July 24, 2009
  HOK Communicates Value of Diversity Through Action

by Tracy Ostroff
Contributing Editor

How do you . . . promote diversity at an architecture firm?

Summary: HOK is no longer simply waiting for diverse talent to approach the St. Louis-headquartered firm seeking employment. Instead, the firm is making a concerted effort to go out and find job candidates from more inclusive demographics to fill their employment pipeline. HOK’s approach is focused on the ability not only to attract a wide spectrum of employees, the firm’s diversity manager notes, but to provide all employees with the challenging tasks, leadership progression, and the support they need to grow and develop.


Jaki Jefferson, HOK's firm-wide diversity manager. Image courtesy HOK.

The AIA honored HOK, along with 11 other programs and individuals, as part of its inaugural Diversity Recognition Program.

Today’s turbulent business environment makes it more important than ever to devote resources to diversity initiatives, says HOK’s firm-wide Diversity Manager Jacqueline Jefferson. “HOK must evolve to meet a ‘new world,’ one that is inundated with talent wars, record number of mergers and acquisitions, the changing face of clients and demographic dynamics,” she wrote in the submission for the AIA program. It was a prescient response to today’s pressing economic issues.

“Since I submitted this, the economy has impacted us in a whole different way,” Jefferson says. “One of the things that we’re finding is that our clients want to see faces that look like them. Demographics are changing constantly. We’re looking to adjust ourselves so that we can meet or match the needs of the clients in terms of personnel, not only on the projects side, but on the people side, too.”

It is all part of an overall proactive hiring strategy. “We can no longer do the traditional role of waiting for the talent to come to us. We have to be proactive in getting and building our pipeline. We have put together an array of initiatives to try to reach out and recruit diverse talent, as well as internally build talent to lead the company in the future,” Jefferson says.

Now, more than ever
“Firms of our magnitude have the responsibility to build and offer an inclusive and flexible work environment for all diverse talent, for all diverse people. The key to our future is the success of the workforce, and that includes diversity,” Jefferson says.

Approved by the firm’s executive committee, HOK’s diversity platform includes seven key initiatives: training and commitment, retention and promotion, recruitment, coaching/mentor/succession planning, community involvement, middle/high school outreach and collaboration, and peer diversity. The firm’s goal is to implement, evaluate, and measure the effectiveness of these key initiatives and determine whether they are successful for specific needs. They will do this with a “diversity scorecard,” Jefferson says. The diversity measurement tool will rate how well initiatives align with their operational goals.

Building the pipeline
“With the turbulence in our community, there seems to be a perception that diversity will become a casualty of the economy. We are working at HOK, again being proactive in making sure that we are targeting particular programs as well as initiating a budget that would maintain our diversity initiatives through this turbulence,” Jefferson explains.


HOK Blog Team members spell out HOK. Image courtesy HOK.

She says HOK is viewing the tough job market as a way to “build and ramp up our pipeline. “Unfortunately, with the market, there are a lot of people out there seeking employment due to the economy. So, on the opposite site of the spectrum, this is going to allow us to build up our talent and tap that pipeline.”

Jefferson calls it a two-fold process: “We are staying very positive, even though the economy has taken all of us on a very rough ride. We are looking at ways to capitalize as far as our diversity initiatives and our staff. These are tough times, but there’s an advantage in the market for us to build up that pipeline.”

Building partnerships
Realizing that they could no longer rely on the typical recruiting message and venues, Jefferson says HOK sought out other partnerships and opportunities to reach a more demographically diverse audience. They are teaming up with the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and the group arquitectos. They are also expanding their college recruiting efforts to schools that attract a larger number of minority students. They are using their sustainability focus to get more perspectives interested in their firm. “There are a lot of diverse, talented individual out there. We are searching them out, we’re finding them,” she says.

HOK is also teaming up with the ACE Mentor program, already in 9 of the firm’s 24 offices. Jefferson says they are looking to extend that program to all U.S. offices with the hope of engaging more middle and high school students. The reasoning is simple: “This is our profession. If we don’t embrace our profession, who will? It’s not every day that you get to go out and actually impact and touch somebody’s life in the way that our program does. The ACE program allows us to do this to go out and inform individuals about this particular profession at an early age.”


HOK team collaboration. Photo (c) Richard Johnson.

Maintaining budgets more important than ever
“We have to be realistic and say there is no doubt that companies are cutting their diversity budgets,” Jefferson says of economic realities that focus only on project-related costs. “We’re meeting and talking about budget and plans probably every other week to try to understand the dynamics of the economy. Internally, we have stepped up our awareness programs. We’re offering even more ‘lunch and learns.’ We call them professional development seminars to try to make sure that it is on everybody’s mind and at the forefront the advantage and the importance of diversity.”

Diversity is both short-term and long-term initiative at HOK. The firm is looking to have a diversity task force established in each office.”We’re going to have bodies aware and talking to people, and keeping this up on the forefront because it is critical and the benefits far outweigh the challenges.”

Jefferson emphasizes, “It is more important right now than ever. We are having to do more with less.” Diverse experiences, she says, helps drive firm innovation and meet clients needs.

Despite the economy, she says HOK is hard-pressed to cut their budget to ramp up their diversity efforts. “We have to stay in this for the long haul, and we have already invested a lot. Diversity is not new to HOK; we have already invested a lot. That’s why we’re maintaining it and keeping that awareness, consistently talking about it and educating people. We can talk about diversity all day long, but educating the people is a whole different facet. You have to have education in order to encourage embracing.”

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The Diversity Recognition Program seeks to recognize architects working in firms, schools, and other areas, as well as AIA components, for exemplary commitment and contributions to diversifying the profession of architecture. There were a total of 33 submissions for the award program in its inaugural year.

Submissions by this year’s award recipients were displayed at the AIA 2009 National Convention and Design Exposition in San Francisco.

Interested in submitting for 2010? Visit the Diversity Recognition page on AIA.org.