“DEI is a journey,” says the V.P. of Human Resources and Development on a path forward for the College.

By Anna RayaOtis Interview

Karen D. Hill has made diversity, equity, and inclusion a mainstay of her 20-plus-year career in human resources, long before it became more normalized by its acronym, DEI, and a strategy increasingly adopted by companies in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the more recent protests against police brutality and social injustice. For her, DEI has been part of her lived experience, and the legacy she will leave to others and her family. Hill’s work has spanned entertainment, the arts, and higher education at such organizations as Sony Pictures, USC, DeviantArt, American Express, Transamerica, and now Otis College, where, as Vice-President of Human Resources and Development, she was instrumental in getting a commitment to DEI to the top of Otis’s 2020 Strategic Plan. She also leads a cohort of staff, faculty, students, and alumni as the Chair of Otis’s newly-established DEI Council, and spearheads the COVID-19 Task Force that has managed the College’s immediate response to the pandemic. Here Hill discusses her work, the search for a DEI executive, and what motivates her to stay focused on the significant work she and her Human Resources team undertake every day.

Karen D. Hill, V.P. of Human Resources and Development,

What is it about the field of human resources that appeals to you?

Most people, and I am no exception to that, don’t necessarily pick a career as a kindergartner and then follow through on that. I originally thought I was going to be a teacher. I was a dual major as an undergrad in human resources and information technology, which couldn’t be more divergent. I have always been intrigued with the systems that support an organization’s success, as well as its people. There’s a saying you’ve heard before, that people actually make the difference. I wanted to be an HR practitioner because nothing happens in an organization without the people. And there are lots of things about practicing human resources that are educational in nature and actually go back to what I wanted to do as a five-year-old. There are so many ways in which education can occur—in a random meeting in a hallway, in a formalized program, by giving someone resources that they can refer to, by encouraging them to stretch beyond where they thought they could stretch.

What are some of the things you enjoy most about working at Otis?

I really enjoy the creativity and that no day is ever the same. This is a fascinating environment. I enjoy working with my team, faculty, staff, my peers on the Senior Team, and working with the Board of Trustees, which has been so supportive of our strategic goals as well as our commitment towards building and sustaining a culture to support us in the next 100 years. Looking at the work that our students create from the time they start at Otis to the time that they graduate is just so inspiring, because I believe that art tells the story of our culture. And Otis is representative of so many cultures. 

What are the linkages of diversity, equity, and inclusion to human resources, and why have these efforts always been important in the workplace? Has there been a shift that informs why they’re important now?

I would agree wholeheartedly that there has been a recent shift that I think has to do with the fact that we are in the middle of a pandemic. Our world has become a little smaller, and the result of that is that we, in turn, have become slightly quieter. The quiet moments have given us a heightened sense of awareness and connectivity to what is happening in the world around us. That does not mean that what we are experiencing is new. It’s just that now this all looks incredibly shocking because of the confluence of all of these situations all at once. Diversity is not new. Discrimination is not new. The call to action for everyone to make this a better place—wherever the “this” is—is not new. Diversity, equity, and inclusion work has been, A), a part of my lived experienced, B), a part of my professional life, and, C), a part of the legacy that I leave to others and that I leave to my family in terms of the importance of everyone having an equal voice.

From your experience, what was it like when you were first trying to formalize the DEI efforts at places where you've worked?

One of the things that I’ve always ascribed to is how the word “fear” is an acronym that stands for False Expectations Appearing Real. I try to put that into my lived practice. When I have encountered either direct or subtle racism in my career, I remember that acronym. I remember that this is a place of employment, and sticking to what I believe is equitable is part of my value system as a person. An employer can’t really take that away from me, no matter what they put in front of me. I’ve had people say to me at prior workplaces, “Karen, we don’t need a diversity program, you are here.” When people make comments like that to you, it is in fact a teachable moment, as long as you remember what fear stands for. So I take those teachable moments and say to people, “Yeah, so when I look at the statistics for the organization, and I look at managerial individuals, I’m the only one. And your customer base, or people that you’re trying to attract to your organization or institution, look very different than that one statistic. I think we might need to make some changes, would you agree?” It’s a matter of negotiating what the change looks like, taking advantage of those teachable moments, and remembering what F.E.A.R. stands for.

When you started at Otis in December 2017, you started work on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council right away. Can you tell us more about the DEI Council and what the overall strategy is for Otis? What are some of the DEI Council's short- and long-term goals, and what do you think are some of its challenges?

