Serilda Summers-McGee, Founder & CEO Workplace Change - Chief Human Resources Officer

Serilda Summers-McGee, Founder & CEO, Workplace Change Chief Human Resources Officer

Serilda Summers-McGee is a workforce development and human resources expert. She is the Founder of Workplace Change, where she works with clients as Chief Human Resources Officer to assess culture, resolve workplace challenges, and recruit and retain underrepresented executives and staff in inclusive, positive, and high functioning work environments.

Before starting Workplace Change, Serilda was the Chief Human Resources Officer for the City of Portland, and has worked with clients like Wieden + Kennedy, the Portland Trail Blazers, Kaiser Permanente, the Oregon Department of Education, and many others. She believes in fostering cultures that accept people for who they are and empower them to thrive. Her book, Change the WorkGame: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Workforce, goes into depth about how to accomplish this and more.

Highlight from our conversation include:

  • Serilda’s approach to working with clients (3:33)
  • Defining diversity, equity, inclusion, and transparency (5:33)
  • Why many hiring managers fail to find and hire diverse candidates (8:33)
  • The various biases that come up in the workplace (9:31)
  • How sexism, racism, classism, and elitism play into hiring decisions (13:12)
  • What it means to be ready for workplace change (14:23)
  • How to be more successful in recruiting and retaining diverse talent (18:35)
  • The importance of asking why you want more diversity in your organization (21:29)
  • Why you should start by diversifying your network (24:21)
  • What an inclusive selection process looks like (25:32)
  • How to create a more inclusive culture (29:30)
  • What role human resources should play (33:59)
  • Why change requires leadership to act (34:59)
  • Serilda’s strategy for hiring (35:38)
  • Her predictions about the future of work (38:00)

Show Transcript – How I Hire Podcast with Serilda Summers-McGee

Roy Notowitz: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to How I Hire, the podcast that taps directly into the best executive hiring advice and insights. I’m your host, Roy Notowitz, Founder and President of Noto Group Executive Search. 

This podcast was recorded the day after George Floyd was murdered by police and hours prior to the protests that catalyzed what we hope will be prolonged and meaningful action to confront the systemic racism that exists in our society.

The workplace is no exception. The ideas covered in this episode are always relevant and important, and they take on a renewed urgency as we reflect, learn, and take action to change policies, challenge biases, and do our part to address racism in the hiring process and beyond. We’re committed to partnering with our clients and community to build knowledge and create equitable, inclusive, and welcoming work environments for Black employees and all who are historically underrepresented.

My guest today is Serilda Summers-McGee, a workforce development and human resources expert. Over the past four years, she’s built a successful HR consulting firm called Workplace Change, where she’s the Principal and Chief Human Resources Officer. 

Her clients have spanned the nonprofit, public, and private sectors. She has worked with Wieden + Kennedy, the Portland Trail Blazers, Kaiser Permanente, the Oregon Department of Education, and the City of Portland.  

Serilda is also the author of Change the WorkGame: Building and Sustaining a Diverse Workforce, which is an incredible resource for companies committed to establishing and supporting diversity and inclusion.

In this episode, we’ll learn more about how Serilda helps leaders build and support an intentional and diverse culture through talent strategy, leadership, performance, and change management. 

Serilda, thank you for joining me, it’s a great honor to have you on the podcast. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:01:57] Thanks for having me, Roy. Happy to be here with you.

Roy Notowitz: [00:02:00] Can you start by sharing more details and context for the career path that ultimately led you to where you are today?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:02:08] I am a career changer. I started in higher education. I worked for Michigan State University. What brought me to Portland, Oregon was Reed College. I was the Dean of Housing at Reed College. And while in that discipline, I identified that perhaps I wanted to shift into the business sector. I wasn’t really sure which area I wanted to be a part of. I was a biologist by education, so science was kind of my jam. I became an educator, but I was like, “Okay. So how do I get into business, continue to support people in, like, actualizing their dreams, but also scratch this itch of data and evidence based movement and action in a different field?”

So I went to Willamette University, got my MBA, and I decided that instead of going into kind of a traditional finance track, which is where I thought I was going to end up, that human resources was going to be where I was going to live my life. And I’ve never looked back since then. 

So that’s how I got into human resources, right? Being a professional, having to engage with human resources for direction and guidance and advocacy, you know, I definitely had some experiences that I wanted to see remedied. And I was like, “How do I remedy those experiences and, you know, be a value add to the bottom line of businesses. And so HR is where I landed. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:03:27] Tell us about how your business supports clients and what you do.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:03:33] We do a lot for different clients. What I tell folks is that there are many different human resources firms in the world, in the country, in the state, but what makes us different is that we embed diversity, equity, and inclusion tenets throughout all traditional human resources functions. So when clients hire us, they hire us to help them usually solve a challenge, a problem that they’re up against that has to do with people in the workplace. 

