Communities of interest (sometimes referred to as affinity groups or employee resource groups) are exactly what you would think. They are groups of people who share a common interest, experience, or passion. The group is formed to share ideas and thoughts. Organizations have supported affinity groups for decades.
There was a recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek titled, “Deloitte Thinks Diversity Groups are Passé”. Regardless of your opinion about communities of interest, I think it’s worth reading. My takeaway is that, regardless of what you name the group, how the group is structured and supported is the key to its success.
One organization that understands this is Ultimate Software. They are a leading provider of cloud-based human capital management solutions, with more than 33 million people records in the cloud. The company is ranked #7 on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list and #2 on People’s 50 Companies That Care list. I had the opportunity to chat with Vivian Maza, chief people officer at Ultimate Software. Viv has been with Ultimate since 1990 and plays a significant role in fostering the company’s unique culture.
During this year’s HR Technology Conference, Viv will be speaking about finding, supporting, and developing the next generation of women leaders as part of the event’s Women in HR Technology pre-conference workshop.
Why did Ultimate Software create a “Women in Leadership Community”? How do employees learn that the community exists?
[Maza] We established our Women in Leadership (WIL) group in 2015 as Ultimate’s second official Community of Interest. These companywide social-networking groups promote inclusivity, equality, respect, and care for all individuals, and align with Ultimate’s ‘People First’ core philosophy. We now have four Communities of Interest, having just established our newest group, UltiHOPE, for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers. In addition to WIL and UltiHOPE, we have PrideUS for the LGBTQIA community and UltiVETS for veterans and active service members.
The mission of WIL is to help women at Ultimate, and in our communities, reach their maximum potential through mutual support, collaboration, and empowerment. About half of Ultimate’s employees are women and more than 40 percent hold leadership positions (manager or above), so it was clear a Community of Interest for our females—with opportunities for our male employees to participate, too—would greatly benefit all our people.
We actively promote WIL through several channels to ensure current and new employees always know about all the great ways to get involved. This includes channels such as companywide emails, an interactive space on our employee intranet, and community service outings sponsored by WIL. We also speak about WIL and all our Communities of Interest during our two-day New Hire Ultimization, where we fly all new employees to our headquarters in South Florida to learn about our company and our culture.
How is the leadership community structured (i.e. can anyone join the community, how do they sign up, what happens in the community, etc.)?
[Maza] Membership is open to any Ultimate employee, and everyone is encouraged to participate. There’s no formal signup process—employees can join at any time simply by attending a WIL event. There are several events hosted each month at our various office locations—including South Florida, California, Georgia (Atlanta and Alpharetta), and Toronto—and we also have regional programs tailored specifically to our virtual women (there are currently more than 950 virtual WIL members). These events include everything from guest speakers, lunch and learns, book clubs, wellness retreats, and group exercise classes to arts and crafts outings, film screenings, networking events, workshops for building professional skills, volunteering at nonprofits, and organizing charity drives.
We also have an executive committee consisting of myself and several executives from across Ultimate, and employees who are interested in holding leadership positions within WIL have the opportunity to join one of our subcommittees representing each location, including virtual members. Subcommittee members are nominated by their peers, and then our executive committee gives final approval. These members oversee the planning and execution of local WIL events, provide ongoing communications to fellow members and Ultimate employees, and help keep WIL running smoothly throughout the year.
Does the company have any goals or outcomes that they are trying to measure with Women In Leadership?
[Maza] WIL is an ongoing, ever-evolving effort to empower women everywhere and to support their success in their professional careers and personal lives. So, in many ways, our work is never really ‘done’. Just as Ultimate will always put people first and continue to care for our employees in every way possible, we will continue to support women through WIL. We’ll continue to work hard every day to do more for women—in tech, business, and life.
This past year, we introduced the theme ‘Aspire to Inspire’, with an underlying goal to do just that throughout WIL and Ultimate, and beyond our walls. One amazing example of this is the introduction of Ultimate’s new Athena Scholarship, sponsored by WIL. We will now be offering two annual college scholarships of up to $20,000 each to graduating daughters of Ultimate employees, as well as rising seniors who will be graduating high school next year. The scholarships will be awarded to young women who either pursue studies in tech (such as computer science, engineering, programming, user experience and test programming, and user experience design) or demonstrate superior leadership skills in their school and/or community, with the potential to become a woman leader. We are thrilled for this opportunity to make such a meaningful impact on young women as they build successful futures.
Since the Women In Leadership community started, has there been anything that surprised you (an outcome that you didn’t expect)?
[Maza] The level of dedication, care, respect, and support for one another demonstrated throughout WIL, and throughout Ultimate, continues to warm my heart every day. We truly have the best people at Ultimate, and their level of commitment to people—their colleagues and their communities—knows no bounds. They’re always joining together for the greater good of others, and even when we think we’ve seen the most amazing examples of compassion and support from our employees, they continue to amaze us.
I’m proud of what WIL has become, from our humble beginnings to the growing levels of involvement we see today, with hundreds of women (and even men) throughout our company participating in WIL. We’re seeing more and more people empowered every day through our program, being promoted into leadership positions within Ultimate, and making significant differences in the lives of so many.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to an organization considering a “Women in Leadership” Community?
[Maza] Stay committed. Stay committed to your people, work hard to protect the group and preserve your company’s culture, and continue to believe in the group’s collective power. If you really believe in it, your employees will believe in it.
You, as a company, very much set the tone—when your people know you care about the group’s success and you provide your people with the tools and resources to drive that success, they’ll care about the group and take it to levels you never thought possible. WIL has grown so much in just a short time, and it’s all because of the dedication and passion of our employees.
Ultimate set the foundation and we provide our support along the way, but it’s our people who’ve really taken complete ownership of this group and have worked together to shape WIL into so much more than we could have ever done or envisioned by ourselves.
A HUGE thanks to Viv for sharing her experience with us. If you want to learn more, be sure to register for the Women in HR Technology pre-conference workshop. It was incredibly popular last year, so seats will go fast!
And if you’re not already registered for the HR Technology Conference, it’s not too late. The event is October 10-13 at The Venetian in Las Vegas. HR Bartender readers receive a $350 savings on registration using the code HRBAR17. If you’re not able to attend, be sure to follow the conference happenings on Twitter. The event hashtag is #HRTechConf.
Organizations that are serious about supporting and promoting inclusion need to create opportunities for employees to share and learn about each other. Communities of Interest are a way to do that.18