When I interviewed for my position at Otis, one of the things that I was asked about was my experience in this area. That gave me a clue that this might be something that is important to Otis, even though it was not in the specifications for the role I was interviewing for. Yet when I joined Otis, DEI was not part of the strategic plan or part of the strategy for human resources. There had been a diversity taskforce, and there had been a diversity audit done, I think, in 2008. The audit and the taskforce didn’t have any roots by the time I arrived, so we talked about what was the best way to initiate a different path for this area. The Faculty Learning Committee actually put forth a DEI statement that really kicked all of this off. I want to pay respect and homage to that group, which was led by Debra Ballard, who came to my office and said, “Karen, we really need to do this and we need an executive sponsor.” And I said, “Why me?” And she said, “Because of the experience that you’ve had at other organizations and because you are not a linear thinker. And this requires a non-linear thinker that isn’t afraid to push boundaries.” And so I said, “I’m in.” I started attending the Faculty Learning Committee’s meetings, and we started talking about the best way to reintroduce this to the College. The result of that journey is that the Strategic Plan, the one we are under now, includes diversity, equity, and inclusion as the first strategy listed. That’s very exciting because it didn’t exist before.

The DEI Council was established at the end of 2019 and includes faculty, alumni, and staff. Our first meeting was in March 2020, right before the pandemic. The way I look at it is that it’s a house. At the top of a house you have a mission, values, a strategic plan. And then you have a layer in the house that is the DEI statement and strategy, which right now is under development. The pillars that hold up the house are comprised of our student, staff, and faculty experience, the workplace itself, our external community, how we relate to them, and then vendor relationships, because economic empowerment is a part of diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. All of those things are supported by a foundation, which is the supporting infrastructure and includes things like shared governance, the communication strategy, the programs and initiatives that you implement to support the DEI strategy, metrics in terms of how you evaluate your success. All of those things build a house, if you will. It’s a multi-year plan that you’re talking about, because DEI is a journey. It’s not something that you flip a switch and all of a sudden everything is better. That’s unrealistic to even expect that. A 100 plus-year-old institution of our caliber is going to have a comprehensive and verifiable set of DEI results that last for the next 100-plus years.

Otis is hiring a diversity, equity, and inclusion executive, who you are involved in the process of recruiting. There have been some articles about how DEI executives at some organizations have not been that empowered to really enact lasting change. Of course, there also are instances when the opposite has been true. How will the DEI executive at Otis fit into the College’s current plans to enact lasting and impactful change in this area?

I think the most important thing to reference at the beginning of my answer is that diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a program, and it’s not an initiative. It is a strategy that speaks to the longevity of any organization, and Otis is no exception to that. When you think about the role of this type of DEI function, there are a couple of things that come to mind. This individual has to build a foundation for the strategy. Collaboration is important. Sharing information is a key skill. Being an advocate and an ambassador for this work is also a part of how this is important. Being a change agent and not being adverse to resistance are other skill sets that will be necessary in order for this strategy to be successful. Most of the negative articles about these DEI roles tend to focus on a narrow definition that this work is programmatic or initiative-based, and not strategically laid. And so while informative and important as a reference point sometimes of things not to do, those articles don’t speak enough to the strategy and the actual linkage to results that are important to an organization that foot back to that mission, vision, values, and strategic plan. 

You and your division have done a lot to support culture and change management at Otis as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, some staffing changes as a result, and also furthering the College’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy by incorporating the perspectives of faculty, staff, students, alumnx, administration, and the Board. What do you think motivates you and your team to undertake this important work? 

I consider myself a thoughtful realist who’s motivated by values, ideas, collaboration, and, most importantly, relationships. I have a set of guiding principles that help me to be excited about the future. One of those is integrity, which I find as creating relationships built on mutual trust, respect, openness, and honesty, and a consistency of actions and words. Being true to myself has always been a personal source of inspiration, and really has helped me achieve both personal and professional milestones. The Human Resources team is just that, a team, and their dedication to the College and the people within our institution is unparalleled. That being said, since the beginning of the year we’ve weathered quite a bit, and proven as a total community to be up for these challenges. In the near term I’m encouraged by how honest the community has been about some of our history with regard to what we have done, and, in some cases, not done in support of our DEI efforts. I think we can do better. I know we will do better. This is, in fact, a journey. And so it will take everyone’s commitment to the journey for us to have lasting and impactful success. I think the Otis Community is committed to change and growth and realizes that we’re just getting started. The time is now.