Battle of the people leaders: How UKG is shifting the relationship between HR and DEI

October 26, 2022, 11:43 AM UTC
Brian K. Reaves
Brian K. Reaves, Chief belonging, diversity and equity officer at UKG.
Courtesy of UKG

Good morning!

Brian Reaves, UKG’s chief belonging, diversity, and equity officer, describes his work with chief people officer Pat Wadors as a dance. Though the two report directly to the HR solution company’s CEO, Chris Todd, they work hand-in-hand on strategic initiatives that affect the organization’s over 13,000 employees. For many in the field, it’s well known that this can be a contentious relationship—the chief diversity leader fighting for priorities that may clash with HR initiatives.

Reaves spoke with Fortune about how he works alongside the company’s CPO and CEO to achieve diversity goals and the voices he taps to lead the organization to a more inclusive future. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Fortune: How do you describe the dance between HR and diversity leaders?

HR is in place to scale practices and policies across an organization. From talent acquisition to the onboarding process [and] through that first 90-day experience. If you do it really well, employees stay for a lifetime, and they off-board as great alumni and become your recruiting engine and promoters from the outside. 

As the DEI and belonging officer, my job is to make sure that those policies and practices take into account the uniqueness of all individuals because most companies’ processes are designed for the majority employee, whomever that is. We have to be prescriptive and say, `Who are we dealing with? What is their experience coming in?’ 

The DEI function is about change and inspection, while the HR engine is about doing things quickly and efficiently. And that’s when those worlds can collide in a very bad manner. If the engine doesn’t like change, it [views DEI] as questioning its process. At UKG, we get to dance. I’m understanding what limitations and strengths [Pat Wadors] has, and she understands mine. We figure out the most optimal way to work together. 

What does this look like in the everyday workflow? 

We’re always conspiring for the good of UKG and our team members. Even if we don’t get it 100% right, our team knows we’re trying to do our best to be as inclusive around this ‘uniquely you, uniquely valued’ concept. They know that the thing that may be most important to them might be coming up.

How does that dance between the HR and DEI officer expand to the CEO? How do you get the CEO on board?

The CEO must have certain attributes for the dance to go well. Most CEOs probably understand the HR motion, but they don’t understand DEI as much. So the CEO must be curious.

They also need to understand what certain phrases mean, like equity of representation, equity of opportunity, equity of well-being, or equity of compensation. So they have to go back to school and learn to the point that [it’s embedded] in their personal narrative when they start showing up. If our CEO gets a question, he doesn’t have to look over at me or Pat. He can answer the question. 

Finally, there might be things he’s privy to, such as board meeting discussions, that he can project back to us. He’s part of the equation that says, ‘Well, if you do this, this might impact that, so come back to me and make sure that this doesn’t get negatively impacted?’ It’s a continuous dance of three people flowing, never fearful of asking a question. When you’ve got three people, especially the CEO on board, the culture of the company starts to [change]. 

Who are the “truth tellers” within the organization—people you tap outside of a pulse survey?

It’s the ERGs. Part of our fundamental strategy is the growth and creation of ERGs. You can activate them, not just around community, but actually leverage them for innovation, employee engagement, and professional development. They’re a proxy. You have every intersection of customer within your company, and they are willing to tell you the truth. They just need to be asked. 

We have eight ERGs. We’re currently at a little over 3,000 memberships, so about 22% of the company. Our goal is to get to half the company and more men in our ERGs—70% are women.

There was a time when ERGs fell out of favor. Now they’re coming back. Why? 

Many leaders during that time thought that the employees would either become activists or were acting as activists, so they were going to shut that stuff down. But, number one, you shouldn’t presume that. And people only typically become activists when they’re not heard. If you have them at the table and hear them, they tend not to blow you out of the water. So assume positive intent, empower them, leverage them, and say, ‘You’re strategic. This isn’t some extra thing you do outside.’

Amber Burton

Reporter's Notebook

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“Fed Chair Jerome Powell has said that he does not believe the U.S. is currently in a recession and pointed to the strong labor market as evidence. Despite the rise of inflation this year, and the Fed hiking interest rates five times in an effort to bring it down, September’s 3.5% unemployment rate matched the lowest level in 50 years.”

Read the full story here.

Around the Table

- The entertainment industry made diversity a priority in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Now, cost cutting in response to a potential recession could undo those gains. New York Times

- Offices in the country’s ten biggest cities remain less than half-full despite continued efforts to get people back in the office. Bloomberg

- The media industry has already cut about 3,000 jobs this year. The number could grow as more companies cut costs ahead of a potential recession. Axios

- Workers at an Amazon facility in California pulled their petition for a union vote just days after an Albany location lost a union vote. CNN


Everything you need to know from Fortune

Sky high inflation. Airbus will give all of its employees a $1,490 bonus to help with rising costs brought on by inflation. —Alena Botros

Roe v. Wade. Almost half of workers want their companies to do more to ensure abortion access, according to a survey from Catalyst, a nonprofit supporting women in the workplace. —Megan Leonhardt

Weinstein trial. As Harvey Weinstein’s California trial begins, prosecutors say he lorded his status and professional achievements over his accusers for years. —Andrew Dalton

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