Creating a Culture of Diversity | AIChE

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Creating a Culture of Diversity


An inclusive workplace with a diverse workforce ensures that the best talent is at the table and that everyone’s ideas can be heard. A strong diversity culture, like a strong safety culture, is good for business, the profession, and our individual career advancement.

Changes in the global community and marketplace have altered workforce demographics (Figure 1), motivating corporations to adopt diversity as a core value and inclusion practices as means of achieving diversity. In addition, the business case for diversity has proven it essential to global competitiveness, which in turn has given this ethical imperative a critical seat at corporate tables. Employers now expect employees to advance inclusion practices and work effectively in diverse teams. Are we, as chemical engineers, meeting this expectation and fully leveraging diversity and inclusion to improve our effectiveness, advance our careers, and contribute to the profession and to our communities?


Figure 1. The demographics of the workforce are changing. Today’s workforce is more racially and ethnically diverse, and includes more women than in the past. Although the annual growth rate of the U.S. labor force is expected to slow, the degree of diversity is expected to continue to increase. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

This article provides ideas for developing and strengthening inclusion practices and leveraging diversity and inclusion so that we can become more-effective contributors to the chemical engineering profession. Leaders of companies recognized for their diversity and inclusion practices by DiversityInc., Human Rights Campaign (HRC), Catalyst, Glassdoor’s Employee’s Choice Award, and other organizations comment on current best corporate practices and employer expectations.

Learning from the successes of safety culture

Establishing and promoting a culture of safety has rightfully become a chemical process industries (CPI) principle. CPI companies have realized that, in addition to the ethical implications, a strong safety culture adds value to an organization. Diversity also has an ethical basis and adds value to organizations, and the successful adoption of safety culture practices in the CPI can serve as a template for developing a culture that embraces and prioritizes diversity.

Safety culture research has established that, in addition to the essential role of corporate leaders, “management systems and their associated policies and procedures depend upon the actions of individuals (1).” There is a circular component to the establishment of any culture, because the values of groups and organizations impact the beliefs and behaviors of individuals who are responsible for building the organizational culture. The progression of establishing a value in any culture — be it safety or diversity — includes compliance, identification (acceptance), and internalization (2). Because individuals as well as organizations are responsible for the diversity culture, we all have a role to play in these three stages of development.

Beyond the ethical imperative

Characteristics that help to describe a person are either inherent or acquired, and are not always observable. Inherent characteristics are inborn, and include gender, ethnicity, some disabilities, and sexual orientation. Acquired characteristics are those obtained and developed through experiences, such as learning a new language, working in a different country, or working with people who are different from us (3).

Our individual characteristics, and in particular our acquired traits, can be applied to our technical work and professional interactions to the benefit of the bottom line. Analyses by McKinsey & Co. show that companies that are diverse with respect to gender, race, and ethnicity are 35% more likely to outperform less-diverse companies (4). In addition, increases in diversity contribute to increased market share for organizations. Companies with diverse boards, management, employees, and suppliers are simply more successful and profitable. An inclusive culture allows individuals to be themselves at work, which encourages employee engagement and enhances job performance and satisfaction (5–7). Participation on a diverse team helps to accelerate professional development by exposing participants to the benefits of different viewpoints. Research shows that individuals working on diverse teams learn more and make better decisions (8, 9).

Evidence suggests that employees today, especially millennials, prefer to work in a diverse, inclusive workplace (10, 11). Companies will not get or keep the best talent if diversity is not a visible and functioning part of their operations.

To stay ahead and thrive, companies are investing in inclusion practices. The Top 50 Companies for Diversity, a list compiled annually by DiversityInc., recognizes excellence in corporate diversity efforts (12). Organizations that make significant expenditures of human and financial capital to foster a culture that embraces diversity gain an edge in talent acquisition, employee engagement and retention, innovation, and customer service. This edge helps to sustain excellence in performance, innovation, growth, and profitability.

