The Voice of the Employee in the Push for Diversity
Written by Catie Briggs
SVP & CHRO
While some companies pivoted to working from home during the pandemic, two-thirds of the 12,000 employees at window and door maker Andersen Corporation continued to work at manufacturing plants, transport products or head to people’s homes for installation. Karen Richard, SVP and Chief Human Resources Officer, has continued to lead alongside the executive team, whose top priority is to keep employees safe. All the while, she also keeps pushing for diversity in the workforce — even leading to Forbes naming Andersen one of America’s best employers for diversity in 2021.
The Road from Finance to Real Passion
Karen Richard impressively navigates the world of human resources for a $3 billion dollar company, but surprisingly her career started in finance as a CPA. For 18 years at Sleep Number, she held a variety of finance roles, including leading the FP&A (Financial Planning and analysis) function. But, she realized her real passion was people. She hit the books again to get an MBA from the University of St. Thomas with a focus on organizational leadership.
Richard’s voice got excited as spoke about that time in her life when she truly discovered the next steps she wanted to take, “I realized what really gave me a lot of inspiration and passion. Every day when I woke up, I strived to help people be their best self, realize their potential and be successful. And so, I thought what better role to aspire to than the central role or leading an area of human resources where on a day-to-day basis, I can really connect with leaders across the organization and help them leverage their strengths.”
A Commitment to Diversity
In 2014, Richard made the move to Andersen Corporation. Founded nearly 120 years ago, the company still focuses on the slogan of “all together.” As the company grew, “all together” meant different things, such as bringing in women when men went off to war, and now there’s a focus on a diverse and inclusive workforce and culture.
Richard said about diversity, “It's not just age and ethnicity and gender, it's inclusive of sexual orientation, military status, experiences and physical ability. It's inclusive of every facet of diversity. And we've been able to really accelerate developing that competence across our organization.”
One new initiative helps employees going through gender transitions by ensuring the appropriate training is provided for employees and leaders, and the workplace is conducive to correct pronouns. But, Richard admits maintaining a culture of inclusion comes with a learning curve and providing some grace is important.
“You have to be open to making mistakes together along the way and having conversations and open dialogue,” she remarked. “Don't expect to get there overnight. Take one day at a time. And you might have days where you move backwards a bit. But, I think importantly, if you're making progress the majority of the time each day, it’s very cumulative, and it adds up over time.”
In 2018, Andersen’s CEO Jay Lund signed the CEO Action Pledge for Diversity and Inclusion. Part of that commitment led to the hiring of a chief diversity officer, which Richard said was a game changer to aligning on a clear strategy with metrics to follow.
In 2021, Andersen revealed 25% of employees are ethnically diverse, which is up nearly 20% over the past few years. And in that same period, they have been focused on diversity across their leadership team. According to the Minneapolis/St. Paul business journal, from 2017-2019 under Richard’s leadership, the company doubled the percentage of ethnically diverse new hires at Andersen’s largest facility, the Bayport Plant. Not only is her team focused on diversity internally, but also externally by relying on suppliers who also support inclusivity.
A Safe Environment During Tough Times
Andersen set up ten employee resource networks to provide an environment where, according to the company website, “Every person is safe, respected and can be their authentic self.” Employees have a space for open and honest dialogue, which proved to be crucial following the murder of George Floyd in the community of Minneapolis/St. Paul where Andersen is headquartered.
“Being able to create venues where we could come together and be very open and transparent about how people were feeling, specifically, our African descent employee resource network in that population was so important, and they needed to be heard,” said Richard. “And it provided a venue for that group to be heard from our CEO all the way down across our company. And so being able to understand each other's lived experiences has opened people's eyes, I believe, and created a culture that I think we can all be proud of, that is very inclusive and attractive to candidates looking for that kind of a culture.”
Attracting Potential Employees with Innovation
Richard has another trick up her sleeve for talent retention and recruitment: exit interviews. She discovered that too much overtime was leading to a high burnout rate, so Richard helped innovate a new way of scheduling shifts at plants. Andersen added more part-time shifts and rotating shifts and put an emphasis on shift choices.
“When you can't be at every facility every day and you can't be in front of everyone every day,” Richard says, “you have to provide mechanisms for people to be able to share how they're feeling.” That is why she makes an effort to hear from front line workers and provides those employee resource networks.
Mental Health Support: A Top Priority
Also at the top of Richard’s mind is the mental health of employees. Andersen uses Care Partners to provide 24-7 help to not just employees, but family members, too. “You might be struggling with a child that's having a difficult time in school with distance learning, or you may be struggling with your spouse and going through a difficult time and possibly a divorce or someone close to you may have passed away unexpectedly,” Richard said. But, Andersen goes one step further than a hotline by having representatives on site to personally meet with employees.
Voice of the Employee
Richard and the Andersen leadership team will continue to listen to what she called “the voice of the employee,” during these difficult times. “I'm really proud of how we've treated our people, how we've worked to really unify and how we've provided extra resources to help people care for themselves and their families… Doing the right thing on a day-to-day basis and ensuring that our company represents the communities where we live and work and the customers that we're selling our product to.”
Passionate about People
Clearly Richard is passionate about helping people, but she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. She sits on the board of Genesys Works Twin Cities, which helps low-income high school students start professional careers. Richard stays humble when asked about her many volunteer projects and simply states, “I just feel like it's really part of what we owe our community, being a part of our community to really help make sure everyone has an opportunity to live their best life and be successful for sure.”
Special thanks to Karen Richard and Andersen Corporation.
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