And so we will find talent, but only for clients, typically, who we already have a longer term relationship with, or we’ve been helping them update their policies and their systems. We’ve been doing coaching for their executive team and management teams. We’ve led trainings with their workforce. We have conducted investigations because there’s, you know, a great deal of conflict or we helped deescalate conflict. And then what they’re trying to do is, like, cement in the work that we’ve already been doing with them. And then we’ll help them find the talent that has the skills necessary to help continue to move the dial on the work that we started with them. 

We also provide HR placement. So we will place a full time or part time human resources and diversity, equity, and inclusion expert inside the organization to help with all of their people and culture needs.

 So we are a full circle, like, total, all-inclusive human resources shop for everything except for payroll. Have ADP do your payroll. But, yeah, we do everything when it comes to people. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:05:02] I want to talk a little bit about your book because it shines some light on the benefits and challenges behind achieving a dynamic, diverse, inclusive, and employee-accepting culture, which I think gets a lot of dialogue these days. However, I think there’s sometimes confusion around the differences between diversity, equity, and inclusion and so for the benefit of the listeners, can you clarify the framework for each and how it comes together successfully in a workplace? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:05:33] Right on, and actually, you know, even the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion are the starting point for an even richer dialogue. Right? So diversity are the people. The backgrounds, the academic backgrounds, race, gender ability, or disability, all the things that make a person who they are, right? The diversity that makes you uniquely different than me. That’s diversity. 

Equity is where it gets kind of touchy, feely, because right, it was equality, now it’s equity. Equity is essentially making it so that people from different backgrounds have the same opportunities for upward mobility, for compensation, as anyone else. So let me just give you a really brief illustration. Let’s say you work at a company and you are an able-bodied white male, and I am a single mom who’s Latina. And we both work hard. 

We show up early, we worked late, but my life experiences and life circumstances require me to have a bit more flexibility, meaning, you know, if you’re an exec and I’m an exec, I may need to leave at 4:00 PM and I may need to arrive at 6:00 AM. And then I’m going to, you know, log back in at 8:00 PM.

And you may, you know, work eight until six or seven. Equity is that we’re going to make it so that everybody has an opportunity to thrive and be a value add to the organization. Right? So that’s equity, making it equitable for people based on your current life circumstances.

Inclusion. How are you treated when you get there? Are you respected? You know, do you get a seat at the table like the other people in your current scope of work, who have similar scopes of work to you? So if we’re both analysts and this analyst over here who looks differently than me, but who perhaps has a life experience more aligned with the leadership.

They get invited to a meeting every single time, which means their voice gets to be heard. They get to hear more information than me. That’s not inclusive. I feel excluded from that narrative. So diversity, equity, and inclusion. You know, the people that you have in your organization, do they look different?

Do they have different lived experiences? Are they given a fair shake at upward mobility and access to authority, power, et cetera. And then, you know, once they get there, are they invited to the table and given a fair shake at what’s going on inside the organization? But transparency is usually missing in there.

And that’s actually kind of the next iteration. You may have diversity, people may feel included. You may feel like you have equitable processes, but are you sharing information readily with folks so that they can be informed, so that they, you know, are aware of what’s going on or how your decisions are going to directly impact their existence? And that’s the piece that’s missing right now. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:08:11] Yeah, and there’s so many areas that you could go into deeper around each of those topics and there’s books and people that I’d like to have on the show eventually to shed some more light on some of those in more detail. So why do otherwise good hiring executives or hiring managers pass on diverse candidates or fail to develop a diverse candidate pool?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:08:33] Generally speaking, my experience has been, you know, working in human resources for over a decade, being a hiring manager and executive level roles for close to 20 years, what I’ve seen is that people are attracted to like, and we’ve heard this a million and one times. 

Right now, people will hire Workplace Change to find a diverse workforce. “I want a diverse applicant pool, Serilda, and I know you can find it.” Okay, great. Great. We find those folks. And then what happens is people will ask more nuanced, complicated questions, have more, “Well, you know, I wonder if they can do this.” Right? Just, there’s more suspicion to the back and forth of the interview process with those who don’t look like them who have not historically been a part of their ecosystem.

Now that’s natural because when something is different than what we are accustomed to, we tend to ask more questions of it so we can better understand it and make sure that, you know, it is what it is.

