TDS Plants the Seeds of Inclusion

June 1, 2018
With 2,800 employees working in rural and suburban communities across the United States, TDS strives to delight customers by delivering outstanding products and services. At the same time, TDS understands […]

With 2,800 employees working in rural and suburban communities across the United States, TDS strives to delight customers by delivering outstanding products and services. At the same time, TDS understands their success is dependent upon hiring and retaining the best talent. And, that is becoming more and more dependent on employees feeling welcome and included.

"If employees have the skills, but don’t feel included, they’ll leave," said Patrick Yates, a 25-year TDS employee and manager of Diversity and Inclusion. "I know, because I was at that point once. There are not a lot of people of color here at our TDS office in Wisconsin. I considered leaving to find a work environment that reflected people more like me. Then I asked myself who would come and fix this issue if I left. I chose to stay and help make it better."

Among the first things Yates did, was to invite the VP of Human Resources to lunch to boldly ask, "Why are there not more people that look like me working here?" To his surprise, the response was, "What do you think we need to do, and I need you to help us do that."

Following the conversation, Yates moved from his role in Network Services to the Human Resources team and began helping TDS put action behind the company’s written policy.

Founding members of TDS Telecom’s Women in Technology Employee Resource Group posed for a quick photo to celebrate a successful first meeting.

The first step was placing more emphasis on creating an engaged workforce. This included creating Employee Resource Groups based on employees’ interests, backgrounds, and personal situations. The effort is centered on creating smaller communities inside the larger TDS community.

"We believe that by making TDS a bit smaller, it creates natural opportunities for employee engagement," said Yates. And, statistics show "an engaged workforce equals successful, happy employees, which definitely benefits the organization, too."

Is it the correct formula? "Maybe not for everyone," said Yates. "Keep in mind, there’s no magic wand but there is a definite recipe. And, this one works for TDS. We analyze and measure our efforts. We know we must retain employees and elevate their voices, making sure they are heard. We also focus on building strategic relationships, inside and out, by investing in the communities we serve in order to recruit the best people to join our family."

In addition to building Employee Resource Groups, TDS took a courageous step in 2016 and designated a portion of Yates’ time to working for a non-profit organization based in Madison, Wisconsin. In this "loaned executive" arrangement, Yates dedicated 60% of his time toward working with the Nehemiah Community Development Corporation and their Justified Anger initiative. In this role, he focused on helping the group implement its "Our Madison Plan" — an effort focused on narrowing racial disparities in Madison.

"I’m proud to have been part of such a bold initiative, one that included support from the highest levels of leadership," said Yates. "That TDS would take such an innovative approach to ignite conversation and generate a more diverse workplace and community — for me, it really defined the company’s stance on diversity and inclusion."

Yates likens TDS’ diversity and inclusion efforts to planting a garden. It doesn’t bear fruit overnight. It is a process that takes time in sowing, nurturing, and cultivating the seeds that have been planted before you can reap the benefits. With the proper water, nutrients, and tending, the garden will blossom.

According to Yates, "TDS has a way to go, but we are scratching the surface. I believe we are doing a lot of right things on our journey. From building and investing in our internal community to creating varied and diverse small groups, we are building an environment of inclusion. And, perhaps most importantly, we have buy-in from senior leadership."

"Having a diverse workplace is critical to attracting and keeping the best employees," said Kathy Cefalu, VP, Chief Human Resources Officer at TDS Telecom. "As an organization, we are striving to provide a place where employees appreciate and value each other’s differences. Through our Employee Resource Groups, we are creating new ways for employees to connect and share information. It’s really about providing an inclusive environment for our employees."

A handful of interns recently met to discuss the valuable experience they are gaining at TDS Telecom while working to finish their degrees.

For some employees, Employee Resources Groups provide leadership development opportunities. For others, the groups help fill a gap or void. Yet for other employees, it’s about meeting people facing similar situations. Without the Resource Groups, due to the company’s size and multitude of locations, finding each other could be likened to finding a needle in a haystack.

To date, TDS has 4 Employee Resource Groups:
Patriot Group is dedicated to employees who currently or previously served in the US military — in any way — along with civilians, family members, first responders, police officers, and fire fighters.

Intern Group supports the company’s 60+ interns who are gaining valuable experience in their field of study.

Achieving a Better Life/Work Environment for Individuals with Disabilities Group brings together employees interested in learning about individuals with disabilities, mental or physical impairments, chronic illnesses, or other health issues — whether temporary or permanent.

Women in Technology Group welcomes women and their allies from all backgrounds and careers to help recruit, retain, and support women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

"We have plans to add more Employee Resource Groups, but the interest and drive has to come from our employees," stated Cefalu. "It’s the only way they can be successful. It’s not about TDS creating groups and hoping employees will come. Rather, it’s about listening to our employees and offering them the resources to create diverse groups that fulfill a need. It’s about helping employees not only feel they are important, but to really know and understand just how important they are."

We must be doing something right! Earlier this year, TDS Telecom’s parent company, Telephone and Data Systems, was included at number 190 in Forbes America’s Best Employers for Diversity list. It recognized 250 leading US-based employers for their diversity efforts and initiatives. For Telephone and Data Systems, the list represents the collective input from employees at all subsidiary companies: TDS Telecom, U.S. Cellular, OneNeck IT Solutions, and Suttle-Straus.

According to Yates, TDS will continue to invest in diversity and inclusion opportunities broadly across race/ethnicity, gender, abilities, and generation. He says, "It’s about building an inclusive environment, and success will come in many forms, some large, some small. We have the ability to affect change. And, when we do it well, we make TDS, and the communities we serve, better."

For the company, success will be measured, in many ways. It will be based, in part, on retaining current employees while drawing in new talent. Growing the number of Employee Resource Groups and the participation in them is another way TDS will evaluate its success.

Yates stated, "This is a journey. There may be bumps in the road, and we may take a few wrong turns, but we will keep going, striving to build and foster a diverse and inclusive environment. Like a garden, it will take time and nurturing."

For more information, please visit these websites.

Our Madison Plan:

Patriot Group:

Intern Group:

Achieving a Better Life/Work Environment for Individuals with Disabilities Group:

Women in Technology Group:

Telephone and Data Systems:

America’s Best Employers for Diversity:

About the Author

Cindy Tomlinson

Cindy Tomlinson is seasoned public relations professional. She has been with TDS nearly a dozen years and serves as the Associate Manager of PR at TDS where she focuses on internal and external communications. Overall, she has more than 25 years of communications experience. For more information, visit Follow TDS on Twitter: @tdstelecom