Diversity and Inclusion
Insurers Work to Build Diverse and Inclusive Workplaces
Last year’s nationwide protests and civil unrest, coupled with a pandemic that revealed racial disparities in mortality and health care access, have led to an increased focus on workplace culture.
- Lori Chordas
- February 2021
Lata Reddy of Prudential Financial and Lauren Young of Zurich North America.
Lata Reddy photo courtesy of Prudential Financial. Lauren Young photo courtesy of Zurich North America
- The Time Is Now: Diversity and inclusion in the workplace are more critical than ever.
- Revealing a Need: A pandemic, racially-tied events and the eruption of civil unrest across the U.S. shined an even brighter spotlight on that need.
- Leading the Charge: Diversity and inclusion leaders are rolling out specialized initiatives, instituting training programs and creating new dialogues with employees to bolster that culture and drive diversity at all levels of their organizations.
On a typical day inside Zurich North America headquarters, and more recently on company remote conference calls, staff can be heard discussing breaking down racial barriers and creating a more diverse, inclusive workplace culture.
But these aren't typical times.
Last year's nationwide protests and civil unrest sparked by police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, along with a pandemic that revealed racial disparities in mortality and access to health care, moved those conversations even higher on the company's list of priorities.
“I am proud of the conversations that are occurring in our company and across the industry today—many of which were not happening six months ago,” said Lauren Young, director of diversity and inclusion at Zurich North America, based in Schaumburg, Illinois. “It's great to now hear from others the question, 'What can I do,' rather than, 'Why should I do?'”
Over the past two years, Young has focused on bridging racial divides and bolstering diversity, including implementing strategic diversity and inclusion plans and training programs to help employees appreciate racial and cultural differences.
This work has been an uphill battle for some companies, she said, due to the lack of knowledge about how race and cultures are connected to societal inequality. And conversations about racial issues have long been taboo in the workplace.
The good news, Young said, is that's changing, and many of the old barriers are now being torn down.
“The more we can educate our leaders, managers and individual contributors on how inequitable systems and processes have been—and continue to be—the better chance we have to overcome those challenges and progress in our efforts on creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture,” she said.
The heartbreaking intersection of social unrest and the current COVID-19 pandemic has opened the eyes of millions of Americans to what our Black colleagues have known for decades: To be Black in America is to confront racism every day, whether overt or subtle.
Coming Into Action
Young has long been focused on company culture, beginning her career in brand management and marketing analytics, followed by a 10-year stint as an organizational change consultant for a number of Fortune 500 corporations.
Last year she completed another professional milestone when she earned a doctorate in organizational change and leadership from the University of Southern California, focusing her dissertation on how companies are advancing diverse talent in their careers and creating a culture of belonging.
Young is taking what she's learned into her current position as a diversity and inclusion officer—a role she said has evolved in recent years, including transitioning from what was once a seat at the executive table in many companies to other areas such as human resources.
The chief diversity officer—tasked with spearheading companies' end-to-end equity and inclusion efforts and overseeing employee complaints related to discrimination—has in recent years become a highly indispensable position to companies.
In June 2020, State Farm appointed Victor Terry as its first chief diversity officer. In October, Ronald Reeves became AIG's chief diversity officer, and in December Lincoln Financial Group named Brandy Smith as its vice president, workplace diversity and counsel. This January Markel Corp. announced it has welcomed Chubb's former CDO Trevor Gandy as its new managing director, talent, diversity and inclusion.
“Also beginning last year summer, those of us in this position have begun to see a new focus on the work we were already doing,” Young said. “I've seen organizations begin to put additional resources into advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and business leaders become involved in the work. My hope for this year is that the momentum continues and remains at the top of the list of priorities for all leadership in our industry.”
Prudential Financial's Lata Reddy is deeply focused on those priorities in her organization. The company's senior vice president of inclusion solutions and chair of the Prudential Foundation, Reddy has dedicated her career to promoting equity, exemplified through her legal work with the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee and the U.S. Department of Education before coming to Prudential in 1997 to manage The Prudential Foundation's education grants.