Roy Notowitz: [00:09:27] Is that called confirmation bias where you’re confirming something in your head?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:09:31] So confirmation bias is when you start to ask questions to confirm a suspicion of bias that you have internally. Absolutely, but it doesn’t have to be confirmation bias. Right? For you to just say, I don’t understand this. What do they mean by this? What has been their life experience? In comparison to people who look like you, you just presume that they probably have experienced things very similarly that you have, it’s both a perception bias. It can be a confirmation bias. It can be a halo effect, right? 

Like you can provide a bias to people who are like you, meaning I know that this has to be good because I’m very familiar with this kind of person. There can be a variety of biases taking shape in that exchange. Either way, one, person’s having to work a heck of a lot harder to prove to you and to demonstrate to you, more times than not very unsuccessfully, that they have, what it takes to move forward.

So for instance, I did a recruitment, not too long ago, this client told me that they want diversity. We made it so that we found underrepresented people for this position. And by the way, the market, especially in our region, Was probably 8% people of color for those roles, but we found some of the best of the best. We prescreened them. We scrubbed them. 

The applicant pool, let’s say there are 10 people, six of them were people of color, highly qualified, undeniably highly qualified. Four Caucasian folks. Right? Not one of the people of color were able to demonstrate that they “had what it took” to move forward. And so I just started to ask the question, like, “Okay, so what didn’t you like about this person?”

“Oh, you know, he just kind of hemmed and hawed a little too much in the question, the Q & A.” Okay. I was on the Zoom, because this is all over Zoom right now. Right? I was on the Zoom. I’m like, she hemmed and hawed just as much as you know, he lingered around the questions. She didn’t complete her Q & A exercise and he didn’t get through all of his questions either.

Actually, no one got through all the questions because the Zoom takes more time. And, like, every person, there was just one of those kinds of responses. So I gathered everybody who was on the selection committee on a Zoom facilitated by me. And I said, “Let’s unpack what’s going on here. Let’s be real. Let’s be honest and let’s be real. What are your concerns and anxieties? Because I can see you have concerns and anxieties about having someone become a member of your executive leadership team and this will be your first person of color, not in the diversity equity and inclusion role.” Because they have a DEI professional on the committee with the smallest budget, with no team as an individual contributor.

But this person was going to be in charge of a very large footprint in the organization. “Let’s be honest, what’s going on here?” And you know what they said, “I’m concerned, like, how will, how will this all work out?” They went into their legit, from their perspective, concerns about bringing in someone who would maybe push them to think differently.

Although they had tailored all the questions to identify people who would push them and then they were like, “But I think that these people may push too much.” That’s your bias. Do you really want it? In my experience has been number one, we always come to the, to the table with, we make a commitment, at least 30% underrepresented minimum, right?

For our initial screening for the client. More times than not the underrepresented folks, there are millions of reasons why they can’t move forward. So let’s, let’s literally look at the data before us and compare and contrast because they’ll say, “Well, we don’t want to just hire a person just because they’re underrepresented. We want to hire the most qualified.” And it’s like, ” Okay, you know, those are not mutually exclusive, underrepresented and highly qualified. Like those are not terms that if you’re underrepresented, then you’re not highly qualified. Or if you’re highly qualified, then you’re not, you know, historically underrepresented.”

Roy Notowitz: [00:13:10] So why is there that perception then?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:13:12] Sexism. Racism. Classism. Elitism. I mean, all of these things are real and people reject those terms being placed on them. So you will never see me just frankly, say that to a client or frankly, say that to someone who’s engaging in a recruitment process in a very biased way, but I will ask them hard questions about, why are we here?

What’s really going on here because the moment that you can start to answer those questions of what’s making you uncomfortable. When you can put language to that versus a title, versus a very loaded title, then we can make some progress. But in the absence of us having a very direct and frank conversation about how are you feeling internally?

What kind of anxieties are popping up for you? What is your biggest fear right now, as it pertains to this selection process, agnostic of race or gender, let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about how you feel right now, having this conversation with me, and that helps people to see and learn that they really do have some things that they are grappling with.

Roy Notowitz: [00:14:12] Have you had breakthroughs in that way when you have those direct conversations and how do companies and individuals break through their own barriers, so to speak, successfully? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:14:23] You know, it all depends. I come into a room and I have a conversation with the client and I’m aware that the skin that you’re in directly impacts the way a person will respond to a line of questions. Right? How deep the relationship is will either allow you to go deeper with a person or they’ll resist because no matter what I say, I’m coming at it from an anti-white pro-Black, you know, anticapitalist, I’m like, I’m a capitalist. I don’t understand why I gotta be, like, a super liberal person cause I’m a Black woman.

