Diversity Insight: Not Intentionally Inclusive = Unintentionally Exclusive

group of diverse people looking up and smiling
Dionne R. Jenkins Photo
VP/diversity & inclusion
Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union

6 minutes

Perspectives from Tennessee Valley FCU’s first VP/diversity and inclusion

Diversity, to me, is a mindset. We all bring diverse perspectives, experiences, lifestyles and cultures into the workplace. Such attributes as race and gender, along with how we were raised, all play an important role in the way we internalize our own experiences that form our perspectives.  

My goal, as the first VP/diversity and inclusion at $1.4 billion Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, Chattanooga, Tennessee, is to help people realize why it is important to embrace diversity in the workplace. 

Managing for diversity ensures that all employees feel valued, supported and respected. For employees to achieve their full potential, credit unions must be intentional about creating a diverse and inclusive environment that meets the needs of every individual and provides opportunity for personal and professional growth. By supporting diversity and inclusion efforts, credit unions have the potential to achieve greater productivity, profit and company morale.

When I started working at Tennessee Valley FCU in November 2017, the assumption was that I—as an African-American—was hired to help only African-American employees advance. This was a myth I needed to quickly dispel. After spending time with employees from several departments and with varying years of experience, I embraced the role of an agitator, an agent of change that is unafraid to raise the tough questions or facilitate uncomfortable dialogue. My efforts were spent identifying barriers that could potentially prevent anyone from advancing within the organization. I did this by simply asking the question, “Why?”  

Here are some examples of the kinds of “why questions” I was asking: 

  • Why is one individual more qualified than another? 
  • Why was a particular metric selected when looking at the management structure? 
  • Why hire an external candidate who is not familiar with internal systems as opposed to promoting an internal candidate who knows the system, but needs additional training in a particular area?

After a year of asking why, I believe our staff was beginning to understand that I am fighting for equity, inclusion and opportunity for all employees. After they went through unconscious bias training I developed, they had embraced the concept. In that training, I used real-life examples that everyone could relate to.

Today, I continue with this training for each new hire group during the onboarding process. And, as new changes are rolled out, employees are starting to see how diversity and inclusion played a role in the decision for all of them, not just special groups. They also are seeing first- hand that teams that are diverse in thought, lifestyles and appearances outperform non-diverse teams.  

To effectively execute meaningful strategies in 2019, diversity officers must work closely with business and functional leaders to develop diversity initiatives that align with the credit union’s mission and vision. (See Tennessee Valley FCU’s here.) A diversity and inclusion plan should outline detailed strategies that focus on employee, marketplace and community initiatives that will increase performance and competitiveness. At Tennessee Valley FCU, this has included forming an inclusion council, developing a mentoring program, offering Spanish classes so staff members can better assist our Hispanic and Latino members, and creating a position for a bilingual representative. 

Recently, CUES member Maurice R. Smith, president/CEO of $2 billion Local Government Federal Credit Union, Raleigh, N.C., and immediate past chair of the Credit Union National Association, proposed that the cooperative world, including credit unions, adopt diversity and inclusion as an eighth cooperative principle. Smith is quoted as saying, “For credit unions, diversity and inclusion seems like a natural value to uphold. Credit unions support the notion that every member of a community has an inalienable right to exercise the doctrines presented in the cooperative principles.” For those of us working in diversity and inclusion, this is a huge step in helping to advance this initiative within our own credit unions.

At Tennessee Valley FCU, employees from varying departments are working together to develop results-oriented diversity and inclusion programs focused on continually improving the credit union’s high-performing culture in support of human resources and business strategic priorities. 

Connecting with community organizations and participating in conferences, meetings and workshops focused specifically on diversity and inclusion are also imperative to the success of our organization. I spend more than 50 percent of my time out in the community networking, learning, serving on committees, conducting diversity training and being a community connector. I try to stay engaged with any group involved in diversity and inclusion work and attend as many diversity and inclusion-related events. This helps me stay abreast of the needs of the community and find ways to plug in our CU. 

Recruiting a diverse staff is essential to sustainability. Different backgrounds and perspectives lead to a variety of ideas, knowledge and approaches. Diversity officers should collaborate with human resources to review, help facilitate and/or enhance the following key strategies: onboarding and orientation, employee compensation, recognition programs, work-life balance, and training and development. 

For example, we have made changes to who attends our Leadership School program. When I first started, employees were selected based on management referrals or recent promotions. Now, employees who are interested in participating can self-nominate. Managers must sign off on the nomination for the employee to be considered. If a manager doesn’t agree with the self-nomination, he or she must have a conversation with that employee explaining the “why” and help that employee develop a plan of improvement so that they could be considered the next year. 

It is also important to research best practices and make recommendations on diversity and inclusion issues and programs. Partnering with local organizations that champion the causes of people of color, people with disabilities, women and veterans will also help us keep abreast of the needs of diverse communities and recruit diverse talent. 

When employees feel valued and respected, they are more likely to enjoy coming to work each day. Tennessee Valley FCU strives to provide mentoring, coaching and a supporting network to individuals from diverse backgrounds to build rapport, increase diversity awareness and sensitivity, and to pass on critical institutional knowledge. Through internal communications from HR, employees are encouraged to join local boards, attend conferences, apply for flexible schedules to continue their education, and seek out tuition reimbursement for formal career development activities. Keeping staff morale high and turnover low will assist credit unions in being viewed as top employers.

To move forward toward positive change, I encourage credit unions to navigate through hard yet healthy discussions around diversity and inclusion. As my colleague constantly reminds me, “If we are not intentionally inclusive, we will be unintentionally exclusive!” cues icon

A native of Philadelphia and self-described “Southern girl,” Dionne R. Jenkins is VP/diversity & inclusion at $1.4 billion Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union, Chattanooga, Tennessee. There Jenkins works collaboratively with senior leadership to increase staff diversity and advance the CU’s mission and vision through recruitment, retention and community engagement. Previously Jenkins was president of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, development director for The Next Door Chattanooga and Eastern Tennessee Region director of charitable giving for SunTrust Banks, Inc. Jenkins earned her B.S. in business administration and her MBA from Bryan College. She is an avid community volunteer who has served on numerous nonprofit boards, advisory committees and commissions. Her motto is “I want to inspire people. I want someone to look at me and say, ‘Because of you, I didn’t give up!’” While she believes working hard and being actively involved in the community are important, Jenkins’ favorite titles are “Mom” and “wife.” She says raising kind, loving and well-rounded children has been her greatest accomplishment.  

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