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Winter 2021
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By Ed Kerwin, Executive Director, Orange Water and Sewer Authority and Stephanie Glasgow, Director of Human Resources and Safety, Orange Water and Sewer Authority 

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2020 issue of NC Currents

The board of directors and staff of the Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) in Carrboro/Chapel Hill, North Carolina committed to develop and implement an Employee Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Program. The vision for this initiative is for OWASA to be a “best in class” organization with respect to employee diversity and inclusion, much like our Team’s operational accomplishments in drinking water and wastewater management excellence.

We began our work by reviewing literature, speaking with subject matter experts and visiting with public organization in our area that implemented successful D&I programs. From this work, we established two key goals for our D&I program:

1. That the diversity of OWASA’s workforce reflect the communities
we serve.

2. An inclusive work environment for everyone that encourages and supports all team members to contribute to their full ability towards OWASA’s mission.

Next, our staff worked collaboratively to develop a draft Initial Implementation Plan for our D&I program to include objectives, strategies, tasks and measures of success for our two key D&I goals. After seeking feedback from employees, we reviewed our draft implementation plan with the board of directors and got the ball rolling.

We then hired a D&I consultant to assist our Team with many of the strategies and tasks in our initial implementation plan. We formed a Diversity Leadership Team to guide the overall program, a Diversity Recruitment Group focused on recruitment, selection and retention process improvements, and a volunteer Diversity Resource Group of employees to promote and guide the D&I work on behalf of all employees. Important accomplishments to date include completion of an organizational assessment of our work environment/culture and resulting action plan for improvement; training for all supervisors; improved procedures for the recruitment, selection and retention processes; and establishment of a Welcome Team for onboarding new hires. Our board of directors has also had multiple D&I training sessions with the consultant which have been well received. 

We recognize the importance and strategic significance of sustaining our D&I program moving forward as well as employee involvement and engagement in all aspects of running our utility. 

Context

The Orange Water and Sewer Authority (OWASA) is a public, non-profit utility providing water, wastewater, and reclaimed water services to the Carrboro-Chapel Hill community, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1977. OWASA operates three surface water reservoirs, a 20.0 million gallon per day (MGD) water treatment plant, a 14.5 MGD advanced wastewater treatment plant, and a 3.0 MGD reclaimed water system. OWASA’s service population is 85,000 and we have 140 employees. OWASA is governed by a nine-member board of directors appointed by the
Chapel Hill and Carrboro Town
Councils and the Orange County
Board of County Commissioners. 

Diversity and
Inclusion – Call to Action

In 2016, the OWASA staff and board of directors committed to develop and implement a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Program. It is our vision to be a “best in class” organization with employee D&I, much like our “best in class” operational accomplishments. There wasn’t anything in particular driving this new initiative, beyond our awareness minority and gender diversity was slowly declining while the diversity
of our service area was slowly increasing. We understand a diverse workforce
and inclusionary work culture leads to greater success.

Getting Started

Leadership commitment is the essential first step to establish a “best in class” D&I Program. We prepared a simple approach to develop and implement the program. 

1. Get Informed. We gathered information from local and regional organizations with active D&I programs to learn what works, what doesn’t work well, and how we should get the ball rolling. We collected information through phone calls, face-to-face meetings, emails and internet searches. We also spoke with consultants and their clients with established D&I programs. We invited five D&I experts to share their experiences during a special meeting of our board of directors and staff. This was particularly helpful in getting us informed about our next steps.

2. Draft Goals and Initial Implementation Plan. Using the information and feedback we gathered, our senior staff developed draft goals, strategies to meet those goals, measures of success and a Draft Initial Implementation Plan. 

3. Employee Feedback and Support. All employees were invited to voluntary meetings held throughout the organization to share our draft plan and receive their feedback. We were pleased that about a third of our employees participated in these meetings. We incorporated their feedback and finalized our Initial Implementation Plan.

4. Just Do It. We shared our Initial Implementation Plan throughout the organization and got to work. One theme we heard repeatedly from D&I experts is to “just do it.” There is no perfect plan or approach to D&I, so
no need to overthink or prefect it. Just do it, learn from it, improve it, and sustain it. 

Initial Implementation Plan

We established two key goals:

That the diversity of OWASA’s workforce reflect the communities
we serve.

 

An inclusive work environment for everyone that encourages and supports all team members to contribute to their full ability towards OWASA’s Mission.

 

For each goal, we prepared strategies, tasks, and measures of success. We regularly updated and shared our progress with all employees and the board of directors.

Employee Support Groups

A key early step in our Plan was to form three employee support groups to be champions, facilitators and doers of our D&I work. The Leadership Group consists of our executive director and five department directors. The Recruitment Group is comprised of supervisors throughout the organization that make the majority of hiring and promotion recommendations. The Employee Resource Group is comprised of volunteers throughout the organization. Key roles for each group are summarized in Figure 3.

The three employee support groups have proven to be an important part of our success. The groups meet independently and together to plan and coordinate our work. We are especially pleased in the number of employees who volunteered to serve on the Employee Resource Group. This group’s work
has been very effective at promoting
the program.

Know What’s Really Going On

Our Plan included hiring a D&I consultant to help guide our work and provide training. An important early task for the consultant was to design and conduct an organization assessment to:

Truly know and understand
our work culture.

Identify our strengths.

Identify our opportunities
for improvements.

The consultant conducted the assessment in facilitated focus group meetings throughout the organization. The consultant provided all employees multiple opportunities to participate. For example, treatment plant operators were invited to a focus group meeting just for plant operators. They could also choose to participate in a focus
group meeting for veterans, minorities, women, etc. Employee attendance at one or more focus group meeting(s) was strongly encouraged, but not required. We were pleased that about half of our employees participated. 

