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A DEI roadmap for smaller financial institutions


The banking industry has long known it must become more diverse. But that is no longer enough: The sector is also now working to become more equitable and inclusive when it comes to race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors.

“For us, DEI is important,” says Christine Cordell, senior vice president of organizational effectiveness at Hiway Federal Credit Union in St. Paul, Minn. “It allows people to broaden their thought process and understanding. It makes them more agile and effective, both as a company and as individual departments and teams.”

Some banks are seeing improvements by recruiting diverse talent, establishing employee resource groups and linking diversity and inclusion results to performance. Yet, there is more work to do, and recent events have only increased the pressure.

“Over the last several months, companies have been forced to reexamine their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and how it makes sense not just in a business sense, but as a moral imperative,” says Michele Lanza, founder of Work Wider, a free online career and recruitment ecosystem created specifically to support underrepresented communities. “Both current and future employees have also begun to look closely at a company’s commitment to DEI when considering if they want to stay or join a company.”

Many larger banks have the resources to hire consultants, tap experts and increase staff to achieve their goals. But, “sometimes as a small company, you operate very lean,” says AnNette Hines, director of cultural advancement at Customers Bank in suburban Philadelphia.

For small players, achieving DEI success “can be overwhelming and daunting,” Cordell said. “Sometimes, people don’t know where to start.”

Here’s a blueprint to get started:

  • Get buy-in from the top. Simply put, bosses have to understand and support the importance of implementing DEI initiatives—and following through on promises. “Start at the top, with the board,” says Mark Kluger, founding partner at the management-side employment law firm, Kluger Healey. “That is universal.” Cordell agrees, saying “having that executive buy-in, not just through e-mail and words, but through action, is where we’ve been able to gain the most ground.”
  • Tap existing resources. Don’t feel that you have to go it alone, Hines urges. “Anything you can do to tap into the talent, the passion, and the energy that already exists within your team member base is really going to help you gain traction and momentum at a faster rate.”
  • Rethink recruiting. Examine your pipeline for finding new employees. What is your current recruiting strategy? How often do you hire based on referrals? “Referral hiring, especially in a small-business environment, is often problematic to diversity initiatives because, if you already have a homogenous workforce, you will likely gain referrals that maintain the same make-up,” says Ivelices Linares Thomas, chief executive officer of HR & Beyond, a human resources advisory firm. “Instead, you can be intentional about diversifying your pool by tapping into diverse networks.”

Cordell says Hiway has altered wording in some of its job postings and job descriptions to appeal to a broader range of applicants. It is also thoughtful about how and where it posts openings. “You have to be strategic with where you post your jobs, and you have to post there on a consistent basis,” she says, adding that smaller community pockets, such as churches, schools and other organizations, may be worth exploring to find candidates.

  • Be authentic. Once you bring people on board, stay committed to helping them grow. Don’t promote for show, Kluger advises. “Don’t promote unqualified people who are destined to fail. … Do it in a way where you promote people based on merit, but you put them in a position to succeed, not just because they look the part.”
  • Have fun. Make this more than development webinars and required training. Hiway occasionally brings in food trucks to allow employees to sample different eats, and it honors and recognizes different holidays. “We do want to make sure that it is fun,” Cordell says.
  • Keep going. Understand that this process requires long-term commitment. “This, unfortunately, is one of those areas that can easily fall by the wayside,” Hines says. “It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon while it’s in motion and the music is playing. But you have to be willing to stay the course.”

Finally, give yourself—and your organization—grace during the ongoing process. “It does take time,” Cordell says. “Know that every little step counts and matters.”

Dawn Wotapka is a BAI contributing writer.

For more tools and insights, visit the BAI Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Resource Center.