You got some assumptions here. Right? But some people are prepared to have the conversation. They are willing to be vulnerable with me and I have established in a pretty short period of time, some trust with them, but there are other people who, they absolutely will reject it. They don’t want to have a conversation about how they’re feeling and where these feelings are coming from.

Roy Notowitz: [00:15:11] You sort of set the stage, start looking at their organization strategically and holistically. Then what do you do to sort of guide them in the right direction, around recruiting initiatives within the organization? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:15:24] I help people come to a realization of, how ready are they for change? There are so many people who believe that they are pro-change. Like, “I love change. I’m all about change.” Roy, they’re not. These are usually the most reluctant folks to change. Especially when they’re in positions of power. They usually will hire Workplace Change because they actually want change. How people find us is their workforce will say, “Hey, I know that you’re planning on bringing in a contractor. Can you please bring in Workplace Change because they’re trying to do X, Y, and Z.” 

So our number one advocate and mechanism of growth is from the people like the workforce saying, “I’ve heard what you’ve been able to do to lighten the load from my colleagues at other places they’ve been talking about you, can you come here?”

So when I get in, the leadership team all says the right things, every person, especially in our region, they all have the perfect talking points as it pertains to inclusion, as it pertains to LGBTQ plus communities, as it pertains to all the things, they say the right stuff. And then you get in there and you start to see how they make decisions and you start to see, you know, their appetite for change because policies will have to change. How leadership engages with the workforce has to change. Their interest and appetite in open communication has the change. The interest in sharing has to change, right? Power and absolutisms have to change. 

You get in there and you start talking to them. I can quickly deduce, “Okay, can you go from like a zero to a one? Or are you prepared to go from a zero to a five level, like, in your growth and development for being a more inclusive, inviting, and respectful environment?” I’m able to figure that out, what leadership very quickly. And then I tell them, “Okay, here are a few of the things that you can do, you know, incremental, based on what your ecosystem can metabolize because every system is different, just like every human being is different. 

I would say we worked with 71 companies in 2019. I would say of those 71 companies, probably about 25% of them were truly ready for some change. Mostly because there had been a lawsuit that led to them to say, “Yo, this was expensive, so we need to shift something.” Or there has been a huge exodus of some of their top talent, right?

The appetite has typically come from a consequence for that 25%, the 75%. They want to be affiliated with Workplace Change because of the brand and to show like, if we bring you in and we pay you, then this is a demonstration of our commitment. But internally there’s little action. So there’s a lot of things that are happening that we’re trying to assess and determine to see if there’s any chance for incremental change.

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:06] Let’s back up to the point where you had recruited a diverse candidate pool for that one client. If a company isn’t an employer of choice, or if they are based in an area where there’s a smaller population of diversity or diverse residents. Can they still be successful in recruiting and retaining diverse talent, and if so, how, and if not, what should they do to start changing that to be more successful in developing a diverse candidate pool? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:18:35] So, Roy, the first statement that you made there was if they’re not a employer of choice, which means you have already identified that, that company, if they’re not an employer of choice has been, perhaps, likely identified as an unfriendly for underrepresented folks. And it can be for a variety of reasons.

Roy Notowitz: [00:18:52] Or it could just be a smaller company that’s less well known.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:18:56] But even smaller companies, if you advertise and they go on your website, right? So you don’t have to have 10,000 employees or even 100 employees or 50.

You just have to demonstrate that when you advertise and put your job out there, when I go on the website and I look at your team, it’s not 100% white. If I go to the website and your team is 100% white, mostly male, or even mostly female, I’m going to see immediately that there are likely a lot of biases in there.

I wouldn’t apply. Not unless I want to go in and have to endure the struggles that I know I’m going to have to endure as a Black person who is visibly Black. Right? Who identifies as a Black woman, coming in there and speaking up, identifying when I think things are not very inclusive, like, “Whoa, I don’t think that that thing couched in that way is very inviting to people who are not of this particular background.” 

When you say those things to white folks, Roy, they go to a defensive place that you could not imagine. Right? I don’t mean to be crass when I say this, this is a conversation I’ve had with many execs of color, and that is suggesting, or putting out there that something that a white person has done could be perhaps exclusive, biased, discriminatory or racist as a person of color saying that to them, it has a very similar impact as a white person calling a Black person the “N” word, like the response is visceral. Like, “What are you saying? I’m not racist.” Which shuts down the conversation and makes it very challenging for any forward movement.

