MillerKnoll seeks ‘multiplier effect’ in DEI work

VP of diversity, equity and inclusion highlights company’s internal and external systemic work.
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Designed By, the design fest organized by the Diversity in Design Collaborative, encouraged youth to explore what it means to be a designer while learning about the many design disciplines and meeting Black creatives from Detroit and beyond. Courtesy MillerKnoll

MillerKnoll may be a new entity, but its diversity, equity and inclusion work started long ago.

Formed in 2021 from the merger of Herman Miller, established in 1905, and Knoll, founded in 1938, MillerKnoll is a design company that offers office, workspace and home furnishings for the modern world. 

Its portfolio includes brands such as Herman Miller, Knoll, Colebrook Bosson Saunders, DatesWeiser, DWR, Edelman Leather, Fully, Geiger, HAY, Holly Hunt, KnollTextiles, Maars Living Walls, Maharam, Muuto, naughtone and Spinneybeck | FilzFelt.

Cheryl Kern. Courtesy MillerKnoll

Cheryl Kern, the organization’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion since January 2021, recently spoke to the Business Journal about the combined company’s strategic vision and efforts in the DEI space — highlighting the work Herman Miller and Knoll pursued separately and their accomplishments after they came together.

Prior to her new position, Kern most recently was the corporate director, global diversity and inclusion at the aerospace and defense company Lockheed Martin and held DEI leadership roles at Johnson Controls and Amway/Alticor.

While she believes everyone — individuals as well as corporations — have a responsibility to play a role in making the world a more just and equitable place, Kern said large, multinational corporations of nearly 11,000 employees such as MillerKnoll have an opportunity to step up, in tandem with their smaller peers, and show leadership.

She said companies must decide where to invest their energy when it comes to the systems change work that will have the greatest impact, and they shouldn’t just take a one-and-done approach when a national tragedy occurs.

“It can be hot in the moment that something like George Floyd happens, but the farther you get away from some sort of incident that has happened somewhere globally, the more it can start to simmer back down,” she said. “If you’re not careful, you can end up in a reactive mode instead of (using the momentum) of unfortunate situations like that in a proactive way.”

Kern sits on the board of Chief Diversity Officer, which recently did its annual survey of chief diversity officers to identify their top concerns for the coming year.

“One of the top five things was making sure that the momentum that was underway post-George Floyd did not subside because people had either put money or resources to it and felt like they had done enough, when in fact, that money and those resources should have been there anyway, and it took something like that happening to get the attention of many corporations … to actually step up and do what they should have been doing.”

Kern said when DEI and systems change work are prioritized, individuals and communities are stronger, and a business’ bottom line, as well as the U.S. tax base, are positively impacted.

She said MillerKnoll’s greatest accomplishments in the space in the past year-plus have included increasing employee participation in the work of DEI and taking action to lead and promote change industrywide.

Internally, MillerKnoll has increased employee membership on its seven equity teams by about 25% since Kern started her new role. The equity teams are as follows:

  • Gender — Advocates for gender equity
  • ENABLED — Advocates for accessibility and inclusion so people of all abilities can realize their talents
  • LGBTQ+ — Advocates for LGBTQ+ employees and their allies in the workplace
  • Generations — Advocates for all generations to work together and learn from each other
  • Global — Advocates for an inclusive global community, creating awareness and respect of cultural differences
  • Racial — Advocates for racial equity
  • Veterans — Advocates for veterans in the workplace

“The number of advocates and champions and those that are really rallying around the work continues to increase,” Kern said. “Certainly, (the) DE&I (team) strategically leads this effort, and we have a phenomenal leadership team here from the top that’s all on board, but you put our two groups together and that’s probably a whopping 25 people, so we definitely need the synergy and the momentum that bubbles up from the entire organization for us to make the progress.”

The global equity team has focused on increasing the company’s respect, internally and externally, for global differences, not just culturally, but practically speaking, too. The team developed a two-pager in multiple languages that lists the various global time zones and spells out when are the optimal meeting times for individuals in each region, so employees don’t reach out and suggest a time that’s insensitive for their global counterparts.

“If you think about what’s behind that, it has a lot to do with how people feel about their work relationships — are they being respected for the time zone that they’re in, is somebody considering what matters to them? — those things all lead in some form or fashion toward higher or lower levels, potentially, of employee engagement and just stronger business relationships,” Kern said.

