James Thomas (he/him) is the Director DEI/Engagement/Recognition of Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines has been flying since 1932 and is notably recognized as a stand-out performer among domestic carriers in the United States. Alaska Airlines employs 23,000 Total Employees. In this episode, Thomas reveals the level of commitment required to advance inclusion in the workplace.
[00:00:48] Amy: Welcome back to Including You. I’m your host Amy C. Waninger. My guest today is James Thomas. He’s the director of DEI Engagement and Recognition at Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines has been flying since 1932 and is notably recognized as a standout performer among domestic carriers in the United States. The company employs 23,000 people.
[00:01:12] Amy: James, I’m so glad to have you here. Welcome to the show.
[00:01:14] James: Thank you, Amy. I’m so happy to be here today and have an opportunity to talk about a subject that’s so near and dear to me.
[00:01:21] Amy: So, I just wanna say I’ve already learned something just in the pre-talk, just the, in the little bit that we were talking before I hit record.
[00:01:28] Amy: That Alaska Airline is actually based in Seattle and not in Alaska, that was news to me I’ll share that.
[00:01:33] James: We fly to Alaska, I think obviously it’s our namesake and we got our start in Alaska and it’s a very rich part of our history, but yes, we are based in the Pacific Northwest in Seattle. But we fly to Alaska.
[00:01:48] Amy: There you go. No, that’s wonderful. So tell me, you said this is near and dear to your heart, and I know that’s true for every DEI practitioner. What I’m curious about is why is DEI such an important focus for Alaska Airline?
[00:02:02] James: Yeah, I think I would probably say it’s essential to our business, Amy.
[00:02:06] James: In the airline industry and in most industries in the travel industry, you’re catering to a very diverse audience. When I think about who flies on our planes, we service customers from all across the world to all different parts of the world and through our different airline partners everywhere you can think of.
[00:02:21] James: And they’re very diverse, and so in order for us to be able to be an airline that truly cares about people and different people, I think you have to be a company that’s focused on diversity not only just in your values, but also in just your representation of employees that come in contact with your guests.
[00:02:39] James: For those reasons it’s a really big part of our business and it’s essential to our continued growth as an airline. So definitely an important subject here.
[00:02:49] Amy: So it sounds like it’s not just a market share initiative or, capturing market share, but also really a customer satisfaction and a customer engagement initiative as well as an employee engagement initiative.
[00:03:01] Amy: Is that fair to say?
[00:03:02] James: It is, I think at the core of it this work is about people and it’s the right thing to do, so I, so let’s start there, and then I think, from a business perspective, I think that you can’t have a company that is gonna continue to grow and have a customer base, that’s diverse and from all across the world.
[00:03:21] James: If you aren’t thinking about, how the things, the products that your company has or the services that you have, how those are impacting different people, so yes I do think that it’s about how we give service to customers, It’s how we gain new customers and think about customer acquisition, but it’s also just at the board.
[00:03:37] James: It’s about people and it’s about the right thing to do, and making sure that everybody feels like this is an airline that they love and feel comfortable on, and we talk a lot about care at Alaska and inclusion and diversity and equity is caring at its core.
[00:03:53] Amy: So, when you think about the mission of Alaska Airlines and what you bring to the world and that you do that with 23,000 employees, that’s a lot of scope for DEI work.
[00:04:04] Amy: What’s, what do you look at in your organization and think, Wow that’s the thing, or that’s one of the things that really makes us unique, that’s really pushing us forward in this space.
[00:04:17] James: Yeah, I think it starts with our people, and I know this sounds really cliche and I know a lot of companies will say it’s our people that makes, our company and our organization, but it truly is the people that make Alaska who we are.
[00:04:29] James: We try to ensure that we’re hiring people that live our values. And some of those are, doing the right thing, being kind so, I think it starts with our people, but also our commitment to DEI I think rest with our leadership and truly a desire to wanna be an airline that, that cares about people and that cares about human beings.