So when we walk in, we know if you have a fully homogenous workforce, and if I bring up something that maybe is specific to me, I’m very different aesthetically, where’s that going to go? I prefer not to be, you know, the, the initial, you know, civil rights crusader in that organization. And by the way, anything that I bring up that is counter-cultural, that is counter to the dominant narrative will likely be perceived as, “Well is she saying that we’re racist? Is she bring this up because of X, Y, and Z that has to do with my race?” It’s a lot of work, man, when I just want to come in there and be a marketing person or your HR person. Now I’ve got to come in here and be, you know, the civil rights crusader. Nobody’s got time for that.

Roy Notowitz: [00:21:22] What can a company do to truly shift from wanting more diversity to actually having more diversity in the organization?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:21:29] You know, Roy, I literally wrote the book on this, right? Step number one is to ask yourself why, why do you want more diversity inside your organization? And I give a few different examples.

Is it because you want to make your company more competitive? Is it because of a charity, right? Like, “Oh my gosh, I see these folks that are hurting and I want to help the people who are hurting.” Is it because of guilt? “Oh, you know, I feel so bad that my community has done this.” Whatever the thing and I give a variety of illustrations.

Here’s the reason why I believe that you have to ask yourself, why do you want this? And it is because how you treat those people when they get there is going to be directly tied to why you recruited them in the first place. Right? So for instance, if it’s charity, what tends to happen, if you are trying to diversify your workforce from, “I want to help, aw look at those people, I want to get some, let’s hire some of those people.” What you will oftentimes do is believe that they should be grateful, right? Like if they come up and they have a question or they want to push against the system or say like, “Oh, this doesn’t work for me.” What I’ve seen happen more times than not is, “I can’t believe that they would come and do this, they should be grateful that we gave them this opportunity.” 

If it’s from a place of tokenism, like, “I want to show my community that I’m inclusive, that I’m for diversity.” Which happens a lot in the Pacific Northwest region. What tends to happen when those people come into your organization is they feel like tokens. They feel like pawns. You want to put them on every news flyer, they’re on your website. You want a quote from them, they’re running the, this and that. Well, they just came to do telemarketing. Right. It makes people feel like you only hired them to. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:23:12] I can see that.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:23:13] You, you see what I’m saying? And it doesn’t establish any trust.

It actually is a breakdown of trust and it really makes people resent you. And it also makes your dominant culture group who’s been present there resent you and your leadership because they see it a mile away too. And again, in the book I go into great detail about the questions you should ask yourself and how to identify what your “why” is, not to shame you, to be aware of the unintended consequences of you making decisions based on that frame of thought, because when you know better, you tend to do better.

This is going to be an assessment that you take on your own. You’re like, “Damn, this is really charity oriented.” Okay, great. No problem. You should still move forward with your diversity initiative, but be aware of the origin of the impetus to diversify your workforce, just so that you’re aware of the unintended consequences that could happen, and that could impact the lives of those that you brought in under that guise from that frame of reference.

Roy Notowitz: [00:24:10] Let’s talk about the selection process. What recommendations do you typically make around the selection process to get the best results and what are some of the process failure points that need to be addressed? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:24:21] When you’re trying to diversify your workforce, step number one, let’s go recruitment to selection.

Make sure that you’re advertising in outlets that underrepresented people frequent, but also work right now, before you have a recruitment to diversify your network. We know that most of your talent, your recruits are going to come from your network. My network is incredibly diverse. I have intentionally worked at it.

Black folks naturally coming to me, right? Because I’m black, but I had to work to get connections into the Latino community, into the Asian community, right. As well as into the disability community. So you need to do that work now so that when your position becomes open, you can shoot it out to your network. They become your credibility, right? Like, “Hey, such and such is hiring. Great organization.” Whatever. That’s the work that you can be doing today. 

In addition, once you actually get folks into the queue, make sure that your selection panel and process is inclusive, right? If you invite me into an interview and I show up and there are no people of color around the table who are interviewing me. Not one. Happens a lot, Roy.

I’m sure you know it happens a lot, because you’re a recruiter. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:25:32] Yes. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:25:32] So the panel is 100% white. Right? The kinds of questions you’re asking, you’re not even asking questions about the things that make them unique from their underrepresented position. Meaning if they’re in marketing, are you asking questions about how they go out and identify target populations that you’re trying to market to? Right? Or are you just looking at the portfolio of all the marketing endeavors? Yes. But how did they market to the Latino population? And to the African American population, did they do it successfully? Do they even know what it takes to do that kind of work? 

The same thing from a human resources standpoint. If you’re a recruiter, have you ever had success recruiting underrepresented talent? Have you ever, you know, done pay equity if you’re in classification and compensation or have you rewritten policy to make it more inclusive? If you don’t ask these questions, then you can’t capitalize on the lived experiences of the underrepresented person who’s at the table.