“That migration to global also focused our attention even more on the significance of ensuring that our offerings are in multiple languages to reflect all the global communities that we’re in. These are not issues that we did not know existed before, but (the global team) shines a brighter light on them, and they bring them forward in a way that shows up with a recommended solution.”

All the equity teams in the past year-plus were charged with coming up with specific recommendations they believed would make the company stronger, and MillerKnoll brought in a panel of reviewers to give them real-time feedback they could use to fine-tune their ideas.

Externally, MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen in 2020 signed the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Pledge, and the company then tapped four employees to join the newly formed CEO Action for Racial Equity Fellowship, which is working to advance policy change at the federal, state and local levels.

“We know that we can impact our own organization and we can impact our own workforce, and we can even extend our impact to our partners, like our suppliers and our dealers, but for us to really tackle some of the systemic issues that we know exist in the world, it’s really going to take us putting a stake in the ground and saying that we really are willing to lead the charge within our industry, and that we welcome the opportunity to partner with other organizations across multiple industries to be a part of the change that we want to see underway, and that same sort of multiplier effect can then be realized,” Kern said.

Another tangible step MillerKnoll took was to form the Diversity in Design (DID) Collaborative in 2021 — a group of industry partners committed to fostering systemic change by increasing diversity and improving conditions for Black creatives across the design industry. DID has 48 members, from independent design studios to large corporations, including Adobe, Dropbox, Wolff Olins, Gap Inc., Levi Strauss & Co., 3M Company, Airbnb, Ford Motor Company, Johnson & Johnson Design and VANS.

Last month, the DID collaborative hosted Designed By, a design fest at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, where youth spent the day exploring what it means to be a designer, learning about the many design disciplines, and meeting Black creatives from Detroit and beyond. Last fall, the group held a panel discussion with subject matter experts to begin a dialogue.

Kern said only about 4.5%-5% of designers are Black, and the group wants to bring that percentage closer to the levels of representation of the Black population in the U.S., as well as to raise awareness of (and eliminate) the hurdles Black designers face.

DID is focusing its efforts on empowering youth in underserved communities to pursue design as a career path, primarily by increasing opportunities for middle, high school and college students interested in design to gain experience and connections, whether through mentorship, internships or professional development.

Kern said while MillerKnoll convened the group, it is very much a democratic effort in which every member has an equal seat at the table.

“If you look across all of the DID members, there are almost 600,000 employees across all of our organizations, and we just want to make sure that every voice of all of those members is equally heard, respected and considered, as opposed to one voice being more dominant than others,” she said.

In addition to its above efforts, MillerKnoll has worked over the past year to fully integrate the efforts of the previously separate companies, Herman Miller and Knoll, so their DEI work could move forward harmoniously.

She said Herman Miller’s DEI “deep dive” work had been formalized longer than Knoll’s — the former began to accelerate its DEI work in the late 1990s, and the company in 2005 formed a dedicated team to manage plans and implement initiatives for the company, whereas Knoll’s formalized efforts began within the past few years. 

But the latter brought some grassroots efforts that, while less structured, were highly effective, specifically when it came to recruitment in underrepresented communities and internal employee involvement. Knoll had a podcast and an active, employee-managed diversity council.

When the merger announcement was made, Herman Miller invited Knoll employees to attend virtual, get-to-know-you coffee chats so the teams could begin forming relationships and figuring out how best to integrate their efforts.

“As leadership opportunities became available within our equity teams, we actively sought (Knoll) out, and now we have a fair (balance),” Kern said. “… I myself formed a working team that was made up of members of that former diversity council with members of my team, as well as others, to say what do we need to do to make sure that some of the programmatic elements and strategic initiatives that (Knoll was) working on can remain in the fold as we come together as one company, and which of those can we build on to be even stronger?”

Knoll employees also joined the committee that organizes an event series Herman Miller started, called LENS (Listening, Empowering Narratives and Speaking Up). It is a series of internal conversations to bring perspective and awareness of the business of DEI, racial inequities and an intersectional scope — addressing “-isms” and “phobias” for learning and growth in empathy. Employees from all over the world tune in virtually once a month to share in the open dialogue. 

Kern said MillerKnoll’s next big task is to bring more brand awareness around the company and its DEI work. 

She said with so much unexplored territory in the world of DEI, the company’s other big challenge is to determine where to focus its efforts.

“As a newly integrated company, you can just keep layering on levels of complexity, and so what are the most critically important areas that we should be focusing our attention on that will yield us the greatest ROI …  is another thing that we’re very mindful of.”

More information about MillerKnoll’s DEI actions is on its “Our Progress page on its website.

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