Publication: Building Stronger Companies Through Inclusion

Journal American Water Works Association first published this article in Volume 111, Issue 2 on pages 83 to 86 released February 2019 . It is republished here with permission from  American Water Works Association

Removing barriers that have historically held down the diversity of the water industry is, simply, the right thing to do. Across the economy, there is also an increasing realization that diversity is good for business. A diverse and engaged workforce leads to more innovation and creativity, as well as better outcomes. That belief is what guides Woodard & Curran’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) program. 

The company began its D&I program in 2014, with full support at the top level from its board of directors, consisting of internal and external members. Its executive leadership moved immediately to create an advisory committee, which identified four focus areas to be led by subcommittees. Next, a D&I consultant was hired to assist with training, administering a company-wide survey, and developing a three-year plan. 


I first got involved with Woodard & Curran’s D&I program in 2015 as a subcommittee leader and then moved on to accept the position of D&I Advisory Committee chair in 2017. What drew me to the D&I program? The answer lies in my personal story. I grew up in a transracial family within a primarily white community. My parents came from modest means, with limited opportunities for education. Both worked manual labor jobs for most of their lives. The majority of our community consisted of upper-middle-class professionals. Growing up, I felt the contrast between my family and the demographics of our environment. These experiences helped shaped my profound respect for diversity and inclusion. 

People often have preconceived ideas of what diversity means, typically focusing on race, gender, or ethnicity. When it comes to defining diversity in a professional environment, the focus is broad, including all the elements that make people different from each other. These differences can be based on culture, geography, and life experiences. They are what makes each individual unique. 

Inclusion, on the other hand, is a simple concept that is paradoxically difficult to pin down. It is essentially fostering an environment in which the contributions of all people are respected. What makes this hard to do is that every individual has a unique background that affects how she or he approaches the world, interprets feedback, and engages with her or his work. Inclusion is about creating an environment in which employees have an opportunity to be included in everything, from a conversation, to a project team, to the board room. To create this environment, it helps to distinguish between diversity—the things we can see and measure—and inclusion, which is about the firm’s environment, processes, and behaviors. 

What do diversity and inclusion have to do with companies and organizations? First, instilling these values in the corporate culture is beneficial for employees; if they have greater opportunities to work on diverse teams, they are likely to thrive and perform at a higher level. This translates into higher engagement, efficiency, and profitability. Encouraging an inclusive work environment with diverse work teams maximizes opportunity for all employees, which helps attract and retain talent in an incredibly competitive labor market. Additionally, recent studies show that more diverse and inclusive companies have higher financial returns (Hunt et al. 2018). The bottom line is that embracing diversity and inclusion will help your business or organization succeed. 



Since starting the D&I program, our company has integrated diversity and inclusion components into many existing programs, including employee performance reviews for salaries and promotions, recruitment, an employee stock ownership program, and an incentive compensation plan. For instance, unconscious-bias awareness training was given to senior leaders and then added as a component to existing training programs throughout the company. 

Employee engagement survey. In August 2016, Woodard & Curran took the first significant step in measuring the success of its D&I program by administering an employee engagement survey that would serve as a baseline. The goal of the survey was to gauge employee satisfaction around areas such as career advancement, development, and opportunity. The survey was carefully customized to distill data around diversity and inclusion while protecting employee privacy. There was a 90.2% participation rate, and overall, most participants indicated they valued the company’s focus on diversity and inclusion. The survey data provided insight on where to focus future efforts, including improving the diversity of work teams and providing clear communication and messaging. 

When I took on the role of advisory committee chair in March 2017, I focused on the following objectives:

  • Reorganize and revitalize the subcommittees by recruiting volunteers from various geographies across the company.
  • Provide broad-based communication about the reorganization by having the chief executive officer include an update in his annual “State of the Company” presentations. This presentation is given in person at most offices across the country.
  • Establish a plan to implement recommendations that are part of a three-year strategy. 