You’re basically saying, “Okay, white candidate. I’m going to ask you these questions because this has been my personal experience as a white tech person. Person of color. We’re going to ask you the same questions that we asked the white candidate.” Which you should, right? But those questions are still built on a white narrative that doesn’t allow any scoring or points for your underrepresented minority experience, where you have been able to innovate and create opportunity within demographics that have historically not been thought about proactively.

Roy Notowitz: [00:26:59] And that’s especially important for a lot of our clients because they’re consumer brands and they need to understand that the people that they’re selling to are more diverse than perhaps people who work at the company. And so,

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:27:11] Absolutely.

Roy Notowitz: [00:27:12] That’s a huge benefit if they can really represent internally what their customer base looks like externally.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:27:19] What just happened to Volkswagen? Did you see that marketing snafu? 

Roy Notowitz: [00:27:22] No. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:27:23] A new commercial came out this month where Volkswagen basically was like, their car is so cool that they have to keep people from like, doing anything harmful to the car. So there’s like this guardian hand and anytime like a bird flies up and they’re like, “shoo bird.”

And then this Black guy is walking by, they’re like, you know, “No!” right? Like, because the Black guy walking by was a threat to the car’s safety.

Roy Notowitz: [00:27:47] Wow. Unbelievable. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:27:49] Oh, it was very believable. Did you just see the lady who called the police at Central Park in New York City? Because a bird watcher told her to put her dog on a leash?

These things are happening all around us and you know, all of our, like, I can’t believe this is still happening well, that’s because that’s not your lived experience. As a dark skinned Black woman, I know it’s still happening every single day. I know what happens when I walk through Nordstrom and I get followed.

Right? You know, the disbelief that people have, it just reinforces this, like, resistance to even be aware of not only the world around us, but themselves and how they played into that, that existence and that reality. And that’s why we do this work. We help people, not just from a black, white, or trans, you know, gay, LGBT, you know, heterosex– not from that point of view, but just an awareness.

We need to be aware of how our actions and behavior, no matter how benign they were for us or how unintentional they were for folks, the impact is still there. And it directly impacts how people feel and how healthy they are spiritually, physically, emotionally. That’s why we do this work. I want people to stop hurting when they come into the workplace. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:29:06] Well, let’s talk about that, that’s a great segue, because I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the things that you talk about in your book around helping leaders create a more inclusive workplace culture. So what can companies do to be more proactive in that regard? And of course that, in turn, helps retain and develop more diversity within the organization. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:29:30] Well, there are, there are many steps that you can take. But one of the things that I kind of preach about if you will, is management and accountability for management managers and HR tend to give other managers so many opportunities.

And we know that these people are harming other individuals when that is happening. And yet there’s very little accountability. If you’ve seen a trend line that’s been established that Tim chronically has a problem with a certain demographic of folks or members of his team are constantly leaving and you’re not even asking the “why” or the “what,” that’s a problem for leadership.

So the first step is to essentially pay attention, pay attention, ask your human resources professional, you know, for exit interviews, ask for information about, you know, how’s the team feeling? When you take a survey, people do these, like, “culture surveys” or “people pulses” read it and be responsive to it. How many people?

And I know that people who are listening to this podcast are going to shake their heads when I say this. How many people have taken a culture survey inside an organization, never to hear what happened with it?

Roy Notowitz: [00:30:37] Yeah. If you’re going to do that, you need to be able to respond.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:30:40] Just be responsive to the cries of the workforce.

And I tell people this, if you’ve got problems in your homogenous work environment, meaning there’s conflict, there is backbiting, gossiping, and just kind of some toxicity going on and you all kind of look the same. Like everybody here is predominantly white. That is not the time for you to go and pipe in people who have not historically been a part of that ecosystem. Right? 

Underrepresented folks. Because it’s only going to inflate the problem. And then what happens, because you know, there’s some low accountability, what happens is the person of color walks in, or the woman will walk in, they will highlight that there are problems that are happening. And then the entire system will turn to that person and say, “No, no, no, that person’s the problem.”

Oh, get outta here, you know, dang well that y’all had problems before this woman jumped in this boy’s club or before this person of color came into this predominantly white environment. And now you just want to get rid of them? That’s baloney and it’s harmful. And so, you know, I tell people to do some analysis of yourself before you start saying like, “Yeah, we’re ready for some diversity.”

