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Banks Embrace Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Financial institutions recognize that the state’s diverse populations create opportunities for a more equitable future with positive growth.

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s well-documented impact on women, people of color, small businesses, and other communities statewide, New Jersey’s banks have stepped up existing efforts towards building more diverse, equitable and inclusive companies.

John E. McWeeney Jr., president of NJBankers, an organization that has advocated for the state’s banking industry for more than 118 years, says, “Our member banks are on a journey to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a priority in their workforce and leadership ranks. Some began their journey many years ago and others are in the early stages.

“It’s essential that the commitment to DEI start at the top and we’ve seen many CEOs and boards embrace DEI as a core value and key strategy to their future success. Some of the steps we’ve seen our member banks take include changing their recruiting approach to ensure they’re able to source diverse talent, launching DEI training for managers, and also creating resource groups to create a more inclusive and equitable culture,” McWeeney says.

NJBankers created a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council for member banks that meets regularly and helps advise the association on its DEI strategy and programs. There are 19 different institutions with representatives on the council and it continues to grow. NJBankers also introduced a series of DEI monthly webinars that address key issues like attracting and retaining diverse talent, unconscious bias, and DEI from the customer perspective in addition to launching a dedicated DEI page on its website (www.njbankers.com) where members can find helpful resources.

“We all can agree that recent national events have not only opened the gateway to empathy, but have heightened our awareness to the future generation of associates,” Alethea M. Batts, Lakeland Bank’s chief diversity officer, underscores.

“As we acknowledge and embrace our social responsibility, it also influences and engages our associates and drives meaningful change,” Batts says. “Last, we have proudly dedicated ourselves to being an employer of choice for talent and continue to monitor our efforts with regard to the recruitment, retention and promotion of our diverse associates. Companies that embrace DEI in the workplace have increased job satisfaction, higher levels of trust, more employee engagement, and are more profitable.”

Lakeland Bank is incorporating DEI initiatives to ensure associates are well-informed, that they are heard, and that they can feel comfortable in bringing their “whole self” to work to deliver a top-notch client experience. Diversity training is conducted at all levels of the organization, but one key initiative, Lakeland’s Diversity Task Force, is a balanced team of associates, managers and senior leaders developing programs and practices designed to increase DEI within the bank.

“We believe it is vitally important to hear from our associates, so we implemented a monthly listening series called ‘Diversity Speak: Share Our Voices,’ which is open to all associates,” Batts adds. “We also created a D&I resource page where associates share comments, give feedback, and offer suggestions. Also, we use our diversity resource calendar as a tool to share and celebrate cultural differences and to understand and respect religious observances.”

Alycia Banks, senior vice president and learning and diversity officer, Columbia Bank, says it is very easy to point to the recent events and protests for social justice as the catalyst for the increased focus on diversity, but the data has shown for years that diverse teams and companies produce greater profit, employee engagement and innovation. “As we recover from the pandemic, companies, now more than ever, are being scrutinized and strive to avoid the ‘cancel culture’ campaigns that we witnessed over the past year,” Banks points out. “Consumers and the workforce are paying keen attention to organizations and how they represent their communities, understand their issues, and provide products and solutions for their needs.

“Banking is being held to the same expectations,” Banks continues. “I believe that DEI is a determining factor as to how long a company or bank will last in this new market. DEI can no longer be an option or fad that companies decide to focus on or not. DEI must be a core element of the strategy, culture and values in order to appeal to the present workforce, customers and communities we serve. Institutions would benefit from asking questions such as: What are we doing to reach the growing number of women-owned businesses? What services do we offer that meet the needs of those in the Hispanic/Latin communities? How can our workforce reflect more of the diverse communities we serve? How does our marketing and messaging need to change to be inclusive of customers in the LGBTQIA+?”

Brydget Falk-Drigan, executive vice president, chief human resources officer, at Peapack-Gladstone Bank, says the financial institution is committed to expanding its role as an employer that champions DEI in the bank’s workplace environment. “Our strategy focuses on achieving hiring levels that are representative and in line with the communities in which we serve, as well as improving diversity representation in our senior roles,” Falk-Drigan adds. “We have dedicated actions to drive a more diverse workforce, with a focus in the areas of brand awareness and sourcing, recruiting and hiring, cultural awareness and appreciation, and increasing diversity at all levels of the organization.”

Over the past year, Peapack-Gladstone Bank has updated the career site on the bank’s website to communicate its commitment to DEI and changed hiring practices to include diverse interview panels and behavioral interviewing, minimizing the impact of any bias. These initiatives, in part with other efforts, have led to a 40% increase in diverse hires this year.

Tammy Garnes Mata, senior vice president, chief diversity & inclusion officer at Valley Bank, says Valley has always been a relationship and community focused bank, and its approach around DEI centers on the relationships it has built with the bank’s internal and external communities in that inclusion is the goal and diversity is the outcome. “We strive to ensure that our associates, customers and community members can bring their authentic selves and perspectives to the table, so that we can better meet their needs and help them reach their career and financial goals.”

Valley’s Associate Resource Group (ARG) program is open to all associates and champions an environment in which unique experiences and perspectives are encouraged and valued. Valley’s ARGs allow associates to connect with each other in a meaningful way, which enhances the ability for various teams to work together collaboratively and to support one another.

ARGs at Valley Bank include groups dedicated to empowering women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, employees of Middle Eastern, South Asian, Asian Pacific and Asian American cultures, Black employees, and Hispanic, Latino/a/x, and Portuguese professionals and their colleagues at Valley.

“At Valley, career development and learning opportunities are available for associates at every stage of their careers,” Garnes Mata concludes. “We believe that there is no expiration date for the value our associates bring to Valley – great ideas and innovation can come from the person with 1, 5, 10 or 40 years of experience. That’s another reason why we are so focused on ensuring that every associate is seen and heard, and that inclusion is at the heart of our talent development initiatives.”

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