After Decades Of Deposits, It’s Time For Withdrawals From The Bank Of Corporate Culture

If you wait until a crisis to build great culture, you'll be too late. Only time and consistency reveal genuine care and concern for employees—and they will, in turn, step up during hard times.

The good news: A strong, positive culture will allow your business to survive a crisis.

The bad news: waiting until a crisis to create that culture is like handing work gloves to a carpenter with splinters.

The public health crisis, economic downturn, a surge of racial tensions…2020 has been crisis upon crisis. Nothing this year is going according to last year’s expectations. It’s been a year of virtual meetings, agility and resilience and it’s times like these when you truly understand how brand strength is born of corporate culture.

Aflac has routinely made Fortune’s lists of World’s Most Admired Companies; Points of Light’s Most Community-Minded Companies; Ethisphere’s World’s Most Ethical Companies.   These accolades are a reflection of the compassion and care demonstrated by Aflac employees. In fact, our employees and sales agents donate millions annually to fund treatment and research in childhood cancer — in crisis, they rise to the challenge. Always.

It’s difficult to build such a culture during a crisis because that’s simply too late. Only time and consistency reveal genuine care and concern for employees. This is the corporate culture that will pull us through as we adapt to a wildly different world. We’re asking our people to adapt to newly configured work environments, and we’re demonstrating that their leadership is committed to treating everyone fairly and respectfully. We can only make such withdrawals from our account at the Bank of Corporate Culture because years of purposeful deposits have swelled our balance.

Early in the pandemic, we made it clear that the health and safety of our employees and distribution teams was our number one priority. We vacated our headquarters and very quickly had nearly all of our 5,000 employees working from home. We installed grace periods for policyholders having trouble paying premiums. We amended our employer sponsored benefits to address our own employees’ health concerns. We supported our independent sales agents with access to interest-free loans. We donated more than $10 million to help supply front-line workers with personal protective equipment.  And we communicated all of this freely and persistently, both internally and externally, to ensure employees and stakeholders remained informed.

And in the midst of this, riots and cries for social justice emerged as the result of the George Floyd incident, among others. In The Aflac Way fashion, we began immediately to host discussions, both internally and externally, using our powerful platform to share dialogue on the often uncomfortable topic of race relations. We are partnering with the Congressional Black Caucus to push social issues and equity and we support hate crimes legislation in our home state of Georgia.

What gives us license to lead on these important issues? Culture deposits over decades, particularly with a workforce that is 46% minorities and 67% women. Our board of directors is 64% minority and women. The C-suite includes African American women in key positions, including president of Aflac U.S. and general counsel. In 2019, 58% of our 730 hires were minorities. We’ve been recognized 13 times by Black Enterprise magazine for our commitment to diversity and 20 times by Latina Style as one of the 50 Best Companies for Latinas. We pay women on par with men who hold similar jobs.

A corporate culture doesn’t just happen. It must be cultivated constantly. COVID has changed the way we approach our business – now and in the future. We are all learning how to engage virtually, in project meetings, collaboration sessions, ceremonies, onboarding sessions, and more.  We are introducing new technologies to make it easier for our policyholders and distribution partners to conduct business with us, and for our employees to keep the promises we make. At the same time, our diverse workforce positions us well to guard against unconscious bias.

One of our founders was fond of saying: “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the business.” During the tumultuous year of 2020, we’ve never seen that adage so sharply tested, nor its wisdom so starkly revealed.

Teresa White
Teresa White is the president of Aflac U.S. and leader of the company’s Covid-19 task force. In 2019, she was named on Black Enterprise’s lists of the Most Powerful Women in Corporate America for the third consecutive year.