4 September 2018

What does a mission-driven HR department look like?

his post originally appeared on the Ford Foundation’s excellent “Equals change blog

At the Ford Foundation, we believe it’s important to model the kind of change we hope to see in the world. And so our efforts to disrupt inequality must start in our own organization. Our human resources department plays an important role in making sure that in every area—from grant making to administration, operations to the leadership level—the foundation is staffed by people who bring a diverse array of talents and experiences to their roles.

The reason for this is simple: We’re working to solve complicated problems in a rapidly changing, and increasingly diverse, world. When we make diversity, equity, and inclusion a staffing priority, we ensure that the foundation has a wide range of perspectives and experiences to drawn on. These varied perspectives help deepen understandings, complicate preconceptions, and generate better ideas. Ultimately, this helps our work have a greater impact.

So what does this look like in practice?

Advancing representation

About six years ago, the foundation’s leaders decided that Ford needed a more focused approach to improving diversity overall, with a particular emphasis on trustees, senior leadership, and program staff responsible for grant making decisions. In response, our talent acquisition team expanded their networks for candidate searches, and we instituted a new practice that there be diversity among the top three candidates presented for any job throughout the organization. This meant that HR, in collaboration with hiring managers in all departments, made a more concerted effort to seek out diverse applicants, and that the final slate of candidates represented a range of backgrounds and experiences.

We’ve seen this approach yield positive changes—particularly in the representation of women globally, and in the representation of people of color in our New York headquarters. From 2012 to 2017, we went from 40 percent women in director positions to 53 percent. Change was also apparent on our Board of Trustees: In 2012, 70 percent of our trustees were male, and only 30 percent were female. By the end of 2017, we’d made real progress, with a board that was half male and half female. The numbers for racial diversity are just as encouraging. In the same six-year timeframe, we went from a Board of Trustees with 54 percent people of color to one with 78 percent. The changes at the senior management level are even more significant: We went from having 23 percent people of color in director positions in 2012, to 45 percent in 2017.

Improving policies

But it’s about more than numbers. We’ve also implemented practices to help ensure equity among our staff. We added policies that better support families who need childcare and eldercare. And we added a robust family planning benefit, which supports staff who want to expand their families through adoption, IVF, and other means. All of our staff are eligible for this benefit, regardless of sexual orientation.

Every year, we conduct an equity review of merit increases: We look at where staff salaries fall within each grade and review by race, gender, age, tenure, and performance to check for anomalies. If we find any, we make adjustments to bring staff salaries up to where they should be, based on performance and tenure. We’ve done this for three years now, and in the first year we made adjustments for 6 percent of staff. As a result, this year we will likely only need to make a small number of adjustments.

Three years ago, we also revamped our compensation structure, which involved making some decisions that are directly related to equity and inclusion. First, we made the lowest pay level in the foundation equivalent to the living wage in New York—ensuring that no employee earns below a living wage. This was also an effort to bring our internal culture and values into further alignment with our grant making, which has included efforts to advance a living wage.

And then, because we know that discriminatory compensation practices by prior employers can have an impact on people’s salary histories (resulting in women, for example, earning less than their male counterparts, and consistently being offered lower salaries as a result), we decided that we would never offer a new employee a salary that fell below the minimum for their salary grade, regardless of what their previous salary was. For some new hires, this resulted in significant salary increases relative to their previous employment.

After we implemented this policy in early 2016, New York State passed a law making it illegal to ask a candidate about their previous salaries. The law, the result of intensive work by the city’s Commission on Human Rights, is aimed at disrupting the pay gap and helping to ensure that all people can negotiate and earn a fair salary for a new job, regardless of what they previously earned. This is the kind of thinking that informed our own policy, and we’re pleased to see it being applied more broadly.

Valuing transparency

We’ve always shared our detailed diversity demographic numbers with our Board of Trustees. At the end of 2017, we made these numbers public on our website for the first time. We did it because openness is one of our core values: whenever possible, we aim to embrace transparency, and to nurture diversity and dialogue.

Sharing our data was not a forced accountability, and we had already been living these values. Still, as the foundation’s director of human resources, I had some concerns about going public with our data. I was proud of the positive changes we’d been able to make in our staff demographics over the years, and that we were still making. But I also knew that we could do our very best to ensure diversity in the top slate of candidates—yet ultimately, when a hiring decision was made, our newest colleague could be someone who is not considered traditionally diverse. Of course, that’s a reasonable outcome of this process, but as a moderately-sized organization—we employ some 450 people worldwide—one or two individuals in a particular category can have major effect on the story that emerges from percentages. I worried that what seem to be big shifts in percentages from year to year might be interpreted negatively, despite our best efforts.

Ultimately, I had to accept this discomfort as part of a complicated process—but one my colleagues and I feel is worth the worry. Increasingly, we’re working to infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) throughout the whole foundation, a process that is pushing me to think about these values more broadly, beyond staffing decisions and policies. We have started a task force to focus on these issues, which I co-lead with Victoria Dunning, a member of our program team. Joining us are 26 colleagues from a range of departments and job levels in New York, plus ten who represent each of our offices internationally. Together we collaborate and learn, test our assumptions and challenge our thinking, as we work to push ourselves beyond our current frames of mind and forge new kinds of understanding.

Over this past year, we worked together to define the much-used terms “diversity”, “equity”, and “inclusion,” which is helping us be explicit about what these concepts mean in the context of the Ford Foundation—in the work we do, how we do it, and the change we seek in the world. We have also embarked on a global DEI audit, with learning results regularly arriving and being shared with staff. In response to the #MeToo movement, we made a number of policy changes, and have offered several opportunities for learning, reflection, and discussion, to help all of us in our community check our behavior and experiences, while keeping our values of respect and dignity at the forefront.

We are committed to these efforts, and more like them, because we believe they will deeply and directly contribute to the foundation’s impact in our day-to-day work and in the world at large. These values are bigger than Human Resources, or any one department—or indeed, any one organization.


Diane Samuels

Human Resources Director, Ford Foundation