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An engineering firm traces its DEI journey


An engineering firm traces its DEI journey

Top-to-bottom buy-in has been a key factor in SSOE Group’s efforts to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive in its hiring, mentoring, and benefits.

By John Caulfield, Senior Editor | February 20, 2024
SSOE Group is striving for a more diverse workforce
SSOE Group has added internal groups that represent diverse employee cohorts. Images: SSOE Group

In early 2022, the AE firm SSOE Group’s Board of Directors reiterated its commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Thus began a journey that found SSOE moving toward a more representative mix of diverse employees within its nearly 1,500-person workforce, on project teams and in corporate groups.

This mandate led to the formation of advocacy groups for underrepresented employees within the company, as well as changes in SSOE’s hiring practices and employee benefits. It has also placed SSOE in a better position to compete for projects from developers and organizations (especially in the public sector) that are seeking partners with well-defined DEI programs.

A growing number of AEC firms have been looking at themselves critically through DEI lenses that have brought into sharper relief shortcomings in their human resource policies and programs. These assessments are also being conducted at a time when a company’s DEI reputation can be a determinative factor in where skilled and educated employees choose to work.

SSOE Group can be seen as a case study for how AEC firms are adapting to employees’ shifting expectations of more-inclusive work cultures.

Top-down support for DEI efforts

Catherine Myers, PE, SSOE’s President, notes that prior to its latest actions, the firm didn’t have a specific DEI-focused group that was directly connected to the Board of Directors. That changed when, in March 2022, SSOE added a DEI committee to its Board, and hired its first Director of DEI, Candice Harrison, who had previously been external communications manager for the Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools.

To encourage team buy-in, SSOE held global DEI roundtable discussions in small groups. More than 15 percent of the company’s workers responded to questions that probed their understanding of DEI, why they thought improvements were important for the company, and what challenges in its execution might arise.

Outcomes from these sessions helped to establish DEI priorities such as enhancing diversity in the talent pipeline and setting metrics and management tools.

Candice Harrison, Director of DEI
Candice Harrison, SSOE Group's first Director of DEI, envisions a workplace where all employees can be themselves.

DEI groups give voice to different employees

After completing this company-wide assessment, SSOE Group formed internal Employee Resource Groups (ERG) to give greater voice to its underrepresented workers. One group, the Black Leaders and Collaborative Change Makers (BLACC), initially had 25 active members; the PRIDE group for LGBTQ+ individuals had 27 members; and there were 72 participants in the Women’s ERG. (At the time, SSOE had very few women in its engineering and architecture departments, particularly in leadership roles. And female technical employees created a subgroup because they had different needs regarding representation and support than the larger Women’s ERG.)

Participation in the ERGs was voluntary but strongly encouraged. Each group had at least one member of leadership as an executive sponsor who sometimes came from outside the respective underrepresented group.

Each ERG devised its own mission statement and charter, as well as a leadership/management hierarchy. Broad objectives were refined for specific actions that could range from recognizing holidays like Martin Luther King Day to revising time-off policies. Each ERG meets monthly, and in their first year, the groups were instrumental in strategic benefits planning and Lean Operating Strategy initiatives. The BLACC group assisted SSOE’s human resources department in recruitment events, and invited Dr. Melvin Garvey, the author of Dear White Friend, to speak about DEI.

SSOE has partnered with Historically Black Colleges and Universities such as Tennessee State, through which the firm conferred its first scholarship. The firm’s DEI program also partnered with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers. SSOE developed corporate metrics that impact the entire company related to DEI. Tracking those markets is tied to performance, which encourages corporate accountability.

The PRIDE ERG partnered with Hummingbird Humanity, a DEI consulting firm, to help the group elucidate the history of the gay pride movement and to dive deeper into gender identity.

DEI can provide a competitive edge

As part of its DEI journey, SSOE Group conducts virtual training sessions on diversity. The firm required attendance for employees to receive their bonuses. According to Harrison, the focus of SSOE’s diversity efforts has been to embed DEI into daily operations, “creating a space where our employees feel as though they can bring their whole selves to work and have a sense of belonging.”

As the cultivation of these values becomes more intensified, SSOE can distinguish itself with potential partners and incoming employees. “What we’ve developed is more focused on measurement,” said a company spokesperson.

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