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The Diversity Imperative

Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in the September issue of DS News.

There are many business reasons to focus attention on diversity and inclusion. Two news items this summer about the changing demographics of today’s housing market illustrate the need. The first, from The Wall Street Journal, was a report that Hispanic Americans are experiencing the largest homeownership gains of any ethnic group in the U.S. This represents “a turnaround for the population hardest hit by the housing bust that could help buoy the market for years,” according to the Journal. Yet, the very same edition also contained a troubling story about the homeownership rate for African-Americans, which is hitting its lowest level on record according to census data.

The reasons for this divergence in homeownership are complex and involve issues of history and culture, as well as economics. Understanding the forces in play in the real estate market and how the specific experiences of individual consumers impact their decisions to engage in, or avoid the market, are increasingly important factors in the success of brokers, developers, lenders, and insurers. Knowing that these forces and factors exist is the baseline objective of a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiative.  

Aside from the business imperative, taking D&I into account is the right thing to do. American workplaces, neighborhoods, and even families are becoming more diverse as people of different backgrounds and ethnicities come together to live and work side by side. 

In order to get along and thrive in such an environment with people who have an infinite number of individual experiences, it is important to exercise respect and understanding. It is proven that workplace cultures that foster diversity and inclusion are in turn more innovative, more resilient, and more competitive.

According to research from the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., “Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” Companies in the bottom quartile in these dimensions are statistically less likely to achieve above-average returns, the research says. 

In terms of talent and recruitment, a D&I orientation not only expands the universe of possible employees to hire, but it also helps companies attract and keep top talent who are drawn to workplaces with a variety of people.   

When it comes to decision-making and innovation, an organization with a diversity of informed views can identify anomalies, opportunities, and potential errors of thinking as well as develop solutions and alternatives more quickly and efficiently than groups of people who share the same assumptions and perspectives. Organizations are smarter and more responsive to customers and employees when they have more people contributing their ideas and knowledge.  

The Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA) provides resources to help mortgage and real estate finance professionals lean in to D&I. They offer a list of tactics and themes rather than prescriptions because, as MBA says, “There is no single right way to develop your D&I program.” 

Many sources show that leadership is an indispensable ingredient to D&I success. Building a workplace environment where everyone can contribute begins with a commitment from the top to achieving specific goals through a variety of programs. Demonstrating that D&I is a priority in the C-Suite sends a strong message to the rest of the company that diversity is of strategic importance. The progress is often slow and incremental but that’s because meaningful diversity cannot be realized through a memo or by just checking the box. Companies and their leaders must be committed to truly making diversity a part of their culture.

One way leadership can commit to D&I is to join the efforts of their peers. For example, PwC has created the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion pledge. The pledge has been signed by more than 750 business leaders across various industries. By signing the pledge, organizations have committed themselves to a set of actions designed to cultivate a trusting environment where all ideas and employees are welcomed.

Partnering with private or public organizations to access underserved communities and provide help with down payment assistance programs, consumer education, and financial literacy resources can also be key. For customer satisfaction, by committing to diversity, organizations can better align themselves with their customers’ perspectives and expectations. This will help boost your and your customers’ knowledge and raise your profile in new markets. 

This is especially important for companies in the real estate space where 44% of the largest generation of potential homebuyers—millennials—are minorities. Additionally, millennials are increasingly making consumer-driven decisions based on the values and commitment to D&I of the organization they are choosing to be a part of. One of the keys to entering these new markets is having employees that reflect these communities.  

However, implementing D&I efforts is often easier said than done. While verbal commitment is extremely important for morale, steps must be taken to ensure the success of these initiatives. From the people we know to the things we watch on television, we’re continuously using our experiences to draw conclusions about the world around us. However, these snap assessments can lead to biases. And those biases can affect the success of a company’s D&I efforts. For example, a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.  If a company is inadvertently limiting its applicant pool, efforts to diversify will be stifled. 

But biases aren’t always conscious or intentional. According to the Harvard Business Review, “Most of us believe that we are ethical and unbiased. We imagine we’re good decision-makers, able to objectively size up a job candidate or a venture deal and reach a fair and rational conclusion that’s in our, and our organization’s, best interests. However, more than two decades of research confirms that, in reality, most of us fall woefully short of our inflated self-perception.” 

Recruiting diverse talent is important but it’s not enough on its own. Companies need to cultivate talent through a pipeline approach that supports the people they hire with mentors and promotion opportunities throughout their careers. Companies can offer opportunities to connect with seasoned executives to share skills and insights in order to develop the next generation of professionals, while also spreading knowledge throughout the organization.  

The real estate market is changing quickly and frankly, our industry has not always kept pace. But we are learning fast. One thing we’ve discovered is that diversity and inclusion don’t just mean programs focused on race, gender, or sexual orientation. It includes thoughtful accommodations to individual needs such as work schedule flexibility and giving back to the community together.  

For instance, as part of our commitment to making Radian a diverse and inclusive company, we have enhanced our programs and policies aimed at providing flexibility for our people to strike the right work/life balance while continuing to meet the needs of our clients. These programs include paid paternal leave providing up to two weeks to assist and support parents or balance other family matters; a floating holiday for employees to use when their religious practices do not match the company holiday schedule; flexible work hours; telecommuting opportunities; and a flexible professional dress code.

Companies must also be committed to building a culture of health and community by supporting employees’ volunteer pursuits. Providing employees with a variety of opportunities to serve the community including donation drives and volunteer events, is a great way to share D&I efforts with the communities in which your employees work and live. Additionally, it provides opportunities for employees to connect with their colleagues on a human, common level outside their day-to-day responsibilities.

While all these programs and services are achievable for many organizations, every company is different with its own challenges and its own path to D&I. It’s important to grow D&I efforts in a responsible and organic way. Because we’re talking about a business enterprise, setting a measurable goal allows you to focus efforts and resources as well as assess your progress and make timely course corrections. 

D&I goals should be aligned with your company goals because the demographics of your market are rapidly changing and your business success is riding on your ability to understand your customers better and anticipate their needs.   

And creating an enduring D&I culture requires steady sustained education about the reasons why change is necessary and why it has benefits for everyone. When people understand the rationale and the goal they will be better able to take ownership of the program and help educate others.  

Diversity matters, especially in an industry such as mortgage finance that is deeply connected to peoples’ aspirations and expectations of a good life. When we do our job well we help make the American Dream a reality for millions of people. But to do the best job possible we need to know who those people are, what obstacles stand in their way, and what powers are within our control to make their dreams real. 

The good news is that, increasingly, the people that are making the American Dream a reality, are us.

About Author: Anita Scott

As Chief Human Resources Officer for Radian, Anita Scott is responsible for all human resources management. She has more than 30 years’ experience in the global financial services industry and is a member of Radian’s Corporate Citizenship Program Committee.
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