In 1999, Dan Amos, chair and CEO of Aflac, approached Human Resources leaders to build a culture of diversity that would permeate throughout the organization. Dan said, “I don’t want everybody sitting at the table to look like me.” That is, he didn’t want to be surrounded solely by white, male faces that wouldn’t accurately reflect the diverse communities Aflac serves.
In the age of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, promoting workplace diversity is hardly radical among business leaders. Saying this in 1999 was a different matter – and it turned out to be the genesis of Aflac’s award-winning diversity, inclusion and equity programs.
Here’s how that conversation from 1999 now takes form:
These statistics, while impressive, don’t tell the whole story: a tale of principles, philosophy and devotion at every level of the organization – starting at the top – to make Aflac reflect the world in which it lives.
Diverse recruitment at Aflac is a start, not a finish
The Human Resources team pulled in Brenda Mullins, then a manager of employee relations, to help bring Amos’ vision for diversity to life. Mullins researched and analyzed Aflac’s state of diversity starting in 1999, and landed upon what she calls the “five R’s” – recruitment, retention, reinforcement, recognition and relationships. “We wanted people outside of the company to understand what Aflac was doing and how Aflac is an inclusive organization,” says Mullins, Aflac’s vice president of human resources and chief people officer. “We were doing these things while we weren’t being recognized, so we intentionally applied for awards so that we were being recognized.”
Recognition indeed: Twelve appearances on the Black Enterprise list of 50 Best Companies for Diversity. Twenty-one years on Latina Style’s 50 Best Companies for Latinas to Work for in the U.S. Comparably’s Best Company for Women, Best Company for Diversity and Best CEOs for both women and diverse employees. (Mullins herself is a magnet for accolades, including a Black Enterprise 2019 Most Powerful Women in Corporate Diversity award and placement on Ebony’s Women at the Top list.)
But it’s the fifth R – relationships – where Aflac’s essence shines. In its most direct sense, this plays out in Aflac’s relationships with suppliers. When Aflac partners with diverse businesses, they’re able to help position those businesses as capable of working with major corporations. “A lot of them didn’t understand the importance of being certified as a minority- or woman-owned business,” Mullins says. Aflac partnered with small-business councils to offer on-site sessions to educate diverse suppliers on certification – ultimately enabling those suppliers to work with Aflac. In 2019, Aflac spent $24.5 million with diverse suppliers.
“It’s OK to have conversations about racial issues” at Aflac
Relationships form the core of Aflac’s equity efforts in other ways, too. Employees across the country at all levels of seniority can volunteer for a two-year stint on one of Aflac’s roughly 40 regional diversity councils. These councils report to the main corporate diversity council with ideas on how to keep diversity at the forefront. They also execute inclusivity missions set by Aflac’s diversity leadership board, composed entirely of Aflac leaders.
Don’t mistake “leadership” for “inaccessible,” though. “One of the important things that they have done [in 2020] in light of the social justice issues that have happened throughout our country is having candid, open, honest conversations,” Mullins says. “People bring their whole selves to work, so we as leaders need to understand that there could be something that’s impacted how they are doing on a particular day. It’s OK to have conversations about racial issues or how they are personally experiencing some of this, because it hurts.”
In the midst of the protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd in May of 2020, Aflac shared tips with leaders on fostering productive conversations. Tip #6: Ask open-ended questions to understand someone else’s viewpoint. Tip #8: If you have not experienced a similar situation, you probably should not say, “I know what you are feeling right now.” Use comments such as “I hear you and see how you are hurting.” It’s essentially advocacy for employees, supported by leaders at every level.
Setting the tone for diversity from the top
Aflac is known for paying customers’ claims instead of refuting them. This commitment to advocacy underscores the company’s diversity initiatives as well. It’s all a part of “The Aflac Way” – tenets based on the philosophy of the founders.
The Aflac way is part of what drew Dan Amos – the son of Aflac co-founder Paul Amos – to approach HR and Brenda Mullins about how to make sure the table wasn’t solely flanked by white men. When Amos asked what he could do to support her as she set out to pilot Aflac’s diversity programs, Mullins said it was crucial that other leaders knew that promoting workplace diversity came from him directly, thus setting the tone from the top.
“Dan sending that strong message was so powerful,” Mullins says. “Leaders bought it, they got it and they made it happen. So that’s how Aflac got to where it is today. It was intentional. It was strategic. And it worked.”
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