[00:04:47] James: And that sees people for who they are. 23,000, yeah, it’s a lot of people and we have a lot of employees across a lot of different stations and a lot of different places and this work isn’t always easy to push through 23,000 people. I like to refer to it as it’s like a big moving ship that it’s hard to, turn around and get going in one direction.
[00:05:07] James: But I think it’s our people are a big part of that and I think our people are what help us really ensure that we’re doing that, but a commitment from leadership that, this is the company, this is the company that we want to be in terms of inclusiveness and diversity.
[00:05:18] Amy: And so, what are some of the initiatives that you’ve done with your folks that you’re pushing out or that you’ve implemented that you feel like are game changers for you?
[00:05:26] James: Yeah, one of the biggest things is this big plane in the background behind me, this is our what we call our OC delivery or our commitment plane, and this was one of our biggest things that we launched last year and this was a couple of different things. It was our long-standing partnership with UNCF but it was also really our way of putting it I like to say, putting our money where our mouth is and really, using.
[00:05:48] James: Our planes, which is really one of our biggest assets to being a flying billboard and really showing our commitment to not only education, but also equity and education being the equalizer in equity, and so we, we partnered with our air group, black employees and allies, a business resource group, which is our black employee resource group to really and UNCF.
[00:06:10] James: To develop this plane, and so the pictures on the side of this plane are the students are actually the children and mentees of some of our black employees here at Alaska Airlines, and so that’s their faces on the size of this plane. But it’s, it also was just a commitment that, hey, we believe that equity is important and we wanna show that we want this plane to be applying billboard.
[00:06:31] James: That we’re not just saying it’s important to us, but we’re actually committed to it, and we’re committed to it in a way that we’re gonna put it on a plane and we want people to see it. So when it flies through the air is just that public commitment, visual commitment of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
[00:06:47] Amy: And it is stunning for those who are catching the audio and can’t see it, it’s beautiful, and I’ll put a link if we can get a link to the picture of the image of the plane in the show notes so you can go look it, it really is beautiful artwork and it captures a wide spectrum of folks and their style and their hues and, the way that they’re presented is just absolutely beautiful.
[00:07:08] James: I’ll add to that, Amy, there’s actually a YouTube video out there, and I’ll share that with you, but it’s a time lapsed video that shows the painting of the plane and then really the unveiling of the plane to the family members and the children on the side of the plane and I had an opportunity to be a part of that, and it was a really powerful moment to watch those young people come in and see their likenesses reflected on the side of a Boeing 737 plane and the families to be able to see that.
[00:07:32] James: And it was a really powerful moment. One of the things that you can’t really see on the plane also is that there are a couple of quotes on there. There’s a quote on one side from Nelson Mandela, and there’s a quote from Martin Luther King as well.
[00:07:48] James: And so really pointing it to, again, talking about equity and diversity and education.
[00:07:55] Amy: I think it’s beautiful now, the work doesn’t stop on the outside of the plane. You’ve got some changes coming for your employees as well, right?
[00:08:02] James: We do, I’d say our biggest commitments, last year we made some pretty public commitments.
[00:08:07] James: We released our 2025 diversity, equity, and inclusion commitments, and those were really broken up into the three parts. The first part really being representation, and we made a commitment that by 2025, that we wanted our leadership, and that’s our director and above levels to represent at a minimum our frontline population.
[00:08:24] James: And so, our frontline population at the time was 30%, and so we want our leadership to be reflective of that because if you think about, in a perfect world, you should be growing your talent internally, and so if you’ve got a population of individuals and that’s diverse in your frontline population, those individuals should be growing into your leadership.
[00:08:45] James: And so, we made a commitment that by 2025, we wanted our leadership to be at 30%, and so that’s one part of our commitment, the second part is that we wanted to ensure that our inclusion index or our engagement survey that we increased the score on that by a minimum of 10 percentage points.
[00:09:04] James: And so, our engagement survey is really one of the ways that we measure whether or not we’re being successful or inclusive, and it’s really an average of eight questions that we ask on our engagement survey every year to really help us understand if what we’re trying to do from a diversity, equity, and inclusion standpoint is actually resonating with our employees.
