Future Focus: HR is All About People, and DEI is Not About Charity

Human Resources and DEI Strategist Ovell Barbee, SPHR, tells a story from his career that emphasizes the importance of remembering that people are at the center of all HR work.

Addressing the spring gathering of TalentFirst’s Human Resources Council, Barbee recalled the time he had to discuss an escalated case with an employee’s supervisor. It became obvious the leader did not really know the employee — could not say where she was from, or whether she had children or a family.

“And I coined her ‘the resume leader,’ because the only answers that she could give me after a person worked for her multiple years was stuff that you would’ve seen on the resume,” he said. “I feel it is still necessary to say part of the HR vision is you’re talking about human needs … How do you get to the point where you find a common denominator?”

Barbee is a Grand Rapids native and a consultant, principal of Ask Ovell, speaker and author of The Big House: A Human-Centered & Progressive Approach to DEI and Positive Workforce Engagement. Speaking to the HR Council on the topic of “Future Focused HR: Leading Organizations in an Evolving Talent Landscape,” Barbee shared his vision for HR driven by four catalysts:

  • People Experience
  • Engage & Include
  • Human Centered
  • Individually Focused

Exploring workforce trends and challenges facing HR and DEI leaders today, Barbee drew from his own experience as an executive of Fortune 500 companies and renowned healthcare systems, and as an advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

He also invited HR Council members to discuss their own ideas. Table discussions included innovative approaches to maximizing the office experience, and what HR must do to better prepare for the workforce challenges ahead — while always focusing on the people at the center of their work.

“We see a lot in human resources, and I encourage you as HR practitioners to be very reflective about what you signed up for. … People should be afforded a basic level of dignity and respect. And as we think about our policies, our practices, our procedures, the three Ps, we really should be very mindful that you’re talking about human beings,” he said.

This is all the more important at a time of generational change and what Ovell calls “The New Team Contract” — offering employees flexible work, genuine recognition, meaningful connection, growth and development, support for wellbeing, and technology that supports these values.

Placing Value on DEI

Employees also expect their employers to share an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion, Barbee said.

“We talked about how inclusion is key,” he said. “Seventy-eight percent of employees and job seekers say it’s important to them to work at an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion. Eighty percent of American employees want their companies to invest more energy into promoting diversity. And twenty-four percent of employees say that their companies are not doing enough to address DEI.”

Barbee said DEI progress begins by breaking the silence. The biggest challenge he has faced in his DEI work has been an unwillingness in organizations to talk about these important topics.

It’s also important to remember that DEI is a journey. Ovell said someone once asked him during a panel discussion about DEI, “What does ‘good’ look like?”

“Good is the top of the mountain. I can’t say that I’ve experienced an organization that is already there, but if I’m offering perspective, which may not be the right answer, but it’s my answer, I would be looking for accountability. Is there a linkage to compensation that gets people’s attention? Is there a linkage to performance? Are there adequate resources associated with the person or the team that you have?”

Citing statistics that show wide racial and ethnic disparities in poverty and education in Grand Rapids, Barbee noted the importance of viewing DEI work as systemic in nature, rather than a short-term intervention.

“DEI work to me is not charitable work,” he said. “We should be forcing ourselves to take a systemic approach and undoing those three Ps — the policies, the practices, the procedures that lead to those disparate outcomes.”

Continuing the Discussion

West Michigan employers have another opportunity to gain strategic insights for that systemic work at TalentFirst’s Inclusive Leadership Development event, 9-11 a.m. Tuesday, March 12 at Grand Valley State University’s Kirkhof Center in Allendale.

We are fortunate to welcome keynote speaker Dr. Sandra Upton, founder and Chief DEI Strategist with Upton Consulting Group, fresh from the release this month of her new book, Make It Last: A Roadmap and Practical Strategies for How to Do DEI Work.”

This is a great opportunity to hear from one of today’s leading voices on DEI. Dr. Upton brings more than 25 years of DEI experience consulting, coaching and training with businesses, educational institutions, governmental agencies and nonprofits.

Registration is now open — and the first 50 to register will receive a free copy of Dr. Upton’s book.



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