How Anne Erni is taking D&I to the next level

In the space of five years, Anne Erni has transformed Audible, Inc., an Amazon subsidiary, into an end-to-end inclusion ecosystem. Today, Erni is widely considered one of the most influential leaders in human resources and her company, Audible, one of the most diverse employers in the world.

Anne Ernie CPO

The HR Digest: What is diversity to you?

Anne Erni: I actually tend to stay away from using the term “diversity,” as it’s often associated with just meeting compliance requirements. Instead, I prefer to use the language of “spectrum and belonging,” as true diversity embraces and amplifies the voices and perspectives of the many dimensions across the human spectrum.  The concept of “belonging” given full inclusion makes employees feel like they truly belong. The meaning behind the words we use is important and how we describe these ideas helps put a fresh perspective on issues that are complex. 

Spectrum and Belonging (S&B) is a key pillar of business at Audible and baked into our People Principles. It’s not enough to just meet traditional EEO standards, it’s crucial that companies build and sustain workplaces that celebrate all of our differences. At Audible, we’ve built an environment that embraces different perspectives and encourages our employees to be heard and bring their authentic selves to work each day. As our Founder and Chairman notes, “We respect and celebrate the glories of the human spectrum. We embrace and work to protect inherent civil rights based on people’s gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, ethnicity, religious beliefs, birthplace, socioeconomic station, disabilities, and age.”

What excites me about S&B at Audible is that we work to improve the lives of those without privilege in the cities and countries in which we operate, because Audible seeks to exemplify what a company can mean beyond what it does. We believe in giving people a chance, and we work to make this so, particularly in the urban core. We have some incredible programs such as Cornerstone which hire those who have been previously homeless, incarcerated or not have had the fortune or privilege. Our goal is to work shoulder to shoulder with each other to drive missionary change.  

The HR Digest: From your perspective, what are the most immediate opportunities for companies around cultivating a culture where diversity, equity, and inclusion are woven into its fabric, both internally and externally?

It’s my belief that culture does not happen organically, especially in today’s world of hybrid or remote work, but that companies have it in their power to develop and foster environments that respect issues of S&B. And they should prioritize doing so, as real data shows diversity of thought and perspective drives innovation and has a meaningful impact on invention, engagement and the bottom line.

There are many opportunities for businesses to cultivate a culture where issues of S&B are not only embraced, but prioritized. One such way is to create employee engagement groups that celebrate the range of identities reflected within a company.  At Audible, we believe in the power of words and have renamed “affinity group” as Impact Groups because we want our people to make a true difference in the work they do when they come together. We have a variety of Impact Groups that provide employees an environment to be authentically themselves at work, including Audible PRIDE, Women@Audible, Moms@Audible, Audible Women in Tech, The Black Employees Network @ Audible and Unidos@Audible. All of these groups are committed to making an impact internally at Audible and in the communities in which we serve.   Our Impact groups are ambassadors on campus for our recruiting efforts, in our cities where they volunteer and with our customers as they curate content that makes an impact on our listeners.

We also hire talent from non-traditional sources and customize the interview process to meet these candidates where they are. For instance, during the pandemic Audible piloted our Returnship program to hire professionals returning to the workforce after a care-giving career break. We built a new, highly customized interview, onboarding and L&D plan to set the Returners up for success. 

Another avenue to weave S&B into workplace culture is to prioritize it in our products. At Audible, we strive to elevate and amplify marginalized and underrepresented voices through our content, workshops and events. Many of our biggest blockbuster titles from the past year are from BIPOC creators and we’re dedicated to curating editorial experiences that ensure diverse voices are heard and experienced around the globe.

I can honestly say that, after working at several companies, we’re unique in the way our employees and senior leadership embrace challenges as genuinely as we do at Audible. Companies can work intentionally towards developing more allies and enabling existing allies with tools and resources to be the best version of themselves. At Audible, we continue to focus on S&B education. For instance, last year we introduced the Path to Inclusion learning program to enable employees to be more inclusive in their ways of working and mitigate any potential biases. We partnered with our Impact Groups to create safe spaces for employees from different backgrounds to voice their thoughts, while creating channels of communication for others to learn more about the different microinequities and microaggressions that employees from under-represented groups often face in life. We believe these are the right things to do, and we truly feel they must happen for our business to continue its strong growth.

And finally, to bring S&B to the forefront of company culture, it’s important to prioritize CSR from the top down. Since moving to its hometown of Newark in 2007, Audible has instituted a range of distinctive practices and policies in order to advance equality in its communities, setting a standard for the company’s culture across the board. These initiatives include recruitment programs to create a local talent pipeline, subsidizing employees to live locally, the early-stage venture capital fund Newark Venture Partners and Newark Working Kitchens, a COVID-19 response that activates Newark’s restaurants to deliver nutritious meals to low-income seniors and families.

The HR Digest: What measure(s) did you take with your team to ensure that Audible’s global corporate company culture would reflect its D&I goals? Can you give a specific example?

From my experience, one of the most important measures a company can take to ensure its goals, especially around S&B, are reflected throughout its overall culture. When I joined Audible five years ago, the company, which had long been dedicated to expanding S&B across its teams, as well as committed to giving back to its hometown of Newark, N.J., had no clear set of principles to define the beliefs which underpinned these actions, making it difficult to ensure these values were felt in all corners of the business.