[00:09:21] James: And they’re actually not just. Not just hearing it, but they’re feeling it. So, when you feel belonging and belonging then hopefully, you’re able to say that, hey, I feel it I’m seeing it and it makes me wanna stay here. It makes me feel good about working here, and we measure that through our inclusion index core.
[00:09:38] James: The last piece of that is how do we make sure that we’re using our name and our brand to really support creating opportunities for and 175 young people is what we made a commitment that we wanted to create 175,000 opportunities and not just in the airline industry, but just in general for young people by 2025.
[00:09:57] James: So those are really the three components of our DEI commitments for 2025, and I’m proud to say that since we made those commitments we’ve been able to increase our leadership from 16% to 19%, and we’ve been able to increase our frontline population from 30% to about 35% diversity.
[00:10:16] James: So, we’re on the right track. We’ve still obviously got some more work to do, but we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
[00:10:23] Amy: And when you say, when you give those percentages, are you talking percentages of historically excluded populations in general? Are you talking about black and brown employees? What’s the.
[00:10:34] James: Yep. So, I’m talking about, I’m talking about bipoc. Those communities black, indigenous people of color those communities that have historically been marginalized or underrepresented and so when we think about from a representation standpoint and getting to that 30% representation, we’re really looking at racial representation.
[00:10:50] James: Now we’re also looking at other dimensions of diversity within the organization, but in terms of our public commitments, we specifically wanna make sure that we’re increasing our racial representation in our leadership.
[00:11:00] Amy: That’s so important because that’s how you attract people into the company in the first place, right?
[00:11:04] Amy: Is that they need to see, everybody needs to be able to see somebody that looks like them, ahead of them in their career path. Or they feel like maybe there’s not a place for them there.
[00:11:14] James: I think, representation is so important and I’ve had this conversation with people that maybe didn’t understand them.
[00:11:20] James: I’ll use, I’ll use just our pilots as an example. I think growing up, flying on a plane, I don’t ever recall really seeing a person that looked like me flying a plane, and being a pilot was never something that I thought was a possibility for career, but we know that you can be a pilot and be a person of color.
[00:11:38] James: And I use our pilots as an example by us wanting to make sure that we’ve even got more diversity in our pilot ranks for those people who have maybe dreamed about being an airline pilot or little kids who have never thought about flying, seeing someone that looks like you.
[00:11:53] James: Is definitely a motivator to say, hey, if that person can do it, maybe I can do it too. I’m a tennis fan and, watching Serena Williams, play the US Open as her last tournament before she retires and I think about just how many people she’s inspired to play the game because they saw someone that looked like them.
[00:12:09] James: Playing the game of tennis representation is important and it matters and it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in it’s important.
[00:12:19] Amy: Absolutely. There’s, I think it activates the imagination of everyone, not just not just kids who are looking up to see, am I represented here, but having people who are experts who look different than what we expect experts to look like.
[00:12:31] Amy: Having pilots who are black and brown and women and, disabled and, representing the full spectrum of humanity in the cockpit is important not just for little kids, but for grown people with limited imaginations.
[00:12:48] James: It does, Amy, it definitely challenges the stereotypes and biases that we all have about who.
[00:12:54] James: Who a certain position or what a certain position or role looks like. Whether it’s a CEO, whether it’s a manager or leader, whether it’s a pilot, whether it’s a flight attendant, no matter what it is and you’re exactly right, that representation is important for a number of different reasons, not just for children or people aspiring to be in those roles, but also for people who have kind of these preconceived notions of, who gets those positions or what those individuals look like. Absolutely.
[00:13:20] Amy: I think it’s fantastic that you’ve set this target and you’re already making strides toward it. Can you talk a little bit about what are some of the steps you took to make progress early? I talked to a lot of companies, representatives, a lot of executives who say, we have.
[00:13:36] Amy: There are all sorts of excuses, right? There’s a pipeline problem, we just can’t find the talent, we don’t know where to look, we bring people in, but they don’t stay, and clearly, you’ve had some success in this area despite the easy excuses of not being able to do it. So, what are you doing differently that you’d like to see other companies emulate?