In summary, this is what our employees said were our strengths: 

Diversity and inclusion broadly understood and valued by many.

An intent to include everyone.

Significant longevity and loyalty.

Sense of team/family.

Respect and appreciation for the Diversity Leadership Team.

Board of directors considers employee perspective.

In summary, this is what our employees said were our opportunities for improvement:

Seek greater diversity and inclusion.

More support and recognition
for employees.

Equity for all.

Changes to employee performance review system.

Better communications.

More training.

The results of the organizational assessment were shared with all employees and our board of directors. The feedback on opportunities to improve informed new actions plans for improvement. 

Training

Mandatory D&I training for all supervisors provided by our consultant was an important part of creating awareness and setting the stage for success. The training teams were comprised of all levels of supervisors from all departments. Since 2017, supervisors have received at least 40 hours of D&I training over multiple sessions. While the training was intense at times – since discussing diversity can be difficult – it was well-received by our supervisors. We also offered voluntary D&I training sessions for all employees. As our D&I program becomes more established and embraced by our employees, we plan to make D&I training required of all employees, much as we do for our safety training program. The board of directors also attended D&I training sessions and developed their own plans to improve.

Key Accomplishments

Since 2016, we have many important accomplishments that move us towards our vision to be a “best in class” organization with respect to D&I. While our consultant has masterfully handled the organization assessment and staff training, much has been done in-house by our three support groups and other employees. This has created true ownership and buy-in by our team.

Our key accomplishments include:

Organizational assessment with action plan for improvement.

Extensive training for all supervisors.

New recruitment and hiring procedures to include use of interview panels designed to promote diversity and ensure a fair and objective selection process. 

All employee performance reviews include D&I performance considerations.

New Welcome Team for all new employees.

Improvements for self-assessment and employee performance reviews.

Greater focus on inclusion in all
that we do.

Sharing Our Success

We share our successes with all employees and the board of directors to further promote the value of our work and investment in D&I. Volunteers on our Employee Resource Group are particularly helpful when it comes to sharing information and successes with coworkers. Members of the Employee Resource Group have written featured articles in our employee newsletter and shared their experiences at Board meetings. Employee events have included ethnic food items and other information. Onboarding for all new employees includes D&I. The Executive Director meets with all employees in smaller groups twice a year and the agenda always include an update and discussion of our D&I work. 

We have also shared our experiences with other local governments and at local and national professional conferences. 

How We Know It’s Working

One way we know we are making progress on our D&I work is direct feedback from employees, which has been very positive. Following training sessions, we often heard supervisors say, “I didn’t know, what I didn’t know.” Creating greater awareness and skills to promote D&I, especially among all supervisors was essential.

Like other utilities in our region, we worked hard to prepare for and respond to Hurricane Florence in September 2018. As is our practice following significant events, we conducted an After Action Review (AAR) following Hurricane Florence to learn what worked well and what we can do to improve. All employees were invited to participate in the AAR, and many did. Employees at all levels throughout the organization told us they felt very “included” in all aspects of our planning and response to Hurricane Florence. They told us they have never felt more prepared and they were proud to have worked together as a Team.

Since 2015, our workforce minority representation has increased from 20.8% to 27.0% and female representation has increased from 20.8% to 25.4%.

We plan to conduct routine organizational assessments and
employee surveys to continue to seek
and understand feedback from our employees about how we are doing with our D&I work. 

Metrics

In September 2019, we established 10 metrics for our D&I Program, as detailed in Figure 5.

Smart for Your Utility 

In our relatively short experience with our D&I program, we know it provides many benefits for our utility, in addition to being the right thing to do. Those benefits are:

Greater innovation and creativity.

Recruiting and retention
competitive advantage.

Improved engagement/connection with customers and employees.

Higher performance.

A boost to our brand and reputation.

Protests for Racial Justice

During the protests for racial justice following the tragic death of George Floyd in the spring of 2020, we took action to remind all employees of their responsibility to ensure our workplace is free of racism, discrimination, harassment or any type of unwelcome or unprofessional behavior. We also reminded our team of their options to seek help or assistance, or to simply talk with others during these troubling times. We held voluntary open forums (these meetings were held virtually due to COVID-19) to provide employees with an opportunity to talk about events and share how they were feeling. Feedback from our open forums was positive; employees appreciated the opportunity to talk with each other and to express their feelings. Our leadership held voluntary meetings with African American/black supervisors throughout the organization to check in with them and to invite their feedback about our work culture. These meetings were well attended and the feedback regarding our work culture was positive, but they team members were understandably very concerned about racial tension in the community and the Country, and the effect on their families. On June 11, 2020, our board of directors adopted a resolution affirming OWASA’s diversity and inclusion values and supporting a community free of hatred. We believe these actions further demonstrated our commitment to diversity and inclusion for all.

Moving Forward

Like providing reliable and high-quality water, wastewater, and reclaimed water services, work on our D&I Program will never end and has been engrained into our continuous improvement culture. As with all things important, the Diversity Leadership Team’s full commitment and support is essential for continued growth and success. 

One of the D&I experts we spoke with early in our information gathering phase said to look at our D&I work as a marathon, not a race and to promote
and grow it “organically” throughout
the organization (not driven from the
top down). Looking back, we know
that this was great advice and we are
very proud of what our employees
have accomplished. 

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Contact Info

Hawai‘i Water Environment Association
PO Box 2422
Honolulu, Hawai‘i 96804
General Inquiries: info@hwea.org