How American Express Is Leveraging Corporate DEI For Business and Career Advancement

How American Express Is Leveraging Corporate DEI For Business and Career Advancement

For nearly two years, many U.S. companies have talked about increasing their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. That has come amid them dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice, workplace labor shortages, and other forces.

And though much more needs to be done, chief diversity officers are gradually making some progress. the job-search platform Indeed showed that listings for diversity roles jumped 56% between September 2019 and September 2020, according to Business Insider.

Still, a Washington Post analysis done in December 2021 of the “50 most valuable public companies” showed that Blacks made up just  8% of executives in C-suite roles. The bottom line is DEI efforts in corporate American show a new mixed bag of what is and is not being done on that front.

In fact, a recent analysis showed that fewer than half of all business leaders (43%) are executing a fully developed DEI strategy for their full-time staff, and only 19% have a DEI strategy for contingent labor. It was also reported that this past year has put racial, gender, and socioeconomic diversity top of mind for many employers moving it past a “check the box” exercise.

To help get a sense of what actions are being taken–snd what steps companies might consider on improving DEI—BLACK ENTERPRISE interviewed Sonia Cargan. She is Chief Colleague Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Talent Officer at American Express, one of the world’s largest integrated payments companies.

Cargan was recently cited among 12 DEI  trailblazers at U.S. corporations applying change that may impact hundreds of thousands of workers and possibly push CEOs to apply fresh policies to make their firms more inclusive. She talked about what American Express is doing to prompt real change with its  DEI actions and make that process a key part in how it does business.

“To ensure more balanced representation across all levels of our company, we have established recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices to attract, develop, and retain a diverse group of colleagues,” she says.

BLACK ENTERPRISE caught up with Cargan to get her take on DEI.

American Express appears to have made major progress in its DEI efforts to promote Black Americans and other minorities. Please provide us some specific actions it has taken to make that happen. 

While we have more work to do, we feel encouraged by our progress, especially among our more senior ranks. In 2020, 56% of our executive committee were women or from diverse backgrounds, and 40.1% of our senior vice presidents and above were women. Of our senior vice presidents and above in the U.S. specifically, Black/African American colleagues, comprised 9.8%, Hispanic/Latinx colleagues comprised 4.9%,  and Asian colleagues comprised 12.4%. We achieved 100% pay equity for colleagues across genders globally and across races and ethnicities in the United States.

To drive retention and engagement, we also focus on building a welcoming culture where individuals feel they belong, with initiatives including supporting a wide range of colleague networks, development programs, and opportunities for dialogue and feedback. These initiatives are part of our multi-year, $1 billion Action Plan to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion priorities across all areas of our business, both internally and externally.

What are the biggest challenges facing American Express to continue that momentum and what is the company doing to overcome them?

Creating a more sustainable and equitable future for all is a transformational journey—one of continuous learning, growth, and progress. To continue our momentum, we recently brought together our DE&I, Global Talent Management and Leadership & Learning functions all under my leadership. We believe this move will enable us to embed diversity, equity, and inclusion more deeply into our culture and the way we operate, particularly as the landscape for talent becomes increasingly more competitive. This move reinforces our commitment to our colleagues and how we think about the colleague lifecycle in a strategic way, from recruitment, to onboarding and professional development.

We also formed a new Office of Enterprise Inclusion, Diversity and Business Engagement, led by my long-time colleague Robert Childs, to expand our inclusion and diversity work–in close partnership with our executive committee. To drive meaningful, long-term change in our culture and the way we operate, we knew we needed to have clear objectives for the enterprise with timelines and metrics to ensure we were driving progress and impact. The company has two senior leaders focused on delivering on our inclusion and diversity strategy.

In general, what are some concrete DEI actions large U.S. companies can use to promote Black Americans and other minorities into management and executive roles?

It’s important for companies to think through the lifecycle of the colleague experience. Recruiting diverse talent is only one part of the experience. At American Express, once candidates become colleagues, we provide ongoing support to help them grow and thrive in their careers within an environment where everyone feels seen, heard, and like they truly belong. The growth and development of our colleagues has been and continues to be an important priority.

We also partner with diverse organizations to offer colleagues a variety of meaningful learning and development opportunities such as the Executive Leadership Council, Management Leaders of Tomorrow and Blue Circle Transformational Leadership.

It’s often been reported companies claim DEI is a priority, but their employees and others question if it is. So, what actions should companies be taking to ensure promoting Black Americans is a serious business matter?  

Create a holistic strategy. Words are powerful and actions are important, but when these are part of a holistic strategy, that’s when meaningful and sustainable impact really happens. .At American Express, our  DE&I efforts are a fundamental part of our Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) strategy. .

Be transparent and seek feedback. Through transparency, we hold ourselves accountable and not only stand by our words but put them into action. In May 2021, we published our full U.S. workforce EEO-1 data in our DE&I Progress Report. Each year, we conduct an annual online Colleague Experience Survey to better understand the needs of our colleagues and perspectives, and our board of directors and senior management review the results. Feedback from our colleagues suggests that they feel valued and agree that we have their backs.

Hold yourselves accountable. Our board plays a key role in guiding our annual company scorecard, which we use to measure our performance on business priorities. This scorecard includes a colleague component with goals related to diversity, talent, and culture making up 15% of the scorecard. We reflect this strategic focus in our recruitment, hiring and, promotion practices across the company to attract, develop, and retain the best talent and enhance diverse representation among our colleagues.

Why should company leaders—including the CEO—be engaged in the firm’s DEI efforts? How can that be a game changer or show if a company is truly committed to promoting employees of color or not?

At American Express, we are proud of our long history of building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture and setting the tone from the top, including our CEO, [who] has been critically important throughout our journey. We have made DE&I an ongoing business priority and believe this commitment has played an essential role in driving our business success and making our company a great place to work for many years.