A Smile Opens The Door To Diversity Dialog


There were smiles around the room when entertainer and activist Peppermint performed at the Societe Generale Americas New York office in June. It was a fun celebration of Pride month, but it was also an illustration of the bank's efforts to build on an environment where people can be comfortable and authentic in who they are.

It's safe to say no bank would have considered bringing in a drag performer 10 years ago to celebrate Pride month. Societe Generale Americas is an example of just how far the financial services industry and the bank itself has come in addressing what true diversity in the workplace looks like.

In hiring Damian Smith as Chief Diversity and Officer almost two years ago, Societe Generale Americas has made strides, with the full support of management, toward transforming its culture into a place where every employee feels included and respected, and yes, celebrated for who they are.

"We've been making sure we have more open and honest conversations around diversity," Smith said. "We're talking about unconscious bias, how people can be more inclusive, the impact of leadership style, and how we can encourage discussions on topics that make people feel like they belong."

Many of those conversations are happening through the bank’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which now number eight: Americas Women Network, Asian Professional Network, Black Leadership Network, Pride & Allies, RE:Generation for junior staff, Veterans Network, VAMOS for Hispanic and Latino professionals, and DiverseAbilities for employees and families with disability challenges.

The groups work to foster dialog among themselves and senior managers and staffers, plus find ways to make the bank a better place to work and serve clients. ERGs are also designed to create innovative ways to build understanding and opportunities among peers.

One example is reverse mentoring, an educational program where a junior staffer meets with and shares knowledge and insights with a senior manager. As Smith puts it, "turning mentoring on its head." Last year, Societe Generale Americas piloted a program to have LGBT employees mentoring senior managers on gender identification issues and dialog. The idea is straightforward - help managers understand a language that is more inclusive, avoid common pitfalls, and talk openly about challenges the LGBT community faces at work. Through the program, Societe Generale managers are not only improving relationships within the bank, but they are also finding clients are interested in learning more as well. The bank is now looking to expand that mentoring program.

"This is an understanding where someone who is more junior has something to teach someone who is more senior," Smith said. "For the LGBT employee, you are talking about your own experience and the challenges you are facing at work, answering questions about the LGBT community or gender identity. And that requires the senior person to be really open and able to accept things they may not have known or understand and have the courage to step into that relationship."

This is one of the virtuous waves of diversity within an organization. It not only strengthens the structure and understanding within the institution, but also provides the ability to speak to any number of clients about those issues in a meaningful way. And without a doubt, diversity issues are becoming more important to a variety of clients who want to know more about the bank they are doing business with.

"At Societe Generale, our goal is to create an inclusive work environment in which everyone has an equal opportunity to reach their full potential and where our unique differences are leveraged to make us a higher performing organization," said Slawomir Krupa, CEO of Societe Generale Americas. "This is essential for our employees, for our business and for our clients because we know that when we honor the unique differences of our employees, and have a culture where we are willing to have difficult conversations about our identities and experiences, we will have employees who are more engaged, more productive and more authentic."

Indeed, this holistic approach to diversity is gaining momentum in various ways at the bank and beyond. The Pride and Allies ERG is the first to combine similar ERGs around the globe into one global network, with one common name and visual identity. The group is set to also open a chapter in Paris for the first time. Together, this global network will focus on LGBT themes and issues that impact our global employee base. Societe Generale has taken steps to identify LGBT leaders to lead efforts globally in the Americas, Europe and Asia and to hold a global summit aimed at identifying issues, needs and creating understanding that crosses continents. It's another big step, with senior level support, for Societe Generale's LGBT community.

The next step as Smith sees it, is to broaden the engagement among allies, those employees and managers who are really interested in expanding diversity efforts in the workplace. For example, the America Women's Network, the oldest of Societe Generale Americas ERGs, is putting a program together to speak with men about gender issues. But it is not just about finding support, it’s also about getting more people actively involved. There is a push to get more senior managers to mentor junior staffers as well across business lines.

"That's the overarching goal, for members of these groups to bring in those who are not necessarily part of a particular group and let them know they have an active role to play," Smith said. "If we create an environment that is inclusive, an environment that shows support from management across the board, people will be able to bring their whole self to work."