Are you all dealing with conflict proactively now? Are you having open conversations about what’s really going on right now? Because if not, to pipe difference is only going to exacerbate the challenges that you already have. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:31:57] What are the elements of building an organization where there is a healthy or healthier than average culture? What are the things that you can do to sort of prepare yourself or to improve if you have some toxicity or other issues? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:32:15] Most people already know that they have toxicity. Most. And remember, like you do recruitment, most of my work, I would say 80% of our revenue is based on conflict in the workplace in some form or fashion, somebody’s not liking something, right?

Most people know, already before we show up, what the problems are. Be responsive to those problems. So today, if you know that people have been coming to you and have been expressing complaints, have expressed concerns about management practices or behavior of staff and workforce. I implore you today to address it.

And if you don’t feel like you have the skills to respond because you don’t know what to say. “Oh, they came and talked to me two weeks ago. I’ve been avoiding the conversation I think is going to go away.” By the way, not going to go away. Use this as the call to action, to go and start to have those conversations because the remedy of all toxicity is direct and frank communication about what’s going on with accountability.

All right, so this happened, this can not happen again. Strike one, step one. Right? So it’s really just about taking that first step to even own and be responsive to what’s what’s happening in your ecosystem. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:33:28] I think sometimes people just assume that, you know, this is part of typical human nature, it’s part of the workforce, and there’s one or two people maybe that are the root cause or there’s issues within leadership, but that ultimately, you know, they’re working on it or it’s going to take care of itself or you know, they have a meeting where they get two people together to talk through the issues or the challenges. And then they go back to, you know, doing business or whatever. And it’s not ever addressed.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:33:59] That happens often. But again, the reason why you have human resources present, human resources, isn’t just the babysitter.

We are professionals who are skilled at deescalation, and we are paying attention to the behaviors of folks and we are going through progressive discipline. That’s our wheelhouse. And so to not utilize the human resources pro in that way, or to not have a human resources pro who actually has the skills necessary to know what to do under those circumstances is a miss.

HR can help advise, counsel, guide leadership, managers, and employees on the steps to take in order to resolve problems. And if the problems aren’t resolved to help to coach people up or transition people out, this is kind of like my thing, because just allowing them to stay there and flounder, it wreaks havoc on the entire ecosystem on your entire organization.

And it’s not okay. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:34:50] Yeah. And it seems like that has to be top down, like in terms of leaders who really want to build culture successfully, is that true?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:34:59] Yes, the workforce can’t do anything on their own. They don’t have the power to, right? It requires leadership to act and most leaders believe that they will act, but you know what? Most leaders won’t. Most leaders don’t want the headache. Most leaders believe that they’re adults they’ll figure it out. It’s not my responsibility. They want it to be somebody else’s thing because they have too many other things that are on their plates. But your number one responsibility as a manager of other human beings is to make sure that things are going smoothly with that workforce. And that takes work. And courage. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:35:30] So in thinking about the hires that you’ve made, the most successful ones in your career, what are the elements of the process that made the difference? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:35:38] So the strategy I use on my team when I hire, and I mean, now I have a small team. We are five, but before that I was the Chief Human Resources Officer at the City of Portland, where I had a team of close to a hundred.

My response is, there’s no person who gets hired on my team that A) I don’t interview as the chief person. It is worth it for me to spend time with those folks. And then, because the work of human resources is so important. And because I am an expert in human resources, I’m going to ask them questions that are value oriented.

Someone else has already done all the screening to recognize that they’ve got the skills to be a human resources practitioner, right? Or whatever their practitioner background is. Somebody’s already done that. When it gets to the chief’s level. It’s about making sure there’s a values alignment because you know, you can be let loose inside my organization and if our values are not aligned, and you’re not trying to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion, you know, throughout all of these fundamentals or you don’t even have an interest in it, I’m going to ask you questions that are directly in the pocket of what we’re trying to accomplish. Even when I had a team of a hundred, I still made it a point to interview the person that they wanted to give the job offer to.

And I will tell them, “I will not allow this person to be hired. So you better come with a number two.” If they say things that are concerning to me, like, “Whoa, what?” So I have my series of questions that I ask that are values oriented, and I have expectations on the questions that are not ridiculous, but you have to at least have an awareness and the language to respond to my prompts.

I recommend that for my clients as well. The CEO needs to see the top candidate, especially if they’re in a management level position. Every single one of them.

Roy Notowitz: [00:37:18] We work with a lot of mission driven companies and the values are really a big part of what we do. I think in addition to that, when you’re asking those questions, you really have to be thinking about what you’re listening for.

You sort of brought that up and what constitutes a mediocre response versus a good response, and being able to, you know, make a judgment. It’s hard in an interview sometimes, but, you know, those answers really do matter.

