NCUA diversity summit gets personal

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ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Credit unions should pat themselves on the back for their efforts to advance diversity within the industry, but they can – and must – continue to do better.

That was a key takeaway during the National Credit Union Administration’s first ever summit addressing diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We should take pride in this industry’s achievements at elevating the commitment to diversity and inclusion,” NCUA Chairman Rodney Hood said during the keynote address on Wednesday in Washington, D.C. “But there is still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done.”

The summit is part of NCUA’s broader efforts to encourage more discussions around diversity and inclusion within the industry. The regulator has plans to make the event annual. Hood also announced during the event that NCUA is launching a culture council to focus on issues of inclusion within the agency. In the past year, some in the industry have also discussed whether a commitment to diversity and equality needs to be a part of the movement’s DNA.

In some ways, the industry is doing better than banks in terms of getting diverse CEOs. For instance, 52% of credit union CEOs are women compared with just 5% for commercial banks, Samira Salem, senior policy analyst at the Credit Union National Association, said during a presentation about data collection during the event. But that number falls to just 14% for credit unions with over $1 billion in assets.

Larry Sewell, vice chairman of the African-American Credit Union Coalition, noted that just 165 credit union CEOs are African Americans and that drops to just six for institutions with over $1 billion in assets.

Given this room to improve, much of the event focused on providing attendees with takeaways and best practices they could implement back at their own institutions to recruit a more diverse workforce and membership base in terms of gender, age, religion, disability, ethnicity and other factors.

For instance, Laramie Plains Federal Credit Union in Laramie, Wyo., has revised its dress code policy over the last few years to make it gender neutral and allow employees to have tattoos and piercings visible, President and CEO Tyler Valentine said during a panel discussion on recruiting and retaining diverse talent.

Revamping dress codes to be more lenient is one way to attract younger employees. Valentine took over the $53 million-asset institution in 2008 when he was just 25 years old.

“That is just culturally the norm now,” Valentine said.

Seattle Credit Union uses panels to interview potential hires to ensure workers are a good fit and prevent any one person from making hiring decisions. This was particularly revealing recently when the $843 million-asset institution was hiring for a small business lender, said Tonita Webb, chief operations officer.

The hiring panel for that position ended up being all persons of color simply because of availability, and Webb said some of the candidates’ reactions were shocking. Two candidates wouldn’t even look at one African American man when he asked questions during the interview.

“I couldn’t believe in 2019 this was happening,” Webb said. “It was so uncomfortable and if the panel had not been like that, would we have found that out? The possibility of sending that person out to underserved communities makes my heart skip a beat.”

Getting personal

NCUA representatives also touted the importance of increasing participation in the agency’s voluntary diversity self-assessment for credit unions. The assessment is available year around but the deadline is Jan. 15 to get responses included for 2019, according to a press release on Thursday.

The assessment was initially launched in October 2016 but has been plagued by a low response rate since then. Just 81 out of more than 5,000 institutions completed it last year.

But some attendees pushed back against participating in the self-assessment. Laramie Plains FCU’s Valentine said some credit unions might be reluctant to complete the survey because they are concerned NCUA may take the data to create standards regarding diversity. Any set standards could be hard for some credit unions, such as Laramie Plains, to meet since they are located in communities that generally lack diversity, he said. For instance, Wyoming is more than 83% white, according to Census Bureau data.

“The reason you may have a low response rate could be fear,” Valentine suggested from the audience during a panel on data collection. “Fear of what you are doing with the information.”

There could be a sense of “‘I’m not going to tell the regulator that because they are going to penalize me or require me to do more.’ There’s a trepidation to that,” Valentine added.

NCUA said that it uses the data to study diversity trends within the industry.

At other times the discussion became personal. Hood noted during his speech he was proud to be the first African American to lead a federal financial regulatory agency but acknowledged getting there wasn’t always easy. He has run into issues where he was the only man of color in a room and people have been surprised when he has shown up to participate in panel discussions.

“And many of us have been on the other side of that as well – say, working for a manager who expects less of you because of your skin color, your ethnic background or your gender,” Hood said during his prepared remarks. “That doesn’t necessarily stem from a sense of hostility or trying to undermine you. In many cases, they may even think they’re trying to help you. But they don’t realize they would be helping you more by challenging you to work up to your potential and to achieve more.”

NCUA Board Member Todd Harper acknowledged that when he started his career 30 years ago, he felt like he had to hide who he was as a gay man.

“After all, people lost their jobs simply for being gay,” he said during the event’s closing remarks.

Harper said during his speech he eventually became more comfortable and eventually “came out on my own terms and made friends who accepted me for who I am. I even met and fell in love with my partner of 27 years.”

Mark McWatters, NCUA board member and former chairman, kicked off the event by acknowledging that he has enjoyed a certain privilege throughout his career as a straight white Christian male. He noted that about two years ago he completed a genetic testing kit that showed he was 99.6% Northern Western European. He noted that women, minorities and others who belong to marginalized groups have to spend their time worrying about discrimination, something he never had to do.

“We all work hard. We are all the same. But once you leave that domain of just hard work and doing your job, things change,” McWatters said. “You had more of a burden. The extra time you worry about gender discrimination… I didn’t experience that. I was able to spend that time working on my job or with my family. I was relieved of that because of the way I look and the way I am.”

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Diversity and equality Financial inclusion Recruiting Workforce management Employee engagement Employee turnover Employee retention NCUA