Creating a Change in Behavior to Change the Culture

  • Alumni

In the beginning of her career, Diane Yaris, MSW ’14, thought that she would take the more traditional, clinical route as a social worker. But then, she started envisioning how she could make the most impact and got excited about the organizational side of things. She wanted to help change behaviors in order to help change a culture.

Yaris is the Senior Organizational Development Partner for Human Resources and Talent & Organizational Development at USC, and she feels very equipped transferring her Master of Social Work (MSW) training into this environment.

Previously, she worked with women veterans encountering significant barriers to employment, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma and lack of coping skills, and within career services for students in higher education.

“There were a lot of the counseling skills used when working with students which aligned perfectly with HR,” Yaris said. “Because you're working with employee relations, dealing with very sensitive issues, as far as micro aggressions at work, and working with managers.”

Yaris views the incorporation of social work into the workplace as an opportunity to help create a healthy work environment in order to improve overall wellbeing; especially now, when personal and professional lives are blurred.

The greatest asset any social worker has is adaptability. At the end of May 2020, when George Floyd was killed and protests erupted across the country demanding social justice, she wanted to do something to help employees at USC. “We had to do it fast, so we reached out, we collaborated,” Yaris said. 

Rising to the occasion

There were many webinars, forums and other events created to support students, faculty and staff tied to academic units. However, a large part of the university staff works in administrative units. Yaris and her group developed a collaboration between university HR and USC Campus Wellness and Education, and began hosting discussion groups for faculty and staff with facilitators trained in mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), in conjunction with webinars addressing race equity and well-being issues that were open to all USC employees.

“We wanted to create a brave and safe space for staff and faculty to come together,” Yaris said. “These discussion groups were created for people to connect in a time when we're all so disconnected because of COVID.”

From the first week of August until mid-December, the webinars had over 2000 attendees across the university, with the faculty and staff discussion groups reaching up to 80 participants.

Yaris was tasked with securing the panelists, coordinating the webinars and leading the discussion groups. The group of approximately 50 trained facilitators was comprised mainly from the school of social work and the Center for Work and Family Life.

“Everything is focused around emotional intelligence now,” Yaris said. “This year we have pushed a lot into the DEI space for sensitivity training and various ways we can create and build awareness for these issues. USC is going through this whole culture transformation and so we recruited some of their team to become facilitators and panelists in the DEI space.”

Yaris, along with the Center for Work and Family Life and Campus Wellbeing and Education, provided training for the facilitators to ensure they were comfortable in their roles. Each discussion group featured breakout groups, and facilitators were paired up to engage with up to ten participants.

“We wanted to make sure that if things came up in a discussion group with faculty and staff, that not just one facilitator, but two supporting each other could address the race issues and have the mental health person there to discuss how to handle these feelings,” Yaris said.

One such facilitator was Holly Priebe Sotelo, clinical associate professor in field education at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Sotelo served as a facilitator for about five of the faculty and staff discussion groups held every other week.

“It was really providing a safe platform for people to have these difficult conversations about race, ethnicity, equity and all the things that were happening around the world, and how it was impacting the university,” Sotelo said. “It was very powerful and meaningful, and I was so happy to see people from all parts of the university participating.”

As coordinator for the second-year field placements for all MSW students in the Social Change and Innovation department where macro social work training is the focus, Sotelo was excited, and not surprised, that Yaris was an MSW alumna. Sotelo encourages her students to pave a different path to traditional social work, and Yaris is doing just that.

“Social work plays a significant role in any sector where human beings come into contact,” Sotelo said. She believes social workers can help facilitate very challenging situations because they are trained in active listening and mediation skills, and, by the nature of their training, are problem solvers. “Facilitating these very challenging conversations is something that we usually do with ease, to a degree,” she said. “We do this every day. To have those active listening skills and helping to reframe and to problem solve is just a perfect segue into the field of human resources.”

Looking forward

As Yaris continues her work in HR, her goal, and what she believes aligns perfectly with social work in her position, is to empower individuals to become the best version of themselves they can be. She also helps run a management essentials program which provides coaching for managers within USC to improve their working relationship with their employees using emotional intelligence and growth, as well as managing a mentoring and development program to help employees with their own career and professional development.

The Senior Vice President of Human Resources for the university has approved for Yaris to continue the discussion group and webinar program in the spring. Every Tuesday, from February through April, alternating webinars and discussion groups will take place. In addition, Yaris and her associates are collecting data from surveys they have created for participants. Although they have developed the space to increase awareness and provide subject matter experts for definition and a foundation of knowledge, the goal was to create psychological safety among faculty and staff and, ultimately, to change behavior.

The survey is designed to find out if attendees have noticed a change in their thoughts on issues related to DEI, or if there have been any changes in their behavior at work. “We really want to measure the long-lasting impact,” Yaris said. “Not just having the knowledge base on these topics, but how is it going to change and enhance the inclusive culture at USC.”

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