Innovation is often a result of constructive debate among people with multiple diverse perspectives. By welcoming diverse perspectives, companies can become innovation incubators. It is not surprising that individuals with more diverse sources of information generate better ideas and make better decisions (8, 13, 14).

A diverse workforce may also provide better customer service. Diverse teams that include even one person who shares similar traits with clients and end-users better understand their customers’ needs, and thus are able to provide better service.

An inclusive environment helps companies better utilize their talent. In a competitive global marketplace, companies cannot afford to underutilize talent or risk missing profitable opportunities. Harvard Business Review reports that in the absence of diverse leadership, women, people of color, and LGBT+ (identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or other) colleagues are, on average, 22% less likely than straight, white men to win endorsement of their ideas (3). Some under-represented groups even report discrimination or a hostile work environment, which is a distraction from goals and tasks (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Because of the complexity of sexual orientation and gender, data on the percentage of the population that identifies as LGBT+ are unreliable. Many working individuals who identify as LGBT+ report experiencing some form of discrimination and/or harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Disabled workers also face significant attitudinal obstacles, as well as challenges posed by facilities not tailored to their needs. The unemployment rate among disabled workers is approximately four times higher than the unemployment rate of workers without disabilities. The employment rate for college graduates with disabilities is 30% lower than that for graduates without disabilities (15, 16). Research indicates that inclusion of disabled workers provides similar benefits to companies as inclusion of other underrepresented groups (17).

The bottom line is that companies need diverse leadership, management, employees, and suppliers to serve diverse customers and take advantage of a rapidly changing global business environment (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Hispanics and African-Americans make up 36% of the U.S. population, but only 12% of chemical engineering graduates. There is an urgent need to bridge this divide to ensure the integrity of the chemical process industries (CPI). Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Establishing a strong diversity culture

Similar to the steps they take to establish a strong safety culture, company leaders must determine the level at which the diversity culture currently functions, the desired diversity culture, and a path to get to the diversity goal (1).

Companies recognized for excellence in diversity and inclusion practices indicate that their businesses operate on the premise that diversity drives business growth and innovation. Pat Rossman, BASF’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, says, “When we sit down to tackle a customer’s problem, we want to draw on a broad range of viewpoints to reach the best possible solution.” This approach requires employees with diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experience sets. As employees, this means our diversity characteristics are valued assets in the workplace. Astad Dhunjisha, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer at Monsanto, points out that approximately 40% of Monsanto’s revenues come from outside the U.S., and this reality has helped to shape their inclusion practices and commitment to diversity because globalization and diversity go hand-in-hand.

A successful safety culture starts at the top, and so does a successful diversity culture. A company’s commitment to diversity needs to come from the highest management levels, and should be made highly visible. The leadership should identify the need for a strong diversity culture, and foster cultural change to sustain an inclusive environment.

Successful companies make inclusion an important leadership competency. Vanessa Abrahams-John, Global Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Praxair, emphasizes this point: “Strong leadership must start from the very top of the organization, the CEO. This leadership must be clear, visible, and communicate why diversity and inclusion are critical to business success. Clear diversity and inclusion goals and accountability for key management levels must be established globally. Praxair leaders are evaluated and held accountable for their efforts to create a workplace that fosters diversity and inclusion.”

Shariq Yosufzai, Vice President for Global Diversity, Ombuds, and University Affairs at Chevron, describes how CEO involvement in diversity and inclusion helps make diversity a pillar of doing business the “Chevron Way”: “Most employees, from the Chairman down, have a diversity action plan as part of their annual performance review.” “Because we ‘measure what we treasure,’ Chevron uses data and metrics to quantify progress in diversity, and this leads to better results. We use data to form insights. We use insights to create action. But it all starts with data. We apply the same rigor to data on diversity as we do with engineering problems,” Yosufzai emphasized.

