A Prescription for Sustainable Diversity: Merck’s Deborah Dagit

Just more than a decade ago, a large Fortune 100 firm flew Deborah Dagit first-class from her home in Silicon Valley to its East Coast headquarters. As one of the pioneers in the emerging field of diversity, Dagit had already managed to accumulate 10 years of experience as leader of diversity at IT companies in California, and she seemed like the perfect candidate for the company’s CDO job.

The company put her up in a five-star hotel and sent a limousine. However, when she arrived at the headquarters, the company canceled all of her interviews. Despite her extensive diversity experience, she was only offered a behind-the-scenes position where she would conduct much of the diversity-related work, while another employee would be the face of diversity at the company.

Dagit is visibly a person with a disability. Standing 4 feet tall, she walks with a cane and, since the fall of 2010, occasionally uses a wheelchair. Dagit has osteogenesis imperfecta, sometimes referred to as brittle bone disease. The congenital disorder makes her bones weak and susceptible to fracture and often, as is the case for Dagit, results in a shorter-than-average stature.

“In the mid-’80s, there were individuals who came right out and said to me that I was lucky to have a job,” Dagit said. “It’s not going to come as a shocker or any news to anyone that there are still attitudinal barriers when it comes to employers being willing to hire someone with a disability, whether it’s apparent or not.”

To say that Dagit has not let her disability keep her from shooting for the top is an understatement. She has always been a leader. As a senior in high school, Dagit was elected student body president, directed plays and represented China in a model United Nations.

“I guess I just have always felt comfortable and confident in helping others and in creating and directing strategies,” Dagit said. “I’m a very results-oriented person, so it’s hard for me not to be in a leadership role.”

Twenty-five years ago, before diversity had become a buzzword in the corporate world, Dagit started Bridge to Jobs, a job placement organization geared specifically toward people with disabilities. At the time, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was nearly double that of the general population — now, it’s about 75 percent higher for people with a disability, according to the U.S.

Department of Labor. At the behest of friends, and having grown frustrated with her HR job at a semiconductor firm, she decided to make a leap. Pairing her talent management skills with her know-how as the president of the board of directors of a nonprofit organization for individuals with osteogenesis imperfecta and her clinical psychology degree, she started the job placement organization. Dagit received seed money for Bridge to Jobs from the state of California and Apple Inc. and managed to place more than 400 people with disabilities into jobs during her four-year tenure.

Dagit left Bridge to Jobs and spent the next decade as a senior manager of strategic and cultural initiatives for Sun Microsystems, and director of learning communication and diversity at Silicon Graphics. Then, in June 2001, Dagit took the job as the first chief diversity officer at Merck, a global pharmaceutical company.

“Merck saw my being visibly different as another asset that I brought to the job in addition to my skills and experience,” she said.

Dagit said her experiences as a person with a disability have given her a better understanding of the diversity issues she addresses daily. They act as a resource she taps into in her role as a diversity leader. “With my condition in particular, in order to be safe, since my bones break easily, I’m hyper aware of my environment and the people around me,” she said. “I probably notice more than the average person — body language, facial expression, tones.”

Then, Now and Next
Before Dagit joined Merck it had no official diversity department. However, the company did have a proud history in equal employment opportunity and affirmative action.

“When I arrived, we had not started referring to the work that we were doing as diversity,” Dagit said. “It was still more around making sure we had a fair and respectful environment for all employees and that we were doing outreach to bring diverse talent.”

During Dagit’s decade-plus career at Merck, the company has been recognized by Working Mother and the Human Rights Campaign as a workplace and business that promotes diversity and inclusion.

She introduced global constituency groups, teams of about 20 senior leaders who recommend changes to talent development or business practices. The groups focus on different diverse segments of Merck’s workforce including women, men, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, native/indigenous, differently able, interfaith, generational and LGBT. She also oversaw the formation of seven employee resource groups, which connect employees with mentors from similar backgrounds and experiences to their own. Now Merck also has a chairman’s annual global diversity awards program.

