Paul R. Battaglia, AIA, a principal at Clark Nexsen and the current chair of the AIA Virginia J.E.D.I. Committee recently interviewed fellow J.E.D.I. committee member Mia Gilliam, Assoc AIA, who is also the chairperson of the DEI Resource Group (DEIRG) at Wiley|Wilson about the firm’s experience selecting and hiring a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultant. The firm has retained the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC), based in Richmond, Va., to assist in their efforts.

Paul: What kind of DEI activities was Wiley|Wilson doing prior to considering the need for a consultant?

Mia: We were doing a few things. First we needed to figure out our mission and how we implement this vision at our company … create a framework.  Also, things like starting a calendar to celebrate different cultural events and also figuring out what the company needed to change in order to make it more inclusive. We came up with a bunch of items that we presented to the board. We also set up an email address in our company so that employees can ask us questions about DEI issues. We address the issues and questions and talk about it at our meetings. The whole group will answer the question so it’s not one person’s opinion. We really talk things out. Sometimes our conversations aren’t always pleasant and they’re definitely not one sided. I love that part about the group because we’ve learned to work together.

When our company advertises or posts on social media, our DEIRG sometimes  reviews them to make sure that it’s not offensive and that it actually sends the message we’re trying to send.

One thing that the DEI initiative has done is share our stories. During Women’s History Month, we interviewed three women in our company. One was our first female office manager, one was our first female Vice President, and the third was the first woman to join our board. When you share your story it puts a face to the challenges that a person has experienced in the industry. Putting a face of someone you know personally to an issue changes everything. We had one technical person: she’s an architect. And two other women: our head of HR and our head of accounting. They have had challenges, but they weren’t the same challenges that we had in the technical industry. Women have been in and sometimes dominated those fields much longer than the architecture and engineering industries. That was really eye opening. I did not realize that there was such a difference.

Our board graciously allowed me to share my story with them. Sharing your story and saying, “Oh yeah so, I’m Black and this happened, and this happened, and this happened …” That’s hard to share. But they were very receptive, and they wanted to hear what it’s like to be an African American female in this industry. It’s not easy to share the challenges at all, and sometimes things just sucked. You just get used to thinking, “this is way things are and they won’t change, so I need to behave this way in order to get things accomplished.” We invited other people to share their stories in our DEI meetings. You just never know what the person right next you has been through. Putting a face on injustice brings clarity.

Paul: And what is your group called? Are you the EDI Committee? the J.E.D.I. Committee?

Mia: We are the DEI Resource Group. We are not HR. We are not handling HR issues. Those need to go to HR. But we are a resource for anybody in the company.

There are ten of us, from different cultures: Black, White, Asian, women, men … pretty much all the different cultures we have in our office are within this one committee. Perspective, I think, is one of the most valuable tools in this whole effort. Our recruiter is in DEI Resource Group as well and it has helped us gain perspective in our recruiting. One of the things that we learned: architects in Virginia tend to hire from UVA and Virginia Tech and that’s it. They don’t hire or look for candidates from HBCUs. We can partner with organizations like NSBE [the National Society of Black Engineers] and NOMAS [National Organization of Minority Architectral Students]. And you need to go to the students. The students want jobs and they want opportunities. So, go to the students and they will give you information on career fairs and other events.

Paul: How and why did you arrive at the at the realization that you that you needed or wanted a consultant?

Mia: Our specialty is architecture and engineering — it is not DEI — so why would we think that we know enough about this big/huge issue to be able to explain it and teach it to the people in our office? And, what if somebody brought up a question that we couldn’t answer, or don’t quite understand because we haven’t taken the time, or don’t have the time to dig up the answer? So why don’t we talk to the people that know what they’re doing, have dealt with this before, and understand the questions that have been asked?

Getting a DEI consultant has been in the mix for a while, but it was just kind of floating in the background. We definitely knew that we needed some help because we work full-time jobs, and this [DEI effort] is something that we do on the side — that we volunteered to do. Also, it’s been two years since George Floyd, and we didn’t want to fall behind just because we took too much time to get the help we need to do something.

Paul: Were there specific criteria that were either articulated in the RFP or that surfaced during the selection process?

Mia: It was really important to us to test these companies out. So, we had two DEI sessions. One with the managers because we believe that the managers need to see their unconscious bias even before the employees do. They help decide employee advancement, and so they need to understand their unconscious biases. The other company that we interviewed presented to our entire company about unconscious bias. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive.

Paul: What convinced you that the consultant you selected was the right group?

