Making Progress on Our Diversity and Inclusion Journey

As a mission-driven organization dedicated to providing the best behavioral and social science research, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) knows that human capital is our greatest asset and the key to our success. At AIR, diversity and inclusion are truly mission-critical. Awakened by voices from our employees—in committees like the AIR Staff Council and the Diversity Advisory Committee (DAC)—and supported by Human Resources and other leaders in 2012, we made an organizational commitment to live this AIR value deliberately.

Years later, I’m proud to say that investments—in the form of time, passion, and energy by staff, many of whom have volunteered to support this effort—have begun to pay off in incremental, direct and indirect ways.

I’ve shied away from going public about this work because, while we have made tremendous progress, we know that this is a journey, not a race. But as I look back over the past few years, I do think we have a story to tell.

A Comprehensive Approach

About six years ago, we made a long-term, systemic and comprehensive investment in diversity and inclusion. This long-term investment, in the form of cohesive strategy, an implementation plan and staffing, was critical in our diversity and inclusion journey. It took time for us to understand that while demographic “numbers” are very important, diversity is not simply a numbers game. Equally important is inclusion: our ability to create a work environment where people can bring their full, diverse selves to work every day, so we can leverage every employee’s talent and skills. For AIR to be effective as an organization, inclusiveness must also extend to our interactions with the diverse communities where we work to improve people’s lives.

At AIR, an organization with a 72-year history and more than 1,800 employees in the United States and internationally, diversity and inclusion efforts require an intentionally managed process, many resources, steady leadership, commitment and time.

I believe that we are moving in the right direction, strategically and purposefully. We have built a sustainable foundation that better supports diversity. For example, infusing diversity and inclusion into everything we do at AIR became a stated goal in our five-year strategic plan. This was not just wishful thinking, and it is decidedly not siloed work taking place on the sidelines.

Perhaps what has changed the most along our journey is that we are enabling a cultural transformation where diversity and inclusion is no longer viewed as solely the job of HR or the Diversity and Inclusion Department. In the past, diversity and inclusion concerns were either not spoken about publicly or mentioned only in closed circles. Now, these concerns are discussed more openly during townhalls and quality review meetings. Diversity and inclusion are part of conversations that range from the substance and execution of our work to hiring practices and creation of professional development opportunities.      

Here are some additional highlights of our work:

  • AIR invested in dedicated, paid staff to lead, support and implement the diversity and inclusion work. We hired a full-time leader, Mónica Villalta, MPH, whose expertise and practitioner experience spans both the public and private sectors. She established a full-fledged Diversity and Inclusion Department and partnered with me to launch our comprehensive approach.  Together, we elevated our Diversity Advisory Committee into a chartered Diversity and Inclusion Council signaling our commitment to its institutional advisory and monitoring role. We provided the necessary resources, including labor time, for council participation, training and a two-day Annual D&I Retreat. As we continue to support this work, we have identified Karen Francis, PhD, as the interim head of D&I.
  • Image of Four Pillars of Diversity graphicAIR has a four-pillar strategic plan for diversity and inclusion, developed after a wide-ranging, 18-month listening process of interviews, focus groups and initial guidance from the Diversity Advisory Committee. The plan is now monitored by the Diversity and Inclusion Council.
  • AIR has modified policies, such as employment policies and approaches to affirmative action, and developed change management and communications strategies, to promote diversity and inclusion. New employees learn about our efforts on orientation day, where formal training and informal “buddy lunches” with seasoned employees clearly convey the message that AIR practices diversity and inclusion.
  • AIR supports six vibrant, popular Employee Resource Groups to promote cultural awareness, professional development, collegial support and greater visibility for diversity at AIR. These groups include Access AIR for employees with disabilities; Asians in Motion for Asian employees; AIR BLAAC Diaspora Network for black, Latino, African-American, African and Caribbean employees; AIR CREW for remote employees; AIR Pride for LGBTQI employees; and AIR VIVA for Hispanic, Latino and Chicano employees.
  • AIR has conducted organizational benchmarking of best practices, including the Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks: Standards for Organizations Around the World (GDIB). This research is being applied to our own portfolio of diversity and inclusion programs and practices.
  • Diversity is more nuanced than simply gender, race or ethnicity. Every one of us is influenced, consciously or not, by our upbringing, work and life experiences, organizational status and culture. To foster a holistic understanding of the many dimensions of diversity, we have introduced Diversity and Inclusion and unconscious bias training that is required for every employee.
  • We’ve also launched a multiyear reciprocal mentoring program aiming to enhance our leadership capacity and pipeline diversity.

By laying this foundation, and building on our values, we are aiming for a learning environment where we can more easily embed diversity and inclusion. Right now, we’re developing culturally and linguistically appropriate standards for projects, research and operations, which we plan to apply internally and learn from the use of our own practical tools and resources.  

Reflecting on Our Efforts and the Road Ahead

You might regard our efforts to date as process-oriented—and you’re right. But process matters. When I walk the halls of any building in our organization, I notice that employees have put up “Ally” signs on their office doors, a signal of a welcoming, safe place for colleagues to be who they are, no matter who they are. That’s inclusion in action.

We are beginning to see measurable returns on our investments. One indicator is employee engagement and attitudes about diversity and inclusion activities. Over three years, we’ve seen meaningful increases on diversity and inclusion employee surveys, as much as 20 and 30 percentage points on some measures and for some groups. We see this as an indication that employees believe AIR is serious about this work. Of course, as experts in research and evaluation, we don’t claim causation for improved engagement or attitudes, but we do know diversity and inclusion are drivers for organizational engagement.

Additionally, Diversity MBA magazine has selected AIR for the first time as a “best-in-class” organization for its 2018 50 Out Front list. The magazine also recognized the diversity of our board of directors and AIR for indicators related to women and managers of diverse backgrounds. I’m honored by this recognition because it recognizes our collective efforts.

I’ll leave you with a final observation. Many on the 50 Out Front list are for-profit companies with big pocketbooks, and some have been on this journey for years. AIR is a not-for-profit organization, and we’ve really only just begun.