Dhunjisha says that in addition to comprehensive metrics relating leadership, hiring, attrition, and career advancement to business functions and regions, Monsanto employs an internal Inclusion Index, which measures “the strength of inclusion that an employee population feels with its manager and organization.” This index is a powerful employee-feedback measure that helps Monsanto understand inclusion throughout its global employee population.

BASF has developed a Diversity Dashboard as a tool to track diversity objectives. Rossman explains that “the Dashboard tracks employee diversity composition, the impact of leader behaviors in creating a diverse and inclusive work environment, and the impact of leader decision-making by unit on a monthly basis.” This type of rigor in data tracking and analysis can be compared to the data tracking and analysis used in developing a strong and sustainable safety culture (14).

All of these companies emphasize that, like a strong safety culture, a diversity culture is the responsibility of every employee, and they provide training opportunities to help employees strengthen their diversity traits and awareness. Abrahams-John highlighted that embedded in each Praxair training is some aspect of diversity and inclusion. Specialized training to identify how unconscious bias creeps into employee interactions is also an important part of employee development.

Monsanto’s Dhunjisha explains that “unconscious bias is one of the barriers to inclusion in the workplace.” Over the last two years, Monsanto has focused on training all company leaders to identify unconscious biases and to develop strategies to mitigate the impact of unconscious bias on the workplace.

Formal ways in which companies develop and foster inclusion practices and diversity include: employee-developed diversity action plans with measureable objectives included in performance evaluations; diversity councils; employee groups; diversity training committees; and supplier diversity programs. The companies that contributed to this article, and many others, have established diversity councils, which develop and implement diversity awareness programs, and employee resource groups, as well as networks for veterans, Hispanics, women, African-Americans, LGBT+ employees, disabled employees, and millennials. Diversity councils encourage employees to work within and across their own diversity traits, and to serve as allies to others by, for example, participating in employee networks, celebrating heritage months, and working with company leadership to sponsor contests and awards for diversity and inclusion.

Serving as an ally is an important way to contribute to a diversity culture inside and outside of the workplace. Allies are people who may not have a specific characteristic that identifies them as part of a particular group, but who support and work toward full inclusion of one or more underrepresented groups. Allies are critical to inclusion efforts.

Elizabeth Walzel, President of Dow Engineering Co. and sponsor of the global Dow LGBT+ and Allies Resource Group, explains the importance of allies: “Allies make diverse employees more comfortable in their workplace, provide additional resources and skill sets needed for networking, educate others outside of that particular diversity group, and attract participation in the work of inclusion at all levels, including senior leaders. Allies also provide visibility to the diversity group and network and help get resources for outreach.”

Employers can promote diversity through their employee benefits programs. For example, Chevron was a pioneer in domestic-partner and transgender healthcare benefits. Dual-career assistance and substantive family benefits that allow employees to create meaningful work/life balance are staples of companies with successful diversity efforts. In addition, companies have started to address unconscious biases in job descriptions, employee evaluations, promotion considerations, and workplace interactions.

Contributing to diversity efforts is essential to career success. Not only do we benefit directly by enjoying a more-welcoming and inclusive workplace environment, but we also benefit from working in diverse teams with access to different perspectives and information that encourages our professional development. A personal investment in diversity efforts enhances our own careers, our colleagues’ careers, and our employer’s bottom line.

Use your skills and get involved

All of us have our own experiences, skills, knowledge, and perspectives that we can use to create new and unexpected value. We create value though rational application of science and mathematics to develop useful solutions for society, and we create greater value for our employers, profession, and communities with strong diversity cultures. We can apply our inherent mindset of rational problem-solving to create a strong diversity culture in which we can develop innovative and more-efficient processes and better products.

Diversity and inclusion benefit everyone and are everyone’s responsibility. Christine Grant, Professor and Associate Dean at North Carolina State Univ., emphasizes, “Anything having to do with diversifying the profession has to be everyone’s responsibility. Everyone has to embrace the importance of diversity to our global profession.”