“My experiences as a civil rights attorney reinforced my sense of purpose to eliminate systemic barriers and help level the playing field, which is what eventually drew me to Prudential and its founding principle of equity,” said Reddy, who holds a law degree from Emory University School of Law.
In 2008, she left Prudential to launch a consulting practice but returned four years later to lead the insurer's shared value work, combining the company's full business capabilities with its strategic grants and philanthropy, corporate contributions and impact investing to help close the financial divide, driving financial and social mobility.
Since then Reddy has seen a shift in how many insurers approach diversity and inclusion, and how roles have changed for those leading that charge. “Years ago our focus was primarily on diversifying the workplace. Today, our job has become a much more all-encompassing position,” including ushering in racial equity across the organization, said Reddy, who said that as a non-Black person of color she has faced discrimination at various times in her life.
She said the deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans in 2020 moved those issues even closer to the fore.
“The heartbreaking intersection of social unrest, along with COVID-19, opened the eyes of millions of Americans to what Black colleagues have known for decades: To be Black in America is to confront racism every day, whether overt or subtle,” Reddy said.
Last year's events were indeed a wake-up call for many, added Young.
“Many Americans were left hurting, forced to process the tragedies in real time,” she said. The shootings and deaths occurred within a short period of time, “and that was a huge point for companies to really look at what they are doing for their employees, customers and others, and to reassess their goals.”
“Employees have now started to place new demands on their employers, and are expecting them to meet those demands head-on by articulating the actions they are taking to eradicate racial issues and embed their diversity and inclusion commitments in their strategic priorities,” Young said.
For insurers like Zurich, those efforts remain full steam ahead.
Last year the company expanded its action plan on equity and belonging and introduced several initiatives and anti-racism programming designed to help its leadership and executive teams better understand diverse experiences and those affected by racial inequalities.
Prudential also is deepening its decades-long commitment to advance racial equality, Reddy said. Last year company officials unveiled nine commitments to accelerate efforts to drive inclusion and diversity within the organization. The commitments—born out of “courageous candor” of nearly 7,000 Prudential employees who shared their experiences and expectations in more than 125 employee racial equity forums created after Floyd's death—include mandating inclusion training for all U.S. employees and creating greater transparency of the company's diversity data.
“Our goal is to model what it means to be a fully inclusive company—for the customers we serve, our employees, and the communities in which we operate,” Reddy said.
In the wake of last year's tragedies, she said, Prudential has increasingly improved communication among staff and other stakeholders. One example is expanding Prudential's 50-year partnership with Black Enterprise, which last year included sponsorship of a virtual roundtable hosted by Black Enterprise. The event brought together a panel of leading voices on financial empowerment and wealth creation for Black Americans to discuss strategies to close the nation's racial wealth gap and provide real-life solutions for Black communities disproportionately impacted by the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Last year Prudential, Zurich North America and many of their industry peers observed a milestone in the move to end racial inequality, by marking Juneteenth—the June 19 commemoration of the emancipation of slavery in America—as a day of education and reflection for employees.
Soon after the day, Zurich held a “raw and honest” panel discussion with seven of its Black leaders to share how they have been impacted by racial injustice and recent events, Young said. “It really took us to a new level of transparency and empathy about diversity and inclusion at our company, and it inspired many new actions we are taking to accelerate programs,” she added.
Showing leadership on diversity and inclusion efforts requires companies to acknowledge, ‘This is who we are right now,’ and, ‘This is who we want to be in the future.’
Zurich North America
Stirring the (Melting) Pot
Part of building an inclusive workplace culture begins with having a diverse workforce. But, as the data bears out, that's something many companies still lack.
In 2019, whites made up an average of 79.8% of insurance underwriting, sales, and claims and policy clerk jobs, followed by African Americans, 13%, Hispanics, 12%, and Asians, 4.4%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Zurich North America and Prudential have long been focused on broadening their recruiting efforts and retaining and developing diverse in-house talent.
