Article: We need more open and candid conversations to improve belonging at work: Cognizant's Shameka Young


We need more open and candid conversations to improve belonging at work: Cognizant's Shameka Young

"Through active engagement and open discussions, organisations can align the perspectives of belonging across women and ethnic minorities with those of the leadership executives," believes Shameka Young – VP and Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), Cognizant.
We need more open and candid conversations to improve belonging at work: Cognizant's Shameka Young

Moving the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) needle has always been complex. More so in the hybrid work model. The organisations have to create a work ecosystem that is deeply inclusive even beyond the office walls. 

In an interaction with People Matters, Shameka Young – VP and Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), Cognizant discusses the shift in outlook towards DEI. 

With nearly two and a half decades of industry experience, in her role as VP and Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion (D&I), Shameka is responsible for driving an integrated global and regional approach to diversity and inclusion through data insights across the employee experience.

Shameka highlights the importance of digitally skilling and supporting underrepresented minorities to increase their representation in tech-based careers in today’s booming IT ecosystem:

Do you see a shift in outlook towards DEI from the right thing to do to a business imperative? What are your thoughts on making DEI more impactful across the business?

Fostering an inclusive culture is not just about doing the right thing, it’s a business priority.

This shift in outlook is much aligned to business principles of embracing diversity to drive greater innovation, capabilities, insights and solutions. Additionally, it can be leveraged to create competitive advantages through diversity of thought while also increasing productivity through well-rounded teaming environments. 

At Cognizant, we focus on enabling and supporting the business leaders to integrate D&I into the everyday operations from recruiting through talent development as well as engagement.

Understanding the opportunities to drive greater inclusion across the associate lifecycle enhances the employee experience for all while creating an equitable work environment. 

Our D&I strategy – Completely Cognizant – is our long-term commitment to creating a culture of belonging. Belonging fosters a better workplace and workforce, helping deliver real results for our clients. In addition to helping build a respectful culture in which our associates can thrive, Completely Cognizant is intended to be oriented around client-centric goals, such as: 

  • New market opportunities generated by multi-ethnic, multi-generational, and multi-talented teams that challenge convention.
  • Higher performance and growth through diverse ideas and perspectives from all associates, including often under-represented talent pools.
  • Modern digital solutions that aim to avoid biases, such as AI and analytics, machine learning, data science, and digital transformation strategies.

A recent Harvard Business School report coined the term 'hidden workers' to reflect the missing talent pool in global hiring efforts. In your opinion, what is keeping underrepresented talent hidden despite the spotlight on DEI today?  

While there is a spotlight on DEI today, it is possible that some underrepresented talent will remain hidden through the standard talent acquisition processes. To drive greater diversity of talent into the candidate pools, Cognizant established a returnship program to uncover the hidden talent which had exited the workforce for a period of time.

We believe a pause in your career to pursue other important life callings help you emerge not only stronger, but raring to go. Developing a 12-week paid opportunity for experienced technology professionals who have taken a career break and are eager to restart their careers was a no-brainer for us. The program allows the individuals to receive additional technology training for upskilling or cross-skilling, while also supporting them with a buddy along with a mentor.

The graduates have the potential to land permanent work positions across multiple capability areas and industries. 

We revamped our hiring manager training as well as established a diverse candidate pipeline to support greater inclusion during the acquisition and recruiting processes. Leveraging the diverse candidate pipeline process enhances the candidate pool while also providing more diversity across the interviewer panels.

Our Executive Committee also supports the expanded diversity pipeline through the evaluation of Vice President and above talent pools.

There has been limited progress in DEI. Women and ethnic minorities in tech roles feel like they have a sense of belonging in organisations, but leadership executives believe the opposite. What is the missing loop? 

In our 2020 belonging research study, we gathered feedback from over 10,000 external and global respondents about what it means to belong at work across genders, generations, geographic regions and workplace hierarchies.

Over 92% of the respondents said that it was important to “feel like you are appreciated for who you are and what you can contribute” and also tied belonging to performance.

Varying perceptions on belonging may exist amongst underrepresented groups and organisations when there are no open and candid dialogues along with listening and actions.

In addition to actively acquiring underrepresented talent, it is also critical for organisations to focus on the behaviors needed to drive inclusion and belonging.

We’ve adapted our trainings to progress us forward from unconscious bias into conscious inclusion which focuses on allyship, psychological safety and inclusive leadership mindsets to name a few.

Across each of our affinity groups, we structured open forum opportunities to have bold, candid and direct conversations to address opportunities for improvement for our underrepresented talent. Through active engagement and open discussions, we believe that organisations can align the perspectives of belonging across women and ethnic minorities with those of the leadership executives. 

How can organisations better balance the needs of women and ethnic minorities across access to employment, mental healthcare, career growth and cultural inclusion?

To better balance the needs of underrepresented talent, organisations need to engage the talent in the solution development stages. It cannot be assumed by the leadership that a solution should be provided for the women and ethnically diverse employees, but that multiple chairs should be added to the table to drive an inclusive process of developing the best outcomes for those impacted.

In 2021, Cognizant executives and our affinity group leaders signed a public-facing D&I commitment statement for all our stakeholders with the purpose of collaborating on key inclusion, belonging and diversity initiatives. 

As part of the joint solution efforts with women, Cognizant development Propel, our signature women’s leadership development program for mid- and senior-level women leaders across the globe. This program accelerates a diverse leadership pipeline and enables women leaders to thrive and succeed in a digital era. We exceeded our public pledge to put 1,000 high-performing women in leadership levels through Propel by the end of 2021 but consider that a milestone and not the final destination. 

Furthermore, Cognizant Foundation in India has recently launched its flagship program - Tech4All - to empower women from underserved communities, in basic and advanced IT skills with an aim to place them in technology related jobs. The Foundation been championing initiatives that support digital inclusion and equity in India, and supporting programs that harness the power of technology to improve lives and drive social impact.

In this journey, involvement is key to supporting development opportunities and career progression; this will help organisations find the balance of shaping outcomes that matter.

Lastly, what are your top three DEI priorities for 2022?

Our continued focus on collaboration with our affinity groups, driving conscious inclusion to support greater belonging and the business acumen of metrics as with every other business imperative will continue our journey of outcomes and progress.

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Topics: Diversity, #BreaktheBias, #SheMatters

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