The State of Utah is one of Utah’s largest employers. In an ongoing effort to understand best practices for creating welcoming workplaces in Utah, we spoke to Wes Porter, who is the director of the State of Utah’s Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Accelerator at the Utah Division of Human Resource Management. He grew up in and is based in Vernal, Utah.
Tell us about your career path and what brought you to work in DEI.
My background includes ten years in higher education and 17 years for the U.S. Army in operations and human resources. I was a military liaison in the Middle East. By interfacing with these different cultures, not only did I learn how they do things, but why they do the things that they do. Before I went to the Middle East, my bias was that I was going to teach them. I didn’t think for one second that I was going to be taught.
I was severely humbled by what these people do with the resources they have. And I thought to myself, ‘If we can figure out how to leverage the different communities and stop looking at them as a deficit, we can go places.’
What do you do in your current role?
The State of Utah is the second-largest employer in the state. How we reach out and the decisions we make in recruitment and retention have far-reaching impacts. We want to make sure we get things right, and we also have a pulse on the changing demographics of Utah.
I’ve been in this position on the state’s Department of Human Resource Management (DHRM) team for about a year and a half, reporting to John Barrand, who is a member of the Governor’s cabinet. I work in tandem with the state’s Multicultural Commission - Nubia Peña and her team - doing a lot of joint training on the Governor’s vision for equity, diversity, inclusion and access, which is one of his top priorities. We’re aligned on that vision and on the needs of the citizens of Utah.
Our training targets the employees of the State. We want to foster inclusive leadership. One of our strategies is to take the current understanding of leadership that most people have and layer EDIA principles inside that understanding. We don’t want EDIA principles to be stove-piped. If changes need to be made, we approach that with a very deliberate change-management process and outreach. I like to borrow Nubia’s phrase, that this is a ‘call-in' versus a 'call-out’ process.
We’re trying to establish in the culture the feeling that if something is wrong, or we need to change, we call people in and invite them to participate. We don’t call-out or shame people. It’s about how we can work together as a team to help all of Utah. We try to set up an environment in our training to allow people to voice concerns, appreciations, and opinions. We want to embrace those perspectives.
I’m also a product of the Governor’s Rural Hire initiative. Rural communities sometimes feel detached from the Wasatch Front, which is where all the sausage is made, politically speaking. But there is a deliberate attempt and process to bring those Rural Utah perspectives to the forefront and to the decision-making process.
Do you ever get pushback? What’s the response?
Yeah, that’s happened. When it does, we go back to what’s best for the community and what’s best for organizational development. When I’m in one of those conversations in a training session or one-on-one with someone who is skeptical about DEIB, I go back to the business case, why diversity in teams is important, and how research shows that diverse teams outperform homogenous teams over time.
Then I call attention to the current demographics of Utah and where those demographics are headed in terms of future census data. I’m able to show leaders that this is how we’re growing and changing. If we don’t learn to take account of these different perspectives and change our leadership style to meet the needs of our employees, we’re not going to be successful.
This is sometimes a lengthy conversation, but I can tell you, we’re seeing some good things come out of it.
What are the best practices for attracting and retaining diverse talent?
That question is front and center for our DHRM team. One of the things we’re looking at is where the State advertises openings. Most of our jobs show up on LinkedIn and neogov.com. The State does an okay job, but we have a lot of room to grow, to expand connections to diverse communities.
Second, how are we receiving resumes and other information from applicants? How are postings written and do we have processes in place to eliminate bias?
Next, we’re focusing on how we do the actual interview when we have a pool of candidates for a given position. Is the approach uniform across the board? Is it done in a way that we can eliminate as much bias as possible in decision-making leading up to that interview?
We’re also looking at software to eliminate personal identification information and mask gender, race, and ethnicity from resumes. What’s left is a skills profile. Governor Cox recently launched a skills-based initiative where the State no longer hires with an education preference unless it’s required by statute or law. Now the lack of a degree is not going to be a barrier for an individual and that lets us attract candidates from more diverse communities.
What are the early successes and challenges of the accelerator?
Over the last year, we’ve seen an increase in EIDA conversations with our executive leadership, and those are trickling down to first-line leaders and managers. And those conversations are shifting from some initial skepticism to a sense of curiosity. That’s an exciting first step that bodes well for future change.
To the question of challenges, we have a number. A lot of people feel like we’re not moving fast enough. Some feel we’re moving too fast. A challenge is finding that sweet spot, where we’re progressing in a way that we’re bringing people with us, as opposed to leaving people in the dust just to get an initiative done.
I think we’ve found a deliberate way to address those concerns by focusing on leadership. We’re following a strategic framework as opposed to just settling for tactical wins.
You’ve used the term “bias.” Please elaborate.
Let me share a story. At one training, I asked ‘How many of us are right-handed?’ The vast majority of those in the room raised their hands. Then I asked the question, ‘Do we live in a right-handed world or a left-handed world?’
The left-handers gave examples of living in a right-handed world. Baseball mitts, scissors, where you sit in a booth when you go out to eat, the placement of pictures or text on coffee mugs…and so on.
Then I asked a question of the right-handed people. I asked them if we right-handed people are out to rule. ‘Power to the right-handed people!’
‘Of course, we aren’t!’ they said. But what we do as right-handers is that we forget. We forget that left-handed people are having a different experience. And if a left-hander complains, how often do we say to them, ‘Hey, there’s not a problem, unless you make one.’
We forget that we have biases that get ingrained and become invisible.
The next morning after this training session, there was an email from an individual who attended. The email said, ‘When you hit that bias slide, I just thought this was more of that ‘woke’ nonsense. But when you shared the story, I became concerned that I’ve been treating people differently without even knowing it. I’m going to make a better effort to try and understand my team.’
I’ve had many more communications like that since, and that’s a powerful change we’re seeing. That’s how I know we’re making some impact.
What advice do you have for small organizations that don’t have the resources of a large organization?
I would tell them to start with a leadership audit. That doesn’t cost anything. It looks at two things. One, how are our decisions made, and two, who’s involved in your decision-making process? Then compare the results to the make-up of people you have in your company.
If you do this kind of audit, you can see where inclusivity is ingraining itself in your corporate culture and where it is missing.
For more information, visit https://cpm.utah.gov/diverse-workforce/edia/