American Airlines’ Journey With Diversity and Inclusion
Mike Waldron, Managing Director - Diversity and Talent, Shares How Inclusion Elevates a Diverse Environment
The very essence of the airline industry is bridging divides - bringing people together, connecting individuals with their destinies, turning opportunities into experiences, and making the world accessible. It is a part of some of our most important, memorable, profound, and personal life experiences. At American Airlines, this reality is the life-breath and blood of the company, and the vision behind how they build relationships with their employees and customers.
Mike Waldron, Managing Director, Diversity and Talent says, “It’s about breaking down barriers. We connect people and cultures on a daily basis. We can fly someone from Little Rock to New York, or New York to Beijing. We are a global airline. Therefore, it’s really important for American Airlines to be a reflection of the customer base that we have; and that our product and experience provides a broad base of diversity. This is critical to success, and allows us to put forth the best product we can.”
From creating a sense of respect and community within the company among employees, to engaging the unique diversity of their employees to better understand and serve their customers, American Airlines is always learning and evolving in its pursuit of excellence. Waldron states, “Anyone can create a diverse environment - diversity is being invited to the dance. But the inclusion piece is absolutely critical. That’s where you’re being asked to dance.” American Airlines places tremendous value on individuals’ and cultures’ unique experiences and abilities. “We evolve through input,” explains Waldron. “There’s an engagement factor. We create an environment where people can be themselves. If I feel comfortable at work, I can bring more of myself into the mix. We’re leveraging our diverse workforce and involving our employees in the business.” Waldron shared several examples of how comprehensive and dedicated American Airlines is regarding “respect training.” For instance, when American Airlines started flying from Dallas to South Korea, they consulted their Asian Pacific Islander employee business resource group (one of their more than 20 employee business resource groups) on the nuances of chopsticks, and which ones to use for inflight meals - Korea, China, Japan, and Vietnam all have different chopstick styles. Likewise, Halal meals are provided for Muslim passengers; and employees are educated on the special dietary requirements, habits, and significance of special holidays such as Ramadan.
For individuals with autism, American Airlines has the It’s Cool to Fly program, which is a mock simulation of the actual inflight experience that is conducted by American Airlines employee volunteers in coordination with the Transportation Security Administration. “The feedback from this program has been incredible!” says Waldron. “We’ve already conducted 5 or 6 programs throughout the country this year . Last year we had more than 600 families participate in Phoenix, Chicago, St Louis, and Charlotte to name a few. We’ve received letters from people who say, ‘It has opened up the world’ for them! They never dreamed they could take a flight.”
On the employee side of the equation, American Airlines provides both classroom and web-based trainings on matters of diversity; but it’s their execution of inclusivity that bears witness to the depth of their commitment. For instance, people with various ability challenges are provided necessary accommodations to maximize their performance, including adjustments in workflow and personalized work stations. To help their various faith-based employee groups to communicate more effectively with one another, American Airlines established a cooperative program called Abraham’s Tent, which utilizes the participants’ shared regard for Abraham to create opportunities for learning and understanding. Waldron adds, “How we recruit people has changed. No more ads in the newspaper! We’re reaching out to specific organizations like veterans, etc. to recruit.” American Airlines is even building a new corporate headquarters that is more conducive to a collaborative and supportive work environment. To ensure that this goal is achieved, an employee resource team has been asked for input to make sure all types of inclusive space, including mothers’ rooms, prayer rooms, etc. have been taken into account.
“We create an environment where people can bring their authentic self to work,” says Waldron. “People should be able to come to work and do the job they’ve been assigned to do without having to worry about how anyone else may think or feel about their faith, sexual orientation, gender, disability, etc. An employee, who happens to be transgender, told me that when she was looking for companies, she saw that we had gender identity as part of our non-discrimination policies. She saw that we are a company she could stand behind. When she started, she encountered an inclusive environment, so she was able to focus on her job and not on things related to her gender. The feedback that I’m getting from new hires is that they have done their research on American Airlines, and our diverse and inclusive environment is why they’re applying. Inclusion is a way to attract and retain talent.”
In addressing the challenges that companies face, Waldron states, “It’s a journey. You’re never ‘there.’ It’s a never-ending body of work, and it’s not a formulaic issue of A+B=C. We’re dealing with people, and always learning. But the more people that get it right, the more it effects our world.”
For job seekers considering American Airlines, Waldron encourages people to remember that there’s a wide range of jobs required to run an airline company, not just pilots and flight attendants. “Research and look for the job that might be the perfect fit. We are an organization that understands that we all have challenges and needs, and appreciate the perspective people bring with them.”