[00:13:52] James: I think one of the things that we try to really do is not just talk about it but use data to help tell the story. I have lots of conversations with leaders where I talk about it’s important to not just admire the data because I think there’s a, there’s a propensity to, to look at the data and admire it and ooh, and let’s talk about what it’s telling us and let’s pull more data to see what that data tells us.
[00:14:17] James: But at the end of the day, it’s what you actually do with the data, and it’s how you take the data and make actionable take actionable steps to resolving it, and so one of the things that we try to do is, we obviously review the data pretty consistently. I review the data monthly and I review it with leaders and my team.
[00:14:34] James: We review it with leaders across the organization, but the goal is also to come up with actions from, okay, as a result of what we’re seeing, what are the things that we’re gonna do differently? And then how do we come back and track against that data to see are we seeing progress? Are the things that we do that we’re doing, are they helping move this data forward?
[00:14:52] James: And if not, how do we adjust and change those things? Or how do we just get rid of it all together if it’s not working and try something different? And one of the things that I want to encourage people to do is you have to have data to tell the story, but then you have to action against the data too and not just admire it.
[00:15:07] Amy: I think don’t admire the data or don’t just admire the data could be a whole t-shirt line for people in all sorts of fields.
[00:15:14] James: It really could be a T-shirt thing, and I feel like in this space, I’m sure probably, Amy, and your conversation with other practitioners, this work is a lot about passion also, I don’t think any of us lack passion.
[00:15:24] James: You can’t do this work without being passionate about it, but there, I like to say there’s an art and science to doing this work also, and so you need to be passionate, but there also needs to be a strategic approach around, how are you going to systematically focus on certain things, not try to boil the ocean, but say, Okay, these are the two things I’m gonna start with.
[00:15:44] James: I’m gonna do these things really well, then I’m gonna move on to these next things, and I’m gonna do those things really well, and I’m gonna move on to the next two things, instead of trying to tackle 10 different things and only do it, mediocrely are not that great.
[00:15:58] Amy: Yes, absolutely. This notion of, figuring out where you can move the needle and concentrating your effort there. Because so much of this work is about capitalizing on pass momentum, right? And showing we’ve got results in this area and now we wanna invest here.
[00:16:10] James: Yeah. And I think it also, you have to have a commitment from the top.
[00:16:14] James: I’ve seen organizations try to move this kind of from the middle, and this work doesn’t move from the middle. If you don’t have a commitment from the highest levels of your organization, that being your CEO, that being your executive team, it’s gonna be a really tough journey trying to move this work throughout the organization.
[00:16:31] James: And so really making sure that you’ve got that commitment and buy on from all levels of leadership and particularly your executives is gonna be really key, and I think that’s something that we’ve been fortunate enough to have at Alaska, which makes my job a little bit easier, because it’s not just me pushing it, but it’s our executives and our leaders pushing it as well.
[00:16:50] James: And then me helping to coach them on, what are the things that they need to do to help move it further and faster.
[00:16:57] Amy: Yes, I get into conversations a lot where people say, this does, this approach doesn’t work, or this approach doesn’t work, or we’d be where we wanna be already.
[00:17:06] Amy: And I turn that around and say if we’re not where we wanna be already and we’re gonna blame the approaches, don’t we have to blame all of the approaches? And instead of doing away with everything we could do, why not recognize that we all have a role to play?
[00:17:20] Amy: There’s, we can’t all carry the ball all the way down the field, right? but we can each move it a little bit, we can get it a little bit further, we can come in and ask for help, we can each do our part to carry it a little bit further and then, when all of our efforts combine and we recognize and value and prioritize and plug people into the right places, right?
[00:17:38] Amy: Whether it’s executives or middle managers or frontline workers, or even our customers, and say, hey, this is what we’re trying to accomplish. Can we get everybody to pitch in and help? It makes a huge difference.