Professional organizations like AIChE have an important role to play in career advancement by providing opportunities for members to further their diversity knowledge and enhance their acquired diversity traits. We can all participate in diversity initiatives by taking these steps:

  • Set personal diversity and inclusion goals to stay committed to diversity and inclusion activities.
  • Make it a point to know more than just our jobs. We should know our employers’ mission statement, code of ethics, and diversity and inclusion goals.
  • Be an ally to underrepresented groups. Supporting other groups helps us to acquire more knowledge about the obstacles others face and strengthens our diversity IQ.
  • Examine our unconscious biases and question ourselves before forming an opinion about someone or something, especially when someone is different from us. Participation in diversity and unconscious-bias training offered by employers is a good start. We can build on that training by going out of our comfort zone to engage people different from us at work, in our communities, at meetings, and at social gatherings. It is not uncommon during diversity workshops to hear members of underrepresented groups express the importance of being included in the social interactions, such as lunch, coffee, and happy hours, at their workplaces.
  • Remember that the Golden Rule — treat others as we would like to be treated — only works if others want to be treated as we want to be treated. To succeed in the global marketplace, we need to respect and embrace diversity within the confines of the codes of ethics that govern our conduct. This is the foundation of a strong diversity culture.
  • Get involved with our professional organization’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Attend AIChE diversity programming on Tuesdays during the spring and annual meetings. Join a Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC) Committee, such as the Women’s Initiatives Committee (WIC) or the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC). Local sections also offer opportunities to get involved with diversity initiatives.

AIChE is a great resource for career advancement, and it can be a partner in the development and enhancement of both our technical and diversity skills. This combination of skills is a requirement for success in a diverse global marketplace, because it allows us to go beyond our job description and create value for our employer and our communities. Creating an inclusive workplace that fosters a diverse workforce is an ongoing effort and conversation. Join the conversation by sharing your ideas on

As engineers, we can study the underlying principles, develop new methods, build on proven methods, and take action and personal responsibility for outcomes to establish a strong diversity culture in our workplace and communities. A strong diversity culture is essential to global competitiveness and to the welfare of the global community.

AIChE — The Global Home for All Chemical Engineers

AIChE is committed to creating an environment in the Institute and profession in which all members, regardless of characteristics such as gender, race, religion, age, physical condition, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity, are valued and respected.

AIChE Diversity Statement, adopted by Board of Directors, November 2015

AIChE has grown into a global professional organization with approximately 60,000 members from more than 110 countries. Significant growth in professional memberships and student chapters outside the U.S. has made AIChE the global home for all chemical engineers. AIChE is committed to aiding diversity and inclusion efforts.

In 1968, AIChE formally recognized the importance of supporting minority and women engineers with the Task Force on Minority Youth Guidance. A small group of committed and brave members, recognized now as Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) Pioneers, started the AIChE committees and groups that have helped talented minority students become engineers and minority engineers become stronger contributors. The Pioneers were recognized and honored at the 2015 AIChE Annual Meeting in Salt Lake City, and interviews with the Pioneers are available on the AIChE website.

AIChE’s Board of Directors has worked to develop and implement diversity efforts and make these efforts more visible to the membership. With input from the Ethics Committee, the Board recently updated the Institute’s Code of Ethics to include “recognition of the unique contributions and capabilities of co-workers by fostering an environment of equity, diversity, and inclusion.” As part of this effort, the board developed a diversity statement. June Wispelwey, AIChE’s Executive Director, explains that AIChE’s diversity leadership can help industry and the profession to establish more effective operations because “diverse teams are better and safer teams.”

AIChE’s current diversity efforts are motivated by the idea that diversity leadership strengthens the Institute, the profession, industry, and our communities. AIChE views diversity and inclusion, and promotion of different cultural perspectives, as catalysts, because these efforts unleash innovation and create new solutions to society’s major challenges.