With Dagit’s impending retirement in December, she also has been focused on fostering a legacy of diversity and inclusion at Merck to ensure the programs she developed continue to grow and her successor, Dottie Brienza, carries on the legacy of crafting innovative new ways to approach diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Dagit said the method she’s using to create a legacy of diversity is similar to the one she’s used to make workplace diversity and inclusion sustainable at Merck for the past decade: First, engage employees by connecting diversity with human resources, then tie external diversity initiatives to measurable business results. Without these connections, diversity and inclusion departments will function as standalone, separate entities that are only engaged in imposing company policies. This makes the diversity function an easy target when businesses are looking to make cuts.

“When business conditions are robust, you see a lot of investment in diversity,” Dagit said. “But when the business decisions are tough, people don’t take the long-term view as Merck has and often discard their investment and then have to start over again. We have to stop the ebb and flow by making diversity more sustainable by tying it to the business.”

Diversity can be connected with HR in many ways. Take a workplace environment, for example. Dagit said companies need to think about flexible hours and work arrangements to meet their employees’ myriad living situations. In terms of benefits, employers should query whether or not the plans they offer will attract and retain a diverse group of employees. And when recruiting, companies should be intentional about what populations they reach out to and what student groups they partner with to ensure their messages are broadcast to a wide range of potential candidates.

Outside of HR, diversity and inclusion can be tied to business practices. At Merck, researchers make sure underserved populations are included in drug trials and that new treatments are tested on populations that will need them the most. In terms of manufacturing, Merck offers packaging that makes its products easy to open for the elderly. From a health literacy standpoint, Merck includes information accessible to the vision impaired and understandable for individuals for whom English is a second language.

Under Dagit’s leadership Merck has used workforce diversity to address a multitude of potential issues in the marketplace.

“It is vitally important that employees inside of our company not only do the things that they were technically hired [to do] to be exceptional, but help us think through how we can show up in different communities in a way that can be heard,” Dagit said. “This ensures we have better health outcomes, and we don’t continue to see disparities within different communities.”

Healthy Succession Planning
Brienza, Dagit’s successor, started the on-boarding process in May. Having worked along with Dagit for the last few months, Brienza said she was impressed with how Dagit has rooted diversity directly into the business.

“She’s really done an incredible job of building relationships throughout the company and allowing where it’s appropriate for others, like business leaders, to be visible in the business space,” Brienza said. “That way diversity and inclusion isn’t seen as an HR activity, it’s seen as more of the way we do business more than something that stands on the side.”

Joseph Santana, president of consulting firm Joseph Santana LLC and the first senior director of diversity and inclusion at Siemens, agreed that tying diversity to business objectives makes D&I sustainable. He also praised Merck’s succession planning in terms of diversity.

“You don’t see the entire financial apparatus of an organization coming to a standstill or crashing because a CFO is leaving,” Santana said. “When one pilot gets out of the seat, the next pilot gets in and that plane stays at 30,000 feet. In diversity, it usually happens that every time the pilot leaves his seat, it goes into a nose dive and then that cycle continues.”

After spending 22 years in the diversity field, Dagit won’t be leaving the profession when she retires. She’s started Deb Dagit Diversity, a consulting practice to help individuals tapped to do diversity work but who have little previous experience. She’ll offer a just-in-time hotline as well as consult on larger projects.

“For new practitioners, it can be exciting, but also very daunting for those who may not have any internal resources to turn to,” Dagit said.

Reflecting on her lengthy career in diversity, Dagit said she sees diversity not as a job, but as an avocation. In her free time, she often reads about different cultures and human dynamics. She doesn’t see her retirement from Merck as a complete severing of ties with the company.

“I’ll probably remain in touch with Dottie after I move on with nonconfidential matters to the company,” she said. “Merck is always going to be an important part of my history, and any way I can help the company, whether it’s Dottie or other colleagues, I will remain as engaged as I can.”