Ensuring broad representation of geographies, staff levels, and business areas was important to representing as many dimensions of diversity and inclusion as possible. Figure 1 shows internal, external, and organizational dimensions of diversity.

Diversity and inclusion are not solely about race and gender, and even though Figure 1 captures more of the possible dimensions, it is still just a slice of the broad definition of diversity. New studies are showing that the millennial generation, which will soon make up a majority of the workforce, strongly values cognitive diversity, meaning a variety in thought, ideas, and philosophy (Dishman 2015). 

Recruiting D&I program volunteers was a critical step for our company, and the effort was very successful. Figure 2 shows the current advisory committee’s organization chart, which reflects the renewed focus areas defined as part of our three-year strategy. 

Each subcommittee has a leader and a sponsor from the advisory committee. The D&I Advisory Committee includes senior leadership that represents different parts of the company. Each member of the advisory committee is fully supportive and engaged, which has been key to our success. 

Subcommittees. The role of the subcommittees is to make recommendations, using the three-year strategy as a guide. The role of the advisory committee is to implement recommendations at the management level. Each subcommittee has developed a vision statement and has started by reviewing and recommending year-one priorities. 

The Inclusivity Subcommittee’s vision statement is “to foster a culture of inclusion and collaboration that results in an innovative and engaged workforce where developmental opportunities abound.” Its year-one priority is to create diverse client delivery teams and distribute project work equitably. 

The Diverse Talent Pipeline Subcommittee vision statement is that “the firm’s recruiting processes, procedures, and talent evaluation methods are improved to ensure that the firm attracts and retains an employee base which is diverse and promotes an inclusive work environment.” Its year-one priorities are to broaden recruiting efforts, address unconscious bias, and identify barriers. 

The Measure Progress Subcommittee vision statement is to “identify qualitative and quantitative ways to measure progress and goal attainment to ensure that the goals of the D&I program are being achieved in a sustained manner.” Its year-one priorities include working with other subcommittees to develop metrics in each of the focus areas and to use the employee engagement survey to measure overall progress on diversity and inclusion. 

Business plan. By the end of 2017, we established a D&I business plan for 2018 with specific action items. The two focus areas that year were diversity of our work teams and candidate pipeline. Progress was made in the following areas: 

  •  We launched a campaign for our internal website (#inclusion) to share stories of how an individual with a different skill set and/or background made an important contribution.
  • We developed unconscious-bias awareness training for employees who lead project teams.
  • We developed unconscious-bias awareness training for interview teams.
  • We created a D&I logo for internal and external branding.
  • We established key metrics based on the two focus areas.
  • We reviewed and analyzed results from our 2017 employee engagement survey and compared them with the 2016 baseline data. 


The concept of diversity and inclusion needs to be regarded as a value—not just a program or priority. Priorities change—values don’t. The Woodard & Curran D&I program is a commitment that will develop and grow over time. There have been challenges and successes along the way. A challenge, for instance, is messaging across a wide range of geographies; there are different perceptions from region to region regarding diversity and inclusion. We understand that one size does not fit all, and that listening is the best way to address the lack of consistency. To sustain diversity and inclusion as a value, we need to encourage behavioral changes in addition to executing initiatives. Balancing the concepts of diversity and inclusion is vital for cultivating opportunities and creating an environment in which employees thrive. 


Gardenswartz, L. & Rowe, A., 2003 (2nd ed.). Diverse Teams at Work: Capitalizing on the Power of Diversity. Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va. 

Hunt, V.; Prince, S.; Dixon-Fyle, S.; & Yee, L., 2018. Delivering Through Diversity. McKinsey & Company, Denver. (accessed November 2018). 

Dishman, L., 2015. Millennials Have a Different Definition of Diversity and Inclusion. Fast Company, May 18. (accessed November 2018).


Rachel Gilbert Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Manager Human Resources

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