Wispelwey describes AIChE’s progress on diversity: “Our Board of Directors, our many volunteer leaders, and the staff are modeling behaviors and creating rich conversations that respect diversity of thought and perspective. And, we’ve not only looked within, but also outward, building partnerships with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers and True Blue Inclusion. Our sensitivity and respect for differences have made us stronger. But we can and must do more. We must be a welcoming home for all chemical engineers everywhere, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, gender-identity, or sexual orientation.”

AIChE has shared ideas and programs with other organizations, including presenting the AIChE Women Workplace Retention and Re-entry (W2R2) initiative at the convocation of the American Association of Engineering Societies. The W2R2 program serves as a template for the development of initiatives by professional societies (18).

“Engineering Diversity in the Profession, the Workplace, and the World” was the theme of the 2014 AIChE Gala, which recognized corporate leaders for their diversity efforts. Funds raised by the gala were directed to scholar­ships for underrepresented students, travel grants for students and young faculty to attend meetings, and diversity programming at AIChE meetings. Two diversity workshops designed to raise awareness and obtain input from the membership for diversity and inclusion initiatives were initiated at the 2015 AIChE spring and annual meetings. These workshops set a precedent and established a diversity program time slot at every spring and annual meeting.

These efforts are a good start, but there is still much to be done to attract and retain the best talent to the profession. Shariq Yosufzai, Vice President for Global Diversity, Ombuds, and University Affairs at Chevron, emphasizes the role AIChE can play: “The profession currently includes, on average, 4% African-Americans, 14% Hispanics, and 19% women. The representation in the technical workforce must be improved. The issue of why so many women leave the profession after being in it less than five years must also be addressed. We believe the convening power of AIChE and the AIChE Foundation can be brought to bear to address this challenge. It is imperative for the competitive success of our nation that we deliver solutions.”

The success of AIChE’s diversity efforts is highly dependent on strong collaboration throughout the Institute. The 2015 Diversity Task Force included members from all operating councils and numerous committees and divisions. The task force leveraged diverse teams to coordinate and implement workshops, but more can be done to increase diversity. For example, more outstanding minority and women researchers and professionals could be selected as session chairs and presenters at AIChE meetings and as recipients of Institute awards.

AIChE is committed to a strong diversity culture and is developing a diversity action plan to be more inclusive at all levels of leadership and operations. A robust and innovative Institute requires that all of its operations include diversity as an objective.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the many AIChE members and workshop attendees who contributed to this article. Special thanks go to Vanessa Abrahams-John, Henry Brown, Astad Dhunjisha, Christine Grant, David Kraemer, Dennis O’Brien, Pat Rossman, Diane Spencer, Cheryl Teich, Elizabeth Walzel, Shariq Yosufzai, Lisa Lanzkowsky, Steve Smith, and June Wispelwey.

Literature Cited

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  3. Hewlett, S. A., et al., “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, (Dec. 2013).
  4. Hunt, V., et al., “Diversity Matters,” McKinsey & Co., (Jan. 2015).
  5. Madell, R., “Can You Be Yourself at Work?,” U.S. News and World Report, (Sept. 23, 2013).
  6. Ovans, A., “Do You Really Want to be Yourself at Work?,” Harvard Business Review, (June 23, 2014).
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  8. Phillips, K. W., “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” Scientific American, (Oct. 1, 2014).
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  10. Schawbel, D., “How Companies Can Benefit from Inclusion,” Forbes, 13, 2012).
  11. Rezvani, S., “Five Trends Driving Workplace Diversity in 2015,” Forbes, (Feb. 3, 2015).
  12. DiversityInc, “The 2016 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity,” (accessed Sept. 15, 2016).
  13. Apfelbaum, E. P., et al., “Rethinking the Baseline in Diversity Research: Should We Be Explaining the Effects of Homogeneity?,” Perspectives on Psychological Science,9 (3), pp. 235–244 (May 2014).
  14. Cummings, D. E., “The Evolution and Current Status of Process Safety Management Metrics,” Process Safety Progress,28 (2), pp. 147–155 (June 2009).
  15. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary — 2013,” U.S. Dept. of Labor (2014).
  16. Nicholas, R., et al., “Ready and Able: Addressing Labor Market Needs and Building Productive Careers for People with Disabilities through Collaborative Approaches,” National Technical Assistance and Research Center,, pp. 61–79 (Apr. 2011).
  17. Iyer, A., and S. Masling, “Recruiting, Hiring, Retaining, and Promoting People with Disabilities: A Resource Guide for Employers,” Curb Cuts to the Middle Class Initiative, (Feb. 3, 2015).
  18. Gephardt, Z. O., and S. M. Thagard, “AIChE-Women Workplace Retention and Reentry (W2R2) Initiatives: Template for Professional Society Initiatives Development,” presented at the Convocation of Professional Societies, National Academy of Engineering (NAC)-American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES), Washington, DC (Apr. 20–21, 2015).



Zenaida Otero Gephardt, PhD, P.E., is an associate professor of chemical engineering at Rowan Univ., where she has served as Director and Associate Dean of Engineering (Email: She conducts workshops and consults in the areas of experimental design and data analysis for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Previously, she was a research engineer at DuPont. She is an AIChE Fellow and serves on the Foundation Board of Trustees and the Fellows Council. She was the 2014 Societal Impact Operating Council (SIOC) chair, and chair of the 2015 Diversity Task Force. She is an active board member of the Delaware Valley Section, where she has served as secretary and chair. She is past vice president for accreditation of the Latin American and Caribbean Consortium for Engineering Institutions (LACCEI), and served on the 2015 ABET Symposium program committee. Gephardt earned her BS from Northwestern Univ., and MS and PhD from the Univ. of Delaware, all in chemical engineering. She is a registered Professional Engineer in Delaware.

Vincent G. Grassi, PhD, is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering practice at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA (Email: He worked for Air Products and Chemicals for 35 years, in the areas of advanced process modeling and control and process technology. At Air Products, he served as the director of learning and employee development, which included diversity and inclusion initiatives. He is an AIChE Fellow and has been active through leadership roles with the Computing and Systems Technology (CAST) Div., the Executive Board of the Program Committee (EBPC), and a member of the Chemical Engineering Technology Operating Council (CTOC). Grassi received his BS from the Univ. of Rochester, and MS and PhD from Lehigh Univ., all in chemical engineering.

Alon McCormick, PhD, has been a professor in the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Dept. at the Univ. of Minnesota since 1989, where his research interests include the mechanisms and kinetics of various materials assembly and nano- and micro-structural processes. He is a member of AIChE, where he chairs the Chemical Engineering Technology Operating Council (CTOC) and is secretary of the Education and Accreditation Committee. He has also served as a Materials Engineering and Sciences Div. (MESD) officer and on the Executive Board of the Program Committee (EBPC). He has participated in efforts to foster a more inclusive climate, including the 2015 Diversity Task Force and an American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) project for LGBT+ Allies training, as well as the AIChE/ASEE Safe Zone Workshop. McCormick has a BS from Tulane Univ. and PhD from the Univ. of California, Berkeley, both in chemical engineering.

Otis Shelton retired from Praxair in 2012 after 20 years, where he served as director of the Corporate Safety and Environmental program. Before Praxair, he worked for Union Carbide Corp. in a variety of manufacturing assignments in Texas City, TX, in corporate human relations in Houston, TX, and in business analysis/financial analysis and safety in New York, NY, and Danbury, CT. He is an AIChE Fellow, and served on the AIChE Board of Directors (2000–2002), as Secretary (2004–2006), and as 2014 AIChE President. He is a member of the AIChE Foundation Board of Trustees and the Minority Affairs Committee (MAC). From 1986 to 2006, he served on the National Advisory Board of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Shelton received his BS and MS in chemical engineering from the Univ. of Houston.

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