Founders seeks wider approach to DEI


(Watch this story Monday morning on WZZM 13 TV) 2019 was a tumultuous year for Founders Brewing Co., but its leaders and diversity partners said they are committed to moving forward with a companywide approach to diversity, equity and inclusion.

Even though Founders reached a settlement with former employee Tracy Evans in November, the fallout over the litigation cost the brewery its former diversity, equity and inclusion director, Graci Harkema.

Harkema later took to social media to voice her displeasure with Founders’ leadership over how it purportedly mishandled the case and ignored her advice.

Trudging on from a damaged public image, Founders hired Detroit consultant Buzz Thomas as its new diversity, equity and inclusion director.

Thomas is a former Detroit representative of the Michigan Legislature and former minority leader of the Michigan House of Representatives. He has spent the past nine years running Thomas Group Consulting, which he said specializes in community engagement for business organizations.

“Founders was a leader in appointing a person to DEI, but one person is not enough,” Thomas said. “Diversity needs to be greater than one person. For Founders to be a success, it needed to grow a process.”

When Thomas took over in November, he began to look for consultants from around the country that could help Founders build said process. Coincidentally, he found a company in Founders’ home of Grand Rapids.

Thomas and Founders partnered with Global Bridgebuilders to plan a process for an “employee-driven, bottom-up approach to diversity,” he said.

“We’ve been working very diligently since December to communicate with our employees, directly survey them and find out what are the strengths and weaknesses of the business,” Thomas said.

GBB was founded in 2006 and works with local and regional governments, NGOs, small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. The firm utilizes a “continuous improvement” approach to diversity and believes diversity is a business discipline, according to its website.

Skot Welch, principal at GBB, said his firm started with an inclusion systems assessment, or a companywide survey to determine what employees’ desires are for the company’s DEI efforts.

“We saw what we see in almost every organization, a better need for communication and alignment among the departments,” Welch said. “When an organization has grown at the rate Founders has, those are the challenges they face.”

Founders now is running a more qualitative read through a series of employee focus groups. The next one is scheduled for Feb. 11 in Detroit.

“It’s been systemwide, even having the national sales reps and C-suite leaders involved,” Welch said.

Based on the combined results of the assessment and the focus groups, GBB will develop new training and coaching for employees and, lastly, develop a diversity advisory council.

Welch said GBB will put out another assessment in December 2020 to analyze how far Founders has come as a result of the training.

“This is going to be a long process for us and one that we’re invested in to ensure we get it right,” Thomas said.

Founders co-founder and co-owner Dave Engbers expressed optimism toward the new approach.

“We’re in a really good spot,” Engbers said. “The big takeaway right now is, as a brewery, everything we do is very process-oriented, so having a process in place for DEI is key.”

When asked about Harkema’s accusations of indifference to her advice, Engbers argued she didn’t have all the facts as they pertained to the lawsuit.

“There were a lot of people that, when we were dealing with the lawsuit, didn’t have access to all of the information,” Engbers said. “I felt bad she didn’t feel like she was being listened to, but there were a lot of things she was not privy to.”

Harkema, who stepped down from Founders after the transcript from the deposition broke, said Founders still is missing the point with its new process. While she said she was pleased the company is moving forward with its DEI efforts, to include assessments and focus groups, none of that matters if the people at the top won’t claim responsibility for racial discrimination within the company.

“The leadership never took responsibility for the racial discrimination and inequities taking place,” Harkema said. “In order for them to have a more equitable work environment, they’re trying to put a plan in place without doing that, and they never once have apologized.”

The lawsuit against Founders was filed in August 2018 by Evans. Evans, who is Black, alleged co-workers used the N-word around him and labeled segregated office printers. Evans also alleged Founders fired him in retaliation for his complaints to human resources.

Harkema added the employee Evans accused of saying the N-word in front of him only received a written warning and still is employed in a management position at Founders.

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