Mia: Experience. The group that we ended up picking has been doing this since the 1920s. This is not their first go round. And they were diverse. Some of the other groups we considered were working on their diversity, but this group was already diverse. And there were other factors like distance. Response time was a factor. Professionalism was a factor. And it was important to consider the relationship. They will be doing the work with us for a long time. It could be three to five years. It’s not expected to be a relationship that’s gonna happen instantaneously, but we needed to feel good about the relationship.

Paul: Will they be working with the entire company or will they be mostly coaching the DEI that will then be responsible for disseminating the information and the content?

Mia: No, the DEI will not be disseminating the content to the rest of the company; we don’t  have the experience to answer the questions employees might have about DEI.  The consultant will start with the DEI and the board to get to know our company better and then start sessions with the rest of the company.

Paul: Were were there any recommendations or services that were included in any of the proposals that you specifically elected not to consider or not to do, or that you effectively declined?

Mia: Not really. But their package proposed 30 sessions over a 10-month period. Because we have five offices, we decided we should have fewer sessions and more interaction with the DEI and the board to change policy and not just have general sessions to make people aware of everything. 

Paul: How have you defined the overall objective of this work? You must have a sense of what would define “success” and how you will ascertain whether this has been successful or not?

Mia: One of the biggest questions that we asked during the interviews was, “how do you know if it’s successful?” For the company that we picked, their answer was that what makes it unsuccessful is if the leadership, or the board, jumps off the boat. That’s when it becomes unsuccessful. It’s really hard to benchmark what makes it successful. But you start seeing people change. I used to say “diversity hire.” I no longer say “diversity hire.” If you knew what that meant to the people that are diverse you would never say that. It carries a negative stigma. Success can be measured in people’s language. When language and the phrases that people use change, and the way that people act changes, that’s when you can tell that change is actually happening; that the message is getting through.

Paul: Of the activities that you’d initiated, are those all continuing, or have some of those been suspended upon the recommendation of the of the consultant? The whole point of hiring a consultant is to inflect and improve your progress, so how or what has changed now that they’re now that they’re coming on board?

Mia: Not much because literally just started talking to the consultant. We want to meet with the consultant to figure out what our next step should be.

Paul: Is there anything else that you would want to say or have others know about searching for or considering whether they need a consultant?

Mia: I would say look around. If everybody looks like you, you wanna think about that. If your firm is a minority firm, you still might want to look into this because you don’t know what you don’t know.

Paul: I hear you. “If everyone looks like you …” and I also think maybe if everyone thinks nearly the same way, that could be another indicator. And it’s interesting that your response seems to be focusing on the D [diversity], but there’s also the E [equity] and the I [inclusion]. D might not be the only indicator about whether you need a consultant …

Mia: That’s absolutely fair. It does seem like we’ve been focusing on diversity, and I think our company has actually done really well on the diversity part, but the equity part is something that our group acknowledged that we really need to work on. When there’s an interview team, we don’t want it to be an all-boys club. We’ve seen that happen before. Many years ago there was a group of all men from our company being interviewed by a group of all women and it was like “um, this might need to change.” Do we make a habit of picking a diverse interview team on a regular basis, or do we only include diverse people on the interview team when we’re going to a diverse client? We’ve been wondering how do we change the pipeline, and how do we help people know that there is a pipeline?

Paul: Yes. To some extent some of those behaviors or policies are backstopped by Human Resources: what you can or can’t say, how you can and can’t act; but I also wonder how the consultant can help you revisit or reset some of those policies to be sure that you really are getting the desired outcome or see if you could do that more efficiently.

Mia: I’m glad that our board and our managers have gone through the process to at least have their eyes opened to some of the things they might not have been open to. To understand why these things are needed. It’s really nice to see the open mindset of the company, including our CEO/President and COO.

Paul: So maybe one of your recommendations is to get that buy-in and make sure that from the leadership level, it saturates the organization.

Mia: Absolutely. I would definitely recommend that the company’s leadership are the first people that need to understand and buy-in because what’s gonna change in the company if the leadership doesn’t get an understanding of why this is needed? The leadership that we have at WW, they’re the ones actually pushing it. They’re the ones that started the DEI [Resource Group].

Paul: I was wondering about the point of origin. Was it the staff? Was it management? Was it leadership?

Mia: Tim Groover, interviewed a employees about office culture and realized one of the things we needed to work on as a company is DEI. He became really interested in it. He started to study, take classes, and meet with leaders of other companies. He also pulled together a group of WW employees to get it started. So, has the company always done this so well? No. But we’re trying. That’s the goal.