Not long after joining the company, I worked closely with Audible’s Founder and Executive Chairman, Don Katz, along with other senior members of the leadership team, to determine and articulate the beliefs which defined Audible, listening carefully to employee feedback throughout the entire process. This work eventually gave birth to Audible’s People Principles, the five guiding tenets that continue to shape what it means to be a member of the Audible community, from prospective employees to long time managers and loyal listeners.

One such principle is Activate Caring, which establishes that Audible respects and celebrates the glories of the human spectrum. By codifying the importance of S&B as a main tenant of the company’s business, we are able to hold our employees, teams and even ourselves accountable for behavior and processes that reflect this belief from day one. 

As with goals for revenue and profits, when it comes to S&B “what gets measured gets done.” At Audible we have our S&B Areas of Focus that we closely track for progress on a quarterly basis and revise as needed. That being said, we understand that each of our business teams have a very unique landscape for instance, our content team has a different spectrum of talent compared to our tech team. To build truly meaningful and relevant S&B goals, each of our CEO’s direct reports is held accountable for setting KPIs and success metrics for their teams. This enables us to create a balance between bespoke programs, grassroots initiatives and organization-wide processes, while enabling our senior leaders to learn from each other’s best practices. Collective accountability and shared partnership is what enables us to sustain an inclusive culture while continuing to expand the spectrum of talent and customers

As of Q3 2021, the share of women in VP and above leadership roles at Audible globally grew 4% points year over year and is now at parity with our overall representation of women. Within the US, we have also made great strides with our representation of underrepresented groups, and we saw our share of Black/African American, Asian and Hispanic/Latin American employees in VP and above leadership roles grow by 9% points year over year.

The HR Digest: What are the biggest challenges executives supporting pay equity for women and minorities currently face?

At Audible we’re extremely dedicated to supporting pay equity across our employees. We look at each person as an individual and consider their experience first and foremost when determining wages. Key for Audible is the granularity with which we review compensation. We look at an individual’s job being done, benchmarking their compensation regularly throughout the year.  Their pay is also reviewed for performance to assure that we are best compensating our top performers.  Lastly, to ensure that we have a consistent approach globally across jobs and performance, we do regular pay equity reviews globally to assure that compensation and promotions are equitable.

The HR Digest: How can companies commit to truer diversity and make progress without disenfranchising men and women who come from a privileged section of society?

My career started in finance, where I first worked in investment banking, then on the trading floor and later became Lehman Brothers’ first Chief Diversity Officer. As a female leader in a male-dominated space, I was all too familiar with being the only woman in the room and used the latter half of my time at Lehman to develop the bank’s woman’s network and advance diversity throughout the company as a whole. This work formed the foundation for my career in HR and many of the lessons learned continue to inform my thinking today.

I see myself as an enabler, working to break down traditional barriers and facilitate access for all identities, not just the chosen few. From my work at Lehman and time at Bloomberg to initiatives today at Audible, I’ve seen that S&B and progress don’t just organically happen, but that they’re fostered over time through hard work. Companies must be willing to take a close look at themselves and identify where they can improve, place capable and passionate people in roles to jumpstart this evolution and recognize that true S&B will always be a work in progress, but it’s certainly worth striving for.

It’s also important to remember that, while striving for broad progress, we must appreciate the need for a range of diverse S&B practices — as I’ve learned there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s crucial that companies approach each employee group differently because what works for one business subgroup, identity or region often may not work for others. At Audible, we’ve developed department and geographic specific S&B goals to account for this, while ensuring continuity through overarching company goals.  We also recognize the immense burden placed on under-represented employees to be the voice for their entire identity group, and encourage our leaders to proactively educate themselves to be better advocates and allies. Through a combination of hard work and perseverance, as well as being mindful to the many nuances that can impact S&B initiatives, I believe companies can make major headway when it comes to advancing progress in their organizations.

The HR Digest: What’s next for Audible?

As we emerge from the pandemic, here at Audible we’ve been focused on ensuring our office reopening plans are as safe and equitable as possible. While we are eager to reunite teams for in-person work, we also recognize that the pandemic has made clear our employees’ ability to function remotely. With this in mind, we are developing a hybrid work plan, which we’re calling Hub+Home, that designates the office as a place for collaboration — physically remodeling our spaces to reflect this — and remote work as a time for heads-down thinking. This plan will ensure all employees experience the advantages of in-person work, such as relationship building with managers and teams, while also maintaining the inclusive benefits and flexibility of the Zoom-flattened world we’ve come to know over the past year and a half.

We know every employee is approaching this return with different circumstances, from parents having children still learning at home to young adults working out of small spaces, and we are working to take each situation as its own and be as accommodating as possible. In fact, all employees have the flexibility to work with their managers to determine their best way of working schedule. 

We think proactively about how to mitigate potential ingroup-outgroup biases and make sure employees feel confident that their performance will be determined based on their work contribution and not the frequency of their presence at a Hub. To do this we have been conducting company-wide Together Tuesday sessions almost every week since the pandemic started, along with building a Path to Inclusion learning program to enable managers and employees to continue to build on their inclusive thinking and mitigate unconscious biases.

For Working parents, this should be helpful as we continue to experience the unpredictable nature of COVID. Lastly, we are working on how to provide childcare support (full time / back-up) in a Hybrid working environment.

Diana Coker
Diana Coker is a staff writer at The HR Digest, based in New York. She also reports for brands like Technowize. Diana covers HR news, corporate culture, employee benefits, compensation, and leadership. She loves writing HR success stories of individuals who inspire the world. She’s keen on political science and entertains her readers by covering usual workplace tactics.

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