With fewer than 10 people, the department is small, tight, and powerful, Carter says. 

Other topics from the call: 

  • A poll during the call asked attendees about actions their organizations had taken during the pandemic that they’d like to see continue. Top responses:
  • 83% - Increased focus on some or all aspects of employee well-being (physical, mental, financial, career, community, and social elements)
  • 79% - Greater flexibility in accommodating employees’ work/life balance
  • 69% - Increased understanding of employees’ lives outside of work
  • Reiteration of the need to sustain focus on D&I during and after the pandemic and expression of interest in challenges encountered in sustaining diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies.

Dow’s Return to the Workplace Playbook is available to the public at: https://corporate.dow.com/content/dam/corp/documents/ehs/066-00222-01-return-to-workplace-playbook.pdf

i4cp Return to the Workplace resources are available at: https://www.i4cp.com/coronavirus/return-to-work-resources

Interest was expressed in trust, psychological safety, and employee comfort with disclosing their disabilities.

In addition to this recording, please see these resources: