Growing an Inclusive Culture

Associations are doing the hard work to ensure their cultures promote a safe environment for both staff and members.

Swirl of beech tree leaves, growing an inclusive culture

© Rosemary Calvert / Stone / Getty Images

For the past several years, REALTOR® associations have been taking an active role in creating welcoming cultures, moving diversity, equity and inclusion and personal safety out of the pages of strategic plans and into the workplace and gatherings. By breathing new life into listening sessions and giving members a voice, leaders continue to influence and inspire cultural growth.

“We have gone through some seismic shifts in society that have affected our organization,” says John Gormley, RCE, CAE, CEO of Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS® in Downers Grove, Ill. “In the last few years, we have learned a lot. We have made a lot of changes in our priorities and have grown because of it. Or maybe despite the challenges, we’ve been able to grow, not only in terms of our membership, but in terms of how we look at our culture [within our association].”

Acting on Policy

In summer 2023, Portland Metropolitan Association of REALTORS® CEO Michele Holen, RCE, CAE, convened staff to air concerns and acknowledge sexual harassment in the industry. Realizing that acknowledgement and action were needed, she received full support from PMAR President Tony Kelly for a statement issued to reassure staff, members and leadership that policies were in place and under review.

Intentionally using the term “harassment” to envelop any kind of unacceptable behavior, whether sexual harassment or discrimination, the statement expressed PMAR’s commitment “to creating an inclusive environment that is free from discrimination and harassment and having protocols in place to deter and detect inappropriate conduct.”

As the statement promised, Holen directed legal counsel to review PMAR’s harassment, social media and whistleblower policies for timeliness and compliance with state law. “We wanted to make sure that those policies and procedures were in place, everybody understood them, and everybody was committed to them,” Holen says. “If something were to happen to you or you witness something, you can feel empowered to recognize it and identify it, report it and expect action by our leadership.”

Policies should be reviewed every three to four years, says Holen. This latest round clarified verbiage in PMAR’s social media policy to avoid infringing on individual expression while continuing to regulate staff conduct that could reflect on the organization. PMAR’s reporting procedures, which include alternatives in case the complaint is against leadership, didn’t change but were aired among staff and board members to raise awareness of their existence and the procedures to follow in case of possible violations. More importantly, the dialogues among staff members and leadership brought the issue of harassment forward, dusting off the policies that people sign and raising the comfort level around discussing them.

“I don’t think there were any changes in who [should report an incident] or how [to report one],” says Holen. “It’s just making sure everybody knew who and how.”

Ensuring Core Values ‘Live and Breathe’

When it comes to creating a welcoming, safe and inclusive culture, Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS® intentionally didn’t hire a diversity officer; rather, it seeded diversity and inclusion throughout the organizational structure. The pillars of Mainstreet’s new strategic plan stand for PLACE—Promote, Lead, Advocate, Community, Educate—and they “don’t just live in the DE&I Committee,” says Gormley. “They live and breathe throughout the organization.”

Cross-pollination among Mainstreet committees is helping seed that initiative. The DE&I Committee recently led a training segment for the Professional Standards Committee to raise awareness of potential cultural differences and unintended bias. Putting discussions of DEI and organizational culture on agendas helps build “a more open and welcoming culture for everyone over time,” Gormley says. “People tell their stories. You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to, but other people are telling their stories, so that creates a safe space.”

Enforcement also makes policies tangible and instills safety. At Mainstreet, one former member’s repeated harassment of staff compelled Gormley to consult an attorney and get a restraining order. “It’s not a decision taken lightly,” he says. “Real estate can feel like life and death for some people. I get that, but it’s not worth intimidating or bullying anyone or making someone feel unsafe, whether it’s a member or staff. We’re just fortunate we have the leadership here that doesn’t waver on that.”

While Mainstreet’s new strategic planning doesn’t change its pillars, the mission, vision and values are no longer stuffy and opaque. They now express expectations in unmistakable terms. One states, “We always do the right thing, no matter what.”

“Another core value is, ‘We’re really, really nice,’ ” says Gormley. “That’s actually a core value.”

Listen and Learn

At Charleston Trident Association of REALTORS® in South Carolina, one of its key values on the road to culture change is listening. CTAR Director of Inclusion Kravonda Forrest-Simmons solicits member suggestions for DEI committee informational sessions and encourages members to bring guests, which helps grow the committee roster and constantly refresh the ideas and perspectives it considers. She also engages leadership in anti-bias training that focuses on spotting and engaging with potential leaders.

“I would say we do a lot of listening, and listening allows us to fulfill our members’ expressed needs,” says Forrest-Simmons. “When members see their requests and suggestions being fulfilled, they are more willing to participate because they understand that when they communicate needs, we will deliver.”

CTAR CEO Wil Riley, RCE, CAE, agrees. He and his team are intentional about extending invitations and bringing new voices into conversations. “I’m stepping into rooms I would not have gone into in the past in order to break the ice, extend a hand and encourage people to come and be part of what we’re doing,” Riley says.

CTAR’s new Pathways to Leadership document is one of its most significant initiatives, adds Riley. The simple document condenses 10 pages of thought into a single page that lists a diversity of experiences such as military and community service—hence, attracting a diversity of people to association leadership. “This isn’t just about differences in color or nationality,” says Forrest-Simmons. “It’s more so diversity in education, experience and service.”

Adds CTAR Vice President of Communications Meghan Byrnes Weinreich: “We haven’t just invited people for the sake of inviting them. We make them understand that their opinion is important, that they’re a valuable part of the association.”


Inclusive Culture in Action

Mainstreet doesn’t have a DE&I officer, but is seeding a welcoming, safe and inclusive culture throughout its organization.

Mainstreet staff outing in downtown Chicago

© Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS®

Mainstreet staff at Pride event

@ Mainstreet Organization of REALTORS®

Safe Spaces, Without Question

With policies in place and a commitment to core values, the demonstrated action of volunteer leaders can elevate “safe space” from concept to impact, says Nicola Esposito, an agent with Gilsenan & Co., Ridgewood, N.J., and vice president, Greater Bergen Association of REALTORS®.

“If you’re able to allow someone to speak and they feel heard, other people will recognize that this is a safe space to speak, and also a safe space where they’re not going to be ousted or ridiculed,” he says. “It’s a space where we can promulgate ideas.”

During the REALTORS® Excelling in Association Leadership course, Esposito—who was also accepted into NAR’s Leadership Academy in 2022—learned how to engage people “according to their ways.” So, for example, if a member regularly attends meetings but doesn’t speak, leaders can solicit that person’s input afterward and show that they value the member’s opinion.

“Some people are introverts,” he says. “They don’t want to talk at a meeting. They don’t feel comfortable. It’s important to figure out how to engage members to speak comfortably, whether in a meeting in front of everybody or one on one.”

Esposito also believes in holding others accountable for misbehavior or insensitive comments. “If something goes wrong, you have to approach that person who’s maybe not handling the situation in the right way,” he says. “You have to pull them aside to say, ‘That might not have been the right way to do things. I understand your intentions are good, but we have to pull this back, because maybe the person you’re speaking to in that manner doesn’t like to be spoken to that way.’ ”

When PMAR realized it had no code of conduct for meetings, Holen received permission from her local chamber of commerce to adapt its code for the association. Like the chamber, PMAR requires that registrants click to acknowledge their willingness to abide. That extra layer of safety puts boundaries on nonmembers as well as members.

“You can’t control everything, but at least you can control the fact that we have policies in place,” says Holen. “We can now take action if they don’t abide by them.”

Soon, CTAR’s board is expected to approve an internally drafted association anti-harassment policy and code of conduct for meetings, Riley adds.

It Takes Commitment

As PMAR was reviewing its policies on harassment, PMAR’s president kept association leaders informed at every step. “Leadership was working hand in hand with us to make sure that everybody felt safe, protected and able to take action,” Holen says.

Board members and committee chairs are now expressing their commitment to PMAR’s harassment and whistleblower policies, signing them annually just as they have signed the association’s conflict of interest and social media policies before beginning their terms. The topic of harassment will also be added to annual board training. As Holen vets facilitators for those January sessions, the ability to lead such discussions will be on her checklist of qualifications.

At the staff level, PMAR is now highlighting its anti-harassment policies during annual staff training to give them more stickiness, beyond simply requiring a signature.

“It’s just bringing it to the forefront, acknowledging that this can be a problem, and acknowledging our responsibility to keep people safe and to have an inclusive environment that’s harassment-free,” says Holen. “I think we have created some confidence among the staff that leadership has their best interests in mind and cares about their safety and well-being.”

Since coming to CTAR in 2013, Riley has avoided micromanaging and, instead, empowers staff members to do their jobs. His opendoor policy creates a safe space where staff can share any concerns. Extensive policies also empower staff to bring any concerns directly to him or, if the complaints concern him, directly to the CTAR president. “We have an inclusive culture with our staff, and it’s not words, it’s action,” says Weinreich. “That’s why we’ve been successful in implementing new initiatives with both staff and members. We always walk the walk.”

As they do the hard work to transform their cultures, association executives and leaders are seeing spinoff benefits in renewed energy and organizational vigor.

“We are learning, and our members are constantly learning,” says CTAR’s Forrest- Simmons. “We encourage members to respect perspectives and celebrate differences. You don’t have to agree. It’s fine to not agree, but respect someone else’s perspective, because that perspective is coming from experience. It is coming from social norms, from things that have taken place in their lives. We have learned, and we are teaching to respect perspectives.”

Written by: M. Diane McCormick, a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer and author.


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