NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at electric cooperatives often begin with challenging conversations, but they ultimately make workplaces stronger, co-op leaders said Monday at PowerXchange.

“I’ll be honest with you, it was very uncomfortable conversations the first time we met,” said Michael McWaters, CEO of Suwannee Valley Electric Cooperative in Live Oak, Florida. “Employees would say, ‘why are we talking about this? It’s really not important.’”

The co-op created an employee committee to develop DEI guidelines, and attitudes are beginning to change, McWaters said. He said those changes must start at the top, with CEOs and other senior managers.

“There are a lot of simple things that you don’t think about,” he said during a breakout session on diversity in the electric industry. “Think about your dress code. It may be stopping you from hiring someone just because they have purple hair or tattoos. Does it really matter if someone has purple hair? Is it a hindrance for doing the job?”

Peter Muhoro, chief strategy, technology and innovation officer for Rappahannock Electric Cooperative in Fredericksburg, Virginia, said his co-op’s efforts to address DEI issues began with a conversation with board members, who were supportive. The co-op then hired a national consultant to work with the staff.

“It’s really about our values as a co-op: caring, integrity, service and respect,” said Muhoro, who is the first African-American to serve on the co-op’s management team.

He said people often think first of race or ethnicity when the issue of diversity comes up, when it is actually much broader and includes gender, age, religion, disability and diversity of thought.

“We had one man on our team who said, ‘you know what? I now understand how my daughter felt when she didn’t get that promotion,’” Muhoro said.

Like many co-ops, Rappahannock is having trouble filling job openings and looking for a more diverse pool of candidates can help, Muhoro said. For example, the co-op participates in career fairs at historically black colleges and universities.

“I want everybody to understand, we want to hire the best candidate,” he said. “And that can mean welcoming somebody who doesn’t fit the traditional mold.”

McWaters said managers need to learn to be flexible. Younger employees often want to be able to work from home, he said, so that needs to be an option if co-ops are trying to attract them.

DEI efforts must be serious and not just a “check the box” activity if they are going to succeed, McWaters said.

“Ultimately, this is beneficial to our businesses,” he said.

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