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:37:43] Right on. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:37:45] What are your predictions about the future of work? You know, what shifts are you anticipating post COVID-19 and just in general, as we move forward? I know it’s hard to predict anything right now, but…

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:38:00] My prediction is that the changes that we’re experiencing are not temporary.

A lot of my clients are talking about, when is it going to be back to the way it was? Or, you know, “We’re going to make this fix until things get back to normal.” I don’t think normal will ever be, you know, what it was. And quite frankly, who was normal really working for? 

Roy Notowitz: [00:38:19] So you think that will bring positive change?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:38:21] I think positive change can come, but I also think that those who are in power can be resistant to changes that are not ideal for them personally. And that is the concern that we should all be aware of, but the market, this is why I like being an entrepreneur, the market will always determine who’s right.

Right? So people are teleworking right now. There are so many older execs who were anti telework. Well, how business is going? Do you need to go back into a brick and mortar downtown Portland? Can you bring in more contractors and allow people to moonlight? Can you have more part time employees? There are so many really cool, innovative entrepreneurial things that are happening in traditional environments where entrepreneurs weren’t necessarily prevalent. And I think is beautiful. I think it’s beautiful. And I think the more flexible the market is, the more we are able to have more inclusive environments, right. Folks with disabilities who couldn’t go into a workplace in particular, they’re able to telework right now. What the hell was the harm of allowing them to telework from the beginning, right?

Roy Notowitz: [00:39:26] Yeah. Even generating a more diverse candidate pool because you don’t necessarily need to hire in your own market. You could have people in… anywhere, LA or San Francisco or wherever. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:39:37] Absolutely. But guess what? There are also Black and Latino people right here who are highly skilled in the Northwest region and people who are willing to relocate here.

And so no excuses, the excuses just allow you to sustain the status quo. I have a quote, “The system is built to sustain itself.” Right? And you have to figure out how are you being complicit in the system sustaining itself. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:39:59] So let’s talk about your business and your team capabilities and passion for your work. What kind of exciting things do you have in the works currently and moving forward? 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:40:10] Right now we have an HR placement process that was incredibly successful. So when I started my company four years ago, it was mostly just kind of culture centric and evaluation based. So we would come in and assess people’s cultures and then give them kind of a paint by numbers, blueprint to resolve the things where people were really pissed off.

But our work has evolved pretty significantly to, okay, we give you a template on how to resolve the things, but if you don’t have the staff in house to help move forward and activate on the template, then it’s just a piece of paper and nobody knows what to do. So now we have a human resources placement process where I hire human resources managers and directors who are also diversity, equity, and inclusion trained practitioners.

And we place them inside companies. Quarter time, half time, full time. And we have five placements right now. I thought that when COVID hit, they were going to cut us after we finished up with all the layoffs and the furloughs. But what happened is that either they doubled down on the full time person or they upped to, you know, from a quarter time to a half time, because they saw so much value in the skills that we provide.

When we place the person in now, you’ve got a person who is a recruitment expert. You’ve got a person who is a deescalation expert and a policy wonk with DEI embedded in, and folks really love it. So we’re really doubling down on moving that forward. I hope to have a whole fleet, like, you know, hundreds of human resources pros who are HR, DEI experts revolutionizing the industry.

That is my dream. That’s my vision. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:41:42] That’s awesome. And I’m sure you will achieve it. I’ve seen how you work. Where can people buy your book and how can people get in touch with you?

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:41:53] If you Google “Serilda Summers-McGee,” and Amazon, if you look it up, my book pops up. It’s the only thing I sell on there. I also have the audiobook, so if my voice does not completely annoy you 100%, you can listen to my audiobook and you don’t have to listen to me at the fast speed because I speak just like this in the book. And then you can connect with me on and you’ll see all of my videos, you’ll be able to get a really good understanding of all the services that we offer and how we can be of support.

Roy Notowitz: [00:42:25] Awesome. Well, Serilda, you are amazing and I look forward to having more dialogue around this as we move forward and hopefully, you know, we’ll be able to make a difference that way. 

Serilda Summers-McGee: [00:42:38] Right on. Well, thank you. Thank you for having me, Roy. 

Roy Notowitz: [00:42:42] Thanks for tuning into How I Hire, visit for more details on our show. Sign up for our newsletter to get updates and featured career content.

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How I Hire is created by Noto Group Executive Search. We work with leading consumer brands in the athletic, outdoor, fashion, food/beverage, grocery, and natural product sectors. To learn more about Noto Group, visit or follow us on LinkedIn.

This podcast was produced by Anna McClain.

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