WASHINGTON, DC — Becoming a more equitable employer has never been more important as systemic inequality has become more apparent and the job market more competitive. As baking companies look inwardly at their own work cultures and hiring, the American Bakers Association offered a conversation around best practices at its NextGenBaker virtual leadership forum, held Sept. 14 and 16.

Leaders from Bimbo Bakeries USA (BBU), Horsham, Pa.; BAMA Companies, Tulsa, Okla., and Dawn Foods, Jackson, Mich., spoke about the work their companies are doing to improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in their companies and the lessons they’ve learned.

Moderated by Kelly Mariotti, NextGenBaker co-chair and director of people, programs and processes for Toronto-based Weston Foods, the panel explained how effective DEI programs have some things in common.

For starters, the panel noted, buy-in from the top of an organization is critical. When DEI initiatives have support from senior leadership, including the c-suite, it is more possible for a company to integrate it into every aspect of the business.

“Integrating DEI into your business structure and processes is imperative,” said Isaac Rocha, director, West Zone, McDonald’s and chief inclusion officer at BAMA Companies. “At BAMA, that looks like is it part of the system view or is it something that exists outside of the system with one HR person and can’t be integrated into the system.”

He said DEI can show up in talent acquisition and formal policies that support employees’ sense of belonging. Paternal leave, tuition reimbursement and second-chance hiring are some of the formal programs Bama Companies put in place to facilitate equity and inclusion.

DEI programs can go beyond employee support, however, into procurement with baking companies looking to diversify their suppliers.

“We have goals that have been established for supplier diversity for us,” said Nikki Lang-Perkins, head of diversity, equity and belonging at BBU. “We’re very early in our journey for supplier diversity within the year, so measuring our investment as well as how we are empowering suppliers to be a part of our network has been one of our strongest measures to date.”

BBU identifies collaborative partners throughout its organization to work on its goals and missions. These can be associates working across departments.

“Our intent is to bring small working groups together to review opportunities, so diversity, inclusion and belonging is represented across every function, and every associate has the opportunity to engage with it as well,” Ms. Lang-Perkins explained. “It isn’t something on the shelf that only a few people work on. Every leader and every associate has a piece of the journey.”

Ms. Lang-Perkins spoke to another critical part of any DEI initiative: measuring progress. Baking companies interested in becoming more diverse, equitable and inclusive would benefit from first doing a self-evaluation to find gaps and opportunities for growth and then establishing goals for talent acquisition and development, supplier diversification, policies and employee education. Every panelist noted that their company’s DEI journey started with such an evaluation.

“The diversity, equity and belonging conversation has to be incredibly intentional followed closely by measurable within your organization,” she said. “There’s no gray area really. You’re either in or out.”

BBU tracks its progress in representation through its diversity dashboard, which provides real-time data about promotions, talent acquisitions and the diversity of senior and executive leadership. Ms. Lang-Perkins said the data  is powerful alone, but the dashboard is also a transparency tool for BBU’s employees to see how the company is doing in terms of its goals.

“Sometimes it’s not always about hitting the goals we establish for ourselves, which should be and can be very aggressive, but it is also the transparency of recognizing where you are with that,” she said.

This transparency speaks to another key cornerstone of any effective DEI initiative: the internal commitments the company makes to its team members. External DEI commitments and pledges can provide a lot of positivity for a company in terms of customers and consumers, but Felisa Stockwell, senior director, global people and culture of Dawn Foods, warned cautioned against losing sight of doing the internal work with employees as well.

“I think a big miss and a potential huge impact on engagement is organizations making these DEI commitments and pledges externally to support causes but not putting in the work to drive that same growth and sense of community and support for the team,” she said. “It can be quite detrimental.”

Unless a company is doing its own DEI work internally, external commitments and pledges can fall flat and feel inauthentic to team members, Ms. Stockwell said. Communicating the vision, goals, practices, policies and progress around DEI is critical to gaining employee trust and buy-in.

“Team members want to know how this will affect them on a daily basis, and it’s important to establish that baseline,” Mr. Rocha said.

But maybe even more important than communicating is active listening, which can allow a company to understand employee expectations. For Dawn Foods, giving employees a voice in the DEI conversation not only helped validate the organization’s plans, but also provided some insights into what employees wanted to prioritize.

“It’s truly amazing what we learn when we empower our team members to speak their minds,” Ms. Stockwell said. “It helped shape some of the work we’ve done in the past year, and it was validating to know we were on the right track and that this was valuable and meaningful and our team members would be engaged.”

Listening is also so important to DEI work because, as Mr. Rocha pointed out, these conversations can be difficult.

“This work requires a lot of empathy, compassion and understanding and having the humility to meet people where they are because these are crucial and hard conversations sometimes,” he said.

Ms. Lang-Perkins encouraged bakers to remember that DEI is a journey without an end, and it’s important to keep an eye on where their companies are and where they are going.

“If another company has been on a 30-year journey, it’s important to know where you are in your journey, keep that in mind and measure your progress,” she said.

ABA’s NextGenBaker DEI Working Group is chaired by Ms. Mariotti and is comprised of the following members:

Ms. Lang; Patricia Richards, vice president, organizational development and recruitment, Hearthside Foods, Downers Grove, Ill., and chair of the ABA HR Professionals Group; Mr. Rocha; Ms. Stockwell; Tonja Taylor, chief human resources officer, Flowers Foods, Thomasville, Ga.; Chris Wallace, site leader, The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. ABA Staff Liaisons are Christina Donnelly, director of industry relations, and Jennifer Colfelt, vice president of operations and membership.