Young said Zurich works with voluntary, affinity-based employee resource groups, such as Zurich African Ancestry Alliance, PrideZ and the Zurich Asian American Alliance, to encourage employee referrals of diverse talent. The company also recently expanded the Zurich Apprenticeship Program—last year welcoming the largest and most diverse cohort of apprentices in the program's five-year history.
While insurers are increasingly focused on building diverse workforces, Young said, one of the biggest hurdles remains the lack of diverse talent at the leadership level.
“Research shows direct managers, even more than senior leaders in many cases, have an outsized impact on employees' workplace experiences,” she said. In addition, companies lacking a diverse C-suite could be missing out on opportunities for increased innovation, greater financial returns and stronger talent acquisition.
Last year Zurich rolled out its Inclusion Cohort program to prepare diverse leadership talent in its commercial insurance division. The program, Young said, allows ethnically diverse employees with strong leadership qualities to engage in mentoring relationships with more senior leaders, participate in leadership assessments and training, and build camaraderie that company executives hope will continue beyond the completion of the six-month experience.
“The first iteration of the program was a success, with one-third of our first cohort making advancements in their careers,” she said. “Now our goal is to scale similar programs across the organizations.”
Beginning in 2018, Prudential tied senior executive long-term compensation to diverse-representation goals, with financial consequences if goals aren't met, Reddy said. Last year the company unveiled its Enterprise Inclusion Council that brings together, on a quarterly basis, C-suite leaders and heads of Prudential's eight business resource groups to discuss ways to make the company more inclusive and share unique perspectives of Black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, differently-abled, LGBTQ, veteran and other employees, she said.
“Last year we also saw 2,500 of our employees complete courses from our extended portfolio of inclusion trainings,” she added. “Equipping employees, managers and leaders with tools, training and resources will help us reach our cultural aspiration of being more fully inclusive.”
Reddy said the pathway to success is largely dependent on a top-down approach that trickles across the organization. To that end, in early 2019, months into his tenure as chairman and CEO, Prudential's Charles Lowery signaled his commitment to championing diversity by announcing four major initiatives, including becoming a fully inclusive company, Reddy said.
And last year, Zurich North America's CEO announced actions to accelerate progress on diversity, inclusion and equity, forming an Executive Diversity &Inclusion Council and joining more than 1,000 other CEOs from across America to sign the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity &Inclusion—an initiative aimed at rallying the business community to advance diversity and inclusion within the workplace.
The Road Ahead
Young and Reddy are quick to say how fortunate they are to work in roles that encourage people to be their authentic selves at work.
“But that can only happen when companies create a culture that is conducive for inclusion, as organizations are only as strong as their culture and brand,” Young said.
While 2020 was an extraordinary year of uncertainty, loss and distance, many people say it opened their eyes to the importance of having a unified workplace culture while breaking down barriers that drive racial divides.
Young expects to see over the next several months even greater transparency around those efforts, “including in areas where there is an opportunity to improve.”
“While systemic racial inequalities continue to persist in America, creating steeper barriers to economic success, insurers are well positioned to help change that within their own companies and communities by broadening their commitment to racial equity through efforts such as building a diverse talent pipeline, ensuring products meet the needs of diverse clients and investing in their hometown communities,” she said.
“Showing leadership on diversity and inclusion efforts requires companies to acknowledge 'This is who we are right now,' and 'This is who we want to be in the future,'” Young said. “At Zurich, we are taking clear actions, which we shared in communications with our various constituencies last summer. So far response from that effort has been positive, and today other companies are considering taking a similar approach.”
While some companies may continue to shy away from conversations about racial issues and remain fearful of doing “the wrong things,” she said, “the support of employee resource groups, diversity and inclusion councils, and other advocates for change can assist in those efforts, which supports my optimism for the great strides the industry can make in this area. I hope in the coming years I, along with my team and peers across the industry, can further improve representation of all diverse groups at every level of our organizations and to continue the education that has started.”
However, Young said, there is no quick solution to a centuries-old problem: “That's why everyone will need to be committed to change for the long haul.”