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At Delta, equity has become a 'key lever' in its DEI strategy

Ashley Black, managing director of equity strategies at Delta Air Lines  on a blue background with dots
Experiential learning opportunities for employees and company leaders help to center DEI initiatives continuously, says Ashley Black, the managing director of equity strategies at Delta Air Lines. Photo courtesy of Ashley Black; Alyssa Powell/BI

This article is part of "Talent Insider," a series containing expert advice to help business owners tackle a variety of hiring challenges.

Ashley Black is the managing director of equity strategies at Delta Air Lines, which said it had more than 100,000 workers and more than 190 million customers in 2023. She's held various roles in her 23 years with the Atlanta carrier, 18 of which were in employee communications. Black spoke with Business Insider about the company's efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion. The following has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What works best when it comes to DEI?

At Delta, our mission is that no one better connects the world. We talk about the fact that we don't just connect people to places, but we connect people with people. To do that, there needs to be this level of understanding. That requires both an understanding strategy but also a learning strategy.

And so we've been investing in our people, both employees and leaders. We have employees who work and interface every day with customers — customers who may be like them or could be different than them.

We've created this tapestry, if you will, of learning — meeting people where they are in their journey and catering to a broad range of learning styles. This tapestry offers both in-person learning opportunities about differences and online sessions for all Delta people, regardless of their level of knowledge or expertise.

We partner with an organization called Nova Collective, a women-and-minority-owned DEI consulting firm that provides optional learning opportunities through instructor-led sessions and web-based training. These trainings build upon the foundational concepts that employees have previously learned at Delta.

We also are investing in racial equity workshops with the Groundwater Institute, which offers Delta leaders training and resources to apply equitable leadership practices effectively.

It's looking at data and analysis and inequities that exist, particularly with systems, and some of the history of how those systems came to be created. We have been taking our leaders through that, and it's helping them dig in and understand some of the causes and the roots of where we may have equity gaps within our policies or processes — this is an almost 100-year-old company — that we need to address. That has been extremely helpful.

On that same wavelength, we're doing work on the experiential side. We take buses down to Montgomery, Alabama, and we go to the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum and spend time going through that museum and also hearing from Bryan Stevenson and talking about the work he's been doing and some of the history there. In some cases, employees raised their hands and expressed an interest in going, and in other cases, we've had leaders who sponsor a bus.

These are all ways where people can learn and upskill and help navigate this journey more effectively. It's made a difference for people in getting more proximate — to both leaders as it relates to our employees, but also our employees to our customers — and understanding.

Another piece I'll mention is our business resource groups. We find those to be incredibly effective. Some companies call them employee resource groups. They started as employee resource groups focused on career mobility, upskilling, and networking.

But what we found was that those groups are really insightful and powerful and bring forth life experiences as well as perspectives that are important to our business, whether that's in how we navigate what products we offer our customers or even experiential design as it relates to our headquarters or airports and the way of making spaces more accessible for customers and employees.

We use them both in the capacity of being thought leaders but also bringing forth opportunities to grow their careers and connect. And we have a really engaged workforce. We have upwards of 36,000 employees who are involved in our business resource groups.

The bus trips are interesting. Who's going on these?

It's everybody. It might be a customer-experience specialist who works in our call centers, or it could be a leader or frontline employee from the airport. They opt in.

We also have leaders who have said that as a result of going through this Groundwater experience and learning about some of the history and the outcomes from the data in the analysis, they want to go to the Legacy Museum and experience that and do that with their teams. They come forward and say, "Hey, I want to take 36 people from my business unit down and let them experience that and spend some time together talking about the history and the learnings."

More than 1,000 of our people have made the trip.

Leaders are also saying: "How does that apply to the work we do? What are the inequities that exist in our business unit?" Whether it's related to policies, hiring processes, or recruitment. That's been really impactful as well.

You may have a lawyer from our legal team alongside one of our aviation maintenance technicians. When you talk about the lived experiences and the diverse makeup of our workforce, which is powerful and incredible, and they experience this together, while their experiences are different, there's something in uniting and relating and having that moment together that changes the way we work together.

What would you say to leaders of companies that are similar in size to Delta when it comes to making progress around DEI?

For years, Delta had a global office of diversity and inclusion. In 2020, we expanded our focus and really saw that equity was a key lever in the DEI strategy. Right now, you hear many of the buzzwords about DEI, but we have said equity is at the center of our strategy.

Equity is a constant pursuit. We haven't solved all the issues. We know that it's going to take time. With us being a highly regulated industry and also being a nearly 100-year-old company, there are things that we can take the time to look at. We started that work during COVID and have continued it.

When you have leaders who are working across the business, after participating in these workshops and learning sessions, they understand the inequities that exist, and then they go look at their business unit and the policies that are specific to their workforce. That's been a game changer for us because it's expanding the people doing this work.

We said this was an inside-out approach. We needed our employees to see what we were going to do and how we were going to be held accountable, and really believe in and buy into it and see that it was something that was going to happen. It wasn't just us talking about it externally and not doing the work inside.

Why did equity become the key lever in your DEI strategy?

If you look at what equity is, it's about access. It's about fairness. It's about opportunity for everyone. That's why equity is so important. We want people to see that it benefits everyone.

I'll give you an example. We started our skills-based talent journey pre-COVID, but we really ramped up in COVID as a result of our partnership with the OneTen coalition, which is focused on getting 1 million Black people in family-sustaining jobs.

Focusing on skills helps everyone at Delta in the way of hiring and recruitment. Because when you looked at that data at the time, it said that 70% of Black people in the US 25 and older do not have a four-year college degree. At that same time, 60% of white people 25 and older did not have a college degree. It's trying to help people see that, when you look at this, the barrier exists for millions of people. So how do we make it fair for everyone?

At Delta, we often talk about "inclusion for all," with our workforce representing a wide range of diversity, not only demographically but also in perspective, life experience, and learning styles.

We value college degrees. Some people get their skills that way. But other people get skills by working in the operation, by interacting with our customers. Really saying, there's not just one way to get those skills. How do you get the skills? What is your proficiency with those skills? I hope people can see themselves in that journey.

I worked leading employee communications for 18 years at Delta. I do not have a degree in DEI. A lot of people who do this work don't, but there are skills that can make you effective at it.

It's narrative work. And it's looking at things that may have historically been in place, whether they're narratives or even systems, where the data analysis shows the impact.

How do you tackle that? That's been a big piece for us.

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