[00:17:50] James: Best case scenario, Amy, I always say is my goal is to work myself out of a job now, I don’t know that’s gonna ever happen in my lifetime, but my goal is to help people be so efficient at doing this, to make it such a part of our drinking water and such a part of what we do on a daily basis.
[00:18:06] James: That you don’t need someone in a role like mine to really drive this initiative in the organization because everybody’s doing it, everybody is taking that piece of it and owning it and going out there and doing it, and I feel like my goal is to help other people do this job well as though they were practitioners.
[00:18:27] James: And if I can get, one person, two per people, 3, 4, 5, 10 people to do this job, then exponentially I’m going to be able to take this subject and move it faster and farther cuz I’ve got more people doing it. Generally, your DEI teams are small nucleus teams supporting big organizations.
[00:18:42] James: And it’s impossible to think that those groups alone are gonna be able to single handedly take this super important, big, huge subject and just make it happen, all throughout the organization you’re gonna need other people to do that.
[00:18:57] Amy: Absolutely many hands make light work.
[00:18:59] Amy: James, what’s next for your work at Alaska Airlines, what are you hoping to accomplish? You’ve got this 2025 commitment, is there some piece of it that you’re really looking forward to implementing? Some piece of it that you’re really looking forward to celebrating.
[00:19:11] James: I’m most looking forward to celebrating in 2025.
[00:19:15] James: Us having achieved that goal first and foremost, Amy. I think getting to that target, I think will be an important piece. We’re working on some different things from a culture perspective to continue to, as I like to say I want people to come to Alaska and not just feel like it’s words on a piece of paper, but it’s actually what they feel, what they’re living, what they’re seeing every day.
[00:19:32] James: And those things look like, all of the different initiatives that we’re doing, all throughout the year, and some examples of those are, we’ve developed new uniform guidelines for our employees to make sure that employees feel like they can come to work and truly express who they are.
[00:19:45] James: And express their uniqueness and do that in a way that allows them to come to work and do their best work, but also be able to give great service to our guests, and so I’m really excited that we’ve done some work around there. We’ve done work around looking at disability in the organization and, how do we attract more individuals with disabilities?
[00:20:01] James: How do we make sure that our buildings, our airports our stations, our facilities are accessible for all people, how do we make sure that we’re doing that? How do we look at a lot of our processes and programs to make sure that they’re inclusive?
[00:20:15] James: And that we remove bias from those processes so that everybody has access to those, and so I think it’s, for us, it’s just getting in the weeds and doing some of that not so glamorous, sexy work as I like to call it, and really making sure that we’re actually changing policies and changing things so that it’s actually what people feel and see and not just what we say and talk about.
[00:20:36] Amy: And even though it doesn’t seem glamorous and sexy on this side, everything that you implement, I guarantee there is somebody somewhere who notices and appreciates it because it makes them feel like they belong, it makes them feel safe, it makes them feel heard or seen, and so it doesn’t always feel this work matters on the front end.
[00:20:55] Amy: But we know it does in our hearts, but we don’t always see the results. The fact that somebody shows up for work and they can get to their desk, or they can get on a plane or, they feel safe when they do, that is hugely important and I think very sexy.
[00:21:10] James: I appreciate that. I hope that when people are having conversations about Alaska, whether they’re an employee or whether they’re a guest at their dinner tables at home with their families, I hope it is a conversation where people say, you know what?
[00:21:24] James: I love Alaska Airlines, I love working there, I love flying them, I love experiencing everything about Alaska, and I hope they do that, I hope they say that because they feel that, I hope they feel seen and included and valued for who they are, and so I, I think that if I can get one person to feel that and then, spread that love one person at a time or two people at a time, then, in some small way I’ve given back to, to hopefully making Alaska and the world a better place.
[00:21:55] Amy: Absolutely, James Thomas, thank you so much for your time today for sharing your expertise with us.
[00:22:00] James: Thanks, Amy. Thanks for having me.
[00:22:52] Amy: That’s it for this week’s episode of Including You. Join me next week where my guest will be. John Samuel, co-founder of Enabler.
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Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com