Ask Alicia Petross, the Hershey Company’s vice president of diversity, inclusion, and engagement, what she is most proud of, and her answer is clear: diversity and inclusion are more than aspirational goals.
Petross points to the fact that Hershey is one of two Fortune 500 companies whose CEO and CFO are women. Additionally, two African American leaders serve on Hershey’s executive committee; women lead many of Hershey’s largest businesses, including a Latina who leads the Reese’s brand; and five women sit on the company’s board of directors.
“The key to retaining women and diverse employees is providing professional career growth, flexible workplace practices, meaningful workplace experiences, and community connections,” Petross says. She spoke with Diversity Woman about the power of diverse teams and why companies must take a stand for inclusion.
Diversity Woman: What was your path to diversity and inclusion?
Alicia Petross: As a regional human resources leader with the Target Corporation, I observed that stores led by diverse teams delivered stronger business results. I had an opportunity to lead human resources functions for Target’s largest volume-producing group, the stores in metro New York. That led me to a position on Target’s corporate diversity and inclusion team. I joined the Hershey Company in December 2013, leading diversity, inclusion, and employee engagement for the enterprise.
DW: You’ve spoken about a childhood experience of seeing your father help a relative with a disability find employment. How did that influence your work?
AP: I saw my father help a disabled relative gain employment, and then I saw her flourish because of the independence and strength gained by having a job. I believe that talent is equally distributed among genders, ethnicities, ages, physical and mental abilities, and sexual orientations. Often, though, opportunities are less equally distributed. I have a strong desire to continue promoting diversity and inclusion at Hershey, and the fit at Hershey was ideal because much like what I observed with my father’s actions, the Hershey Company was built on the idea of strong community.
DW: The Hershey Company was named a 2017 Leading Disability Employer by the National Organization on Disability. Give us an example of why the company was recognized.
AP: One effort is our service animal program. The coleader of our Abilities First employee affinity group started it a few years ago. She began raising a service pup on campus through Susquehanna Service Dogs. Since then, we’ve raised a troupe of puppies. The puppies work the same schedule as their raisers. They attend meetings, large and small. The Susquehanna organization benefits because the puppies get needed training time in corporate settings. The program has done so much to increase the sense of belonging for individuals with disabilities.
DW: With the increased awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, has the Hershey Company stepped up its training around unconscious bias and sexual harassment?
AP: We added unconscious bias training to our suite of required training a few years ago. We continue to expect inclusive, respectful treatment for all. One of the first leader forums that Michele Buck, our first female CEO, conducted was a meeting with leaders to openly talk about the bias and marginalization that some were experiencing in their communities.
DW: What are the biggest challenges for D&I over the next five years?
AP: Employees want to work for, and be part of, a workplace that is committed to things that they also believe in. Hershey is a purpose-driven company. We were in 1894, when Hershey was founded, and we continue to proudly build on that legacy every day. I think that’s a strong unifier for our employees. Being able to have an open workplace and being able to talk about the difficult situations that are happening out there in the world are extremely important. Taking a stand for inclusion, from our CEO and leadership to new employees, is critical in today’s world.