Announcing the 2nd Annual People Pioneers: Honoring the leaders of the people-first revolution

Embedding DEI into Company Culture: Q&A with Holly Danko, Chief People Officer at Unison

Feb 15, 2022| Reading time: 7min

BY Sharon Rusinowitz

Director of Content Marketing

Holly Danko is the Chief People Officer at Unison, a residential equity agreement company. She recently earned the recognition of being a 2022 People Pioneer, a peer-nominated award celebrating HR leaders who are pushing boundaries to positively impact their companies and employees.

We sat down with Holly to learn more about her work at Unison, which has most recently focused on embedding DEI into the company’s culture through a dedicated committee, updated internal policies, new recruiting practices, and more.

ChartHop: What are your responsibilities at Unison?

Holly Danko: As Chief People Officer at Unison, I lead our amazing Talent Acquisition, People Operations (HR), and Learning and Development teams. I’m responsible for creating and executing our People strategy and making sure that our initiatives are aligned with our overall corporate goals.

CH: You led the effort to build DEI into Unison’s culture and have since reached an employee base of 46% female and 51% underrepresented groups. How did you lead your team to make those goals a reality and what was the biggest challenge you faced along the way?

HD: The first step that I took was educating myself. While I’m extremely passionate about DEI, it’s not my professional background. I took time to read, attend webinars, and talk to my peers to learn best-in-class practices. Once that was complete, I had more ideas than I knew what to do with and I took time to narrow them down and create a strategic plan.

The biggest challenge was finding which initiatives work best for Unison. There are so many things, both big and small, that companies can do to support DEI, but it’s critical that they fit into the company’s culture and are supported by leadership.

CH: On the flip side of that challenge, what was the most important step you took to help move Unison’s DEI initiatives forward?

HD: The most important step that we took was making DEI part of our company culture. Early on, Unison’s CEO Thomas Sponholtz and I sat down to discuss what DEI should look like at the company. As a Danish immigrant, Thomas is passionate about diversity and we had many conversations on how to truly make it a part of Unison. It was critical to get this early support from Thomas and the rest of our leadership team, because if our leaders don’t walk the walk, no one will.

CH: Overall, how do you think about setting and measuring DEI goals? How important is tracking those key metrics to your success in this area?

HD: I believe that DEI goals should be set holistically, instead of “we want X demographic by Y.” At the end of the day, DEI isn’t just about diversity numbers. It’s about answering questions like: Are you creating an inclusive culture for people of all backgrounds? Are you treating everyone equitably? Therefore, I prefer to set goals related to process improvement, education, and culture.

I believe very strongly that if you improve systems and increase education then it will result in a more diverse and inclusive company. Not only is tracking success key, but transparency and reporting out successes (or failures) is just as important.

CH: In what ways have you seen Unison’s focus on DEI impact the end-to-end employee experience?

HD: DEI is part of the entire employee lifecycle at Unison – from recruiting to exit interview.  This focus has resulted in an increased eNPS score and more positive trends in our quarterly employee surveys. Most importantly, it has resulted in a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive company.

CH: What was the most surprising thing that you learned over the course of the past year leading these DEI initiatives for Unison? If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently?

HD: I was most surprised by two things: how passionate our team is about DEI and how many learning opportunities they would provide to us. One of my favorite parts of the past year was receiving feedback from our team members about our DEI initiatives and presentations.

For example, early on in our efforts, there was a company presentation where a team member used the word minority. It was intended to be used factually in terms of there is a majority and a minority in a population. After the presentation, someone shared a powerful article with the company explaining the history behind the word and how it actually erases specific identities. From this feedback, we immediately changed the language that we used.

While we didn’t get everything right, I wouldn’t change anything because it’s these learning moments that change who we are and create an everlasting impact.

CH: What are you most excited to accomplish in 2022?

HD: I’m most excited for Unison’s growth this upcoming year. We are approaching another stage of hyper growth and with that comes opportunities to continue to bring in top talent – and most importantly, top talent with diverse backgrounds and mindsets.

CH: What is your advice to fellow people leaders who plan to emphasize DEI in their companies in the year ahead?

HD: My advice is to make DEI approachable within your organization. I found that many people are passionate about DEI, but may be afraid to get involved in initiatives for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. If you can create a safe space for employees to ask questions, make suggestions, and most importantly contribute to the success of DEI, it will be ingrained into your company culture and an overall success.

More Lessons from the 2022 People Pioneers

Interested in even more lessons learned from HR leaders? Check out the full list of 2022 People Pioneers for inspiration on how to approach critical initiatives like scaling the business, supporting employee well-being, and revamping performance management.

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