Karyn Polak is Destroying Exclusivity

PNC’s deputy general counsel knows that when employees reflect the demographics they serve, both the community and the bottom line prosper

Photo by Michael Scott Whitson

If there’s one thing to take away from the cultural climate of the past few years, it’s that diversity and inclusion affect the bottom line. PNC Bank’s deputy general counsel, Karyn Polak, agrees—she has experienced the benefits of diversity and inclusion firsthand throughout her career.

When employees feel included and respected for who they are, Polak says, they want to show up to work. “They come in and do their best work each day because they feel like their perspective is heard,” she continues. “They feel like they matter, and ultimately that engagement yields greater success, as well as greater revenue.”

Polak says creating inclusive dialogue has been critical to her professional success. After all, so much of what she does depends on understanding other people’s priorities and being able to influence them. For this reason, she spends a good deal of her time connecting people with different opportunities and highlighting best practices—she recently moderated panel discussions about the business case for diversity throughout the corporate boardroom.

When an office is gender-biased or doesn’t understand an employee because of his or her differences, Polak says, there can be negative consequences that decrease productivity, engagement, and even profitability. In a previous position, Polak saw how unconscious racial bias affected a young Asian woman in the technology department. The woman was bright and had a great mind for strategy. Despite this, her managers couldn’t see past the language and cultural barriers that sometimes stood in her way, due to the woman’s accent. Though it was challenging for a while, the young woman worked out those differences with her managers and was ultimately very successful. She even launched a product that was incredibly profitable.

“If the diversity and inclusion obstacle had remained, the company wouldn’t have generated the profits that it did,” Polak says. “The bottom line would have been a much smaller number.”

Diversity and inclusion, then, just make good business sense. For PNC, that means hiring the right people, partnering with organizations that embrace similar practices, and broadening perspectives to gain better insight into customer and employee needs. The company strives to hire people who understand or reflect a community’s demographics and values at every PNC location.

“We come into each community seeking to build a workforce and an understanding [by taking] the backgrounds and perspectives in that community into account,” Polak says. “Without that, I don’t think we could serve our customers as effectively or meaningfully.”

For PNC’s legal department, better business practices start with initiatives that focus on improving diversity and overcoming unconscious biases. Recently, Polak’s team hosted a training program that taught employees how they can assist transgender individuals in changing their name on legal documents. It’s just one example of how PNC’s inclusion strategy helps raise awareness of issues, empowers various departments and teams to embrace and further inclusivity, and gives people the tools they need to foster diversity and inclusion.

Polak also believes that diversity awareness and education should start as early as elementary school. In 2016, the legal department’s Diversity & Inclusion Council is, for the first time, partnering with the Pittsburgh-based Extra Mile Education Foundation to mentor and provide career perspectives to a class of eighth-graders from a local low-income community. This initiative aims to get teenagers interested in law and financial services. It’s also a way for students to see the diversity of professionals at PNC. 

However, PNC’s education initiative doesn’t stop at high school. By becoming an inaugural sponsor of the Girls Who Invest (GWI) organization, PNC looks to encourage college-aged women to consider a career in the stereotypically male-dominated investment management sector. In summer 2016, PNC brought on a GWI intern for one month and also sponsored a half-day experience for a group of female college sophomores as part of their summer educational program in Philadelphia.

PNC’s legal department is also a significant contributor to the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity (LCLD), nominating employees to become fellows and identifying other employees as mentors for law students. In 2016, PNC hosted a full-day program for LCLD fellows (with many of PNC’s executives and a number of legal employees) to learn more about the company and industry, as well as the career tracks of some of its senior leaders.

Polak’s passion for diversity and inclusion helps combat unconscious bias and the “we’re already there” mentality. Just because a company appears to be or says it’s diverse doesn’t mean that it actually is. Polak contends that companies can always continue to improve on their diversity. For example, in 2015, Microsoft announced that it was extending its Law Firm Diversity Program to those who have veteran and disability status—meaning it would begin to track and assess its outside counsel based on those elements of diversity, in addition to race and gender. Polak says she finds this news inspiring because it reflects a drive for continual improvement throughout the workplace.

“What matters is understanding how you categorize people, [empathizing with everyone’s] circumstances, and [knowing the consequences of] the actions you take with those assumptions,” Polak says.

The deputy general counsel has spent a lot of time in conversation with organizations that are focused on doing better with diversity and inclusion in their cultures. She says the end goal is simple.

“We want to have the right people in the right jobs, empowered to do their best work,” Polak says. “That means fielding as diverse and [as] inclusive a team as possible so that we can provide an exceptional employee and customer experience.”