College of Business students in the Managing Diversity in Organizations (MNGT 365) class at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln gained a better understanding of the importance of a diverse and inclusive work culture in December. Dr. Gwendolyn Combs, associate professor of management, teaches the course and invited Leon Holloway, human resource manager at Duncan Aviation; Dr. Karen Kassebaum, director of staff diversity and inclusion at Nebraska; and Kelly McKeever, executive director of people services at Nelnet to class to share firsthand accounts of issues and ways to facilitate them.
“I spend a lot of time going over concepts and theories that explain why diversity and inclusion are important, but to hear it from the professionals makes it more real and enhances the ability of the students to connect theory, research and practice,” said Combs. “The speakers talk about challenges and successes, which lets students see the complexities of diversity and inclusion. They are able to hear from business leaders on how it all comes together.”
Claudia Dinardo, a senior management major from Auburn, Illinois, appreciated the opportunity to hear from the speakers. She particularly enjoyed getting the perspective from professionals in three very different type of organizations.
“I’m specializing in human resources, so for me it’s important to learn about these issues,” said Dinardo. “The workforce is always adjusting to the demands of diversity and inclusion, so the more I can learn now, the easier it will be when I go into a full-time job. Hearing from the three industries of education, consumer and manufacturing, it’s interesting to see how the issues affect each sector.”
McKeever plays a key role in making sure Nelnet provides a respectful work environment to all employees. She personally values the differences of her co-workers, and related to students that diversity and inclusion is a strength when those differences are allowed to flourish.
“I believe everybody has gifts to offer. We help others bring out those gifts. Diversity is so important because it magnifies how everybody brings something different to the table. We do have to have tough conversations sometimes regarding being respectful to others, and we implement workplace training as reminders to strengthen the organization,” said McKeever.
Holloway echoed training as a key ingredient at Duncan Aviation. He believes internships and learning the soft skills of business help young people coming out of college prepare for the job, but he also told students that beyond the millions of dollars Duncan spends on workplace training, it ultimately starts with each individual.
“Diversity isn’t easy and it starts with you,” Holloway told students. “It starts with respect. We all have biases and we’re not going to think the same, act the same or even have the same language. I tell my kids, you are what you answer to. If someone doesn’t like something about me, that’s really on them, but if they take the time to get to know me and ask questions to find out what I believe and value, then we can have a great conversation. That’s what I try to do.”
As yet another leader in diversity and inclusion at Nebraska, Kassebaum reflected on when to have those sometimes difficult conversations in the workplace. She tries to broker a conversation with other people when she hears something said that she believes might be hurtful to herself or others. It is a process she hopes students can use when they go into their professional careers.
“If you don’t let the other person know they’ve said something wrong, then how do they know? They may walk around thinking they can say it again. I always assume good intent but then I let people know how what they said impacted me or might impact someone else. I watch my tone so it doesn’t escalate to a potentially difficult situation. It can be tiring, and sometimes you can wait a day to bring something up with a person if you’re really upset, but you have to take the time to have that conversation or we’re never going to learn, grow and have respectful disagreements,” said Kassebaum.
Recently, the university underscored the need for leadership in this area by hiring Dr. Marco Barker as inaugural vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion. The Nebraska Commission of 150, consisting of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members, also named diversity and inclusion as a key priority in how the university can best serve Nebraska and the world for the next 25 years. Combs, who serves on the diversity and inclusion subcommittee for Nebraska 150, provides leadership in diversity and inclusion issues and has done so since joining the College of Business in 2000. One of her greatest contributions was the development of the MNGT 365 course.
“Many of the students in this class have an emphasis in human resources, so it helps them to see how human resources, diversity and inclusion and effective organizational outcomes are aligned. I believe these types of educational experiences can help Nebraska move the needle on these issues as students learn from these professionals to become proactive and innovative dealing with diversity and inclusion,” said Combs.