Diversity & Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Week, Faces of HR

Faces of HR: Dr. Shirley Knowles on the Importance of Listening, Valuing Talent & Taking Action

Here at HR Daily Advisor, our week-long virtual celebration of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is well underway – and it doesn’t stop with our latest Faces profile, which features Dr. Shirley Knowles, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Progress — a leading provider of products to develop, deploy, and manage high-impact applications.

Dr. Shirley Knowles

Progress isn’t only the company’s name, it’s what the company wants to achieve. The same rings true for Dr. Knowles in the field of diversity and inclusion. In her role, and the first Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer hired by Progress, she works directly with Progress’ executive leadership team and Board of Directors, serves as chair of the employee-led Inclusion and Diversity Committee, and works closely with Progress’ employee resource groups (ERGs) to develop strategies, initiatives and practices that support and advance a respectful, equitable and inclusive workplace for all employees.

Additionally, Dr. Knowles helps drive strategies to enhance the employee experience and ensure inclusion and equity throughout the company’s practices. Finally, she also serves as a spokesperson to advance these practices and representation within Progress’ local and tech communities. Her “go-big” goal is to make all employees, from every walk of life, feel like they belong at Progress.

“I really want employees to feel as though they have a vested interest in inclusion, equity, and diversity,” she shared virtually with HR Daily Advisor. “The work is not just for “underrepresented” groups. There’s something for everyone. Diversity is not just race, ethnicity, and gender. There is diversity of thought. There is neurodiversity. There is diversity in abilities, skillset, and educational background. Talking about inclusion and diversity is not something to be afraid of. It’s something you can talk about with your peers if you are comfortable doing so. If you see something going on in the world and you are unsure of how to address it, there is someone you can reach out to—whether it’d be me, which I definitely welcome, or if it’s someone you trust enough to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know, but I want to start learning.” That’s where the journey begins, and the real work is done.”

In our latest Faces of HR, meet Dr. Shirley Knowles.

How did you get your start in the field?

As a kid, I wanted to be an accountant because my mom was an accountant. As I moved through school, I realized that math is not my strong suit. I’m more of a writer and a storyteller. My undergraduate degree is in journalism and political science. Then I was a sports photographer, and I thought that’s what I was going to do. I was just going to travel and cover NBA and college basketball games. But then life happened, and newspaper jobs started disappearing. So, I worked for three years in education—at a high school with predominately low-income, first-generation students whose parents came from Mexico. I loved that job because it allowed me to connect with people who grew up differently than I did, and it was a very humbling experience that I am eternally grateful for.

From there, I came back to communications, while always finding a way to focus on inclusion and diversity. And finally, I became the inclusion and diversity officer at my last company, Homesite Insurance.

What has been the hardest lesson you have learned over your career? 

There are many people who feel as though social justice issues should be separate from the workplace. “Don’t bring that topic work.” “I don’t want to hear about it.” “Why are we doing heritage month celebrations?” “These conversations are divisive and have no place here.” As a woman of color who grew up in the South and has lived in the Midwest and Northeast, I’m open and welcoming to people from different backgrounds and experiences. But some people aren’t and that’s the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn: in some cases, you can’t reach everyone.

It sounds like through your experience you really care about people, and you want to help them feel safe and comfortable, which is important in the industry. Please elaborate here. 

When it comes to inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging, my “north star” is that at the end of the day, most people want one thing: to feel like they’re valued and that they matter. The concept of “you matter” can span across every background, group, and walk of life. If your leader and your company make you feel seen and heard, you’re likely to work harder and give more effort to the work you’re doing. What’s better than a leader wanting the best for you and also ensuring you feel safe and comfortable in your role? If a company can accomplish that goal – making people feel like they’re making a difference – I believe they’d see less attrition and more engagement from their employees.

What are some of the things HR leaders can put in motion today to make meaningful change in their organization?

It all starts with listening. From the people on the Inclusion and Diversity Committee to the employee resource groups to senior leadership, our people value listening to one another. But that’s just step one. Step two is taking action. Can we roll out development programs for employees of all backgrounds? Are there individual contributors with the potential to be great managers who show empathy and support others? Are there people with all the qualities needed to be great leaders? If the answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, the final step is building up that talent pipeline that gets these folks on the road to leadership.

What are you most proud of?

I feel proud when someone randomly messages me to say how this work is impacting them, both directly and indirectly. Every month or so, there is an employee who will send a note to say, “Hey, I never thought of this topic in that way, but now I can see someone else’s perspective,” or “although I am not impacted, I feel for people who experience that type of discrimination — how can I help?” That’s when the real rubber meets the road because people are understanding this work in a way that makes sense to them. I would not be able to do what I do without the help from our leaders, our I&D Program Manager, resource groups, I&D committee, and countless other people who step up to say, “how can I help?” I think that’s what separates Progress from many other companies.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Being in HR is hard work to begin with, but the inclusion and diversity work is especially challenging. Because I&D can be tied to one’s personal beliefs and opinions, there will be times when you’re ‘giving it your all’ and still running into people who question the validity of the work. You won’t win everyone over all at once. You may be doing the work with a skeleton crew, and you may not have the funding you need to make the impact you want. Despite all of that, know that you are making an impact with someone. It may not be everyone, but there will be at least one person who will have the lightbulb come on and want to change their behavior, be it the way they lead a team, or the way they think about a social issue that impacts a peer. Yes, this work is hard, but it matters. It needs to be done.