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Taking Adversity Out Of Diversity


Cover Story

TAKING ADVERSITY OUT OF DIVERSITY

In the long history of the American workplace, the notion of fostering diversity is a recent phenomenon. In 1987, the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis think tank, released a study called Workforce 2000: Work and Workers for the 21st Century, which has set the agenda ever since. By the year 2000, the study projected, only 15% of the people entering the work force would be American-born white males, compared with 47% in 1987. The statistic struck fear in executive suites. Companies rushed to put together diversity courses or hire consultants to sensitize employees to racial and gender differences. But such programs often did more harm than good: They stereotyped groups or pitted one against another. Or they blamed white males for all workplace inequities.

For some companies, diversity simply means affirmative action. But at others such as IBM, Corning, and Honeywell, it's part of a broader effort to change the corporate culture. Instead of just focusing on race or gender, they're expanding the definition of diversity to cover everything from age to physical disabilities to concerns such as flex time and job-sharing.

DOLLARS AND CENTS. More important, companies are linking diversity more closely to business objectives--and holding managers accountable for meeting them. The goal: to create a culture that enables all employees to contribute their full potential to the company's success. Says Barbara Coull Williams, vice-president for human resources at Pacific Gas & Electric Co.: "The diversity of ideas is important, not that you've got a certain ethnicity or sexual preference." For PG&E, that means moving its focus beyond sensitivity training for employees on race and gender issues to better meeting the needs of a diversifying customer base. One way is to groom more qualified women and minorities through active succession planning. From senior executives down to low-level managers, PG&E identifies candidates with potential and makes sure they have the skills they need to compete. Then the company picks the most qualified person for the position. A mentor program links potential high achievers with higher-ups who share insights into the way PG&E operates.

Other companies with diversity initiatives are taking more of a dollars-and-cents approach. At NutraSweet, the diversity program is focused on "making things happen in the global marketplace and measuring how well we're doing based on profits," says CEO Robert E. Flynn. The company is using the same approach to develop untapped U.S. markets. For example, it's creating a "diverse markets" initiative. One goal is to sell more of the company's Aspartame sugar substitute to blacks and Hispanics, whose incidence of diabetes is higher than that of the general population.

Besides using the diversity of ideas as a competitive weapon, companies are embracing a broad definition of diversity that includes white men. Part of their motivation is legal. Civil-rights laws cover white males as well as women and minorities, though companies can take race into account in employment decisions to remedy past discrimination.

At Honeywell Inc., Curtis White, vice-president for corporate diversity, has made a special effort to reach out to white males and gain their support. In 1992, Honeywell established a 20-member Diversity Council, made up of the chairs of key employee groups, such as the Honeywell Women's Council and the Black Employee Network. It also includes a white, male middle manager, who represents the Minneapolis Technical Operations Council. White says he chose the operations director for one reason: "It was a totally Caucasian council. I couldn't find a graceful way to encourage Caucasian males to form a group, so I seized this opportunity to practice our inclusiveness concept."

Whether White's maneuver will pay off is still unknown. But given the changing demographics, companies that support all kinds of groups will likely be the first to prosper from a diverse talent pool.

WHAT COMPANIES SHOULD DO

ADOPT a broad definition of diversity in the workplace covering all kinds of differences among employees, including race, gender, age, work, and family issues. Have senior management emphasize that diversity is an issue that affects everyone.

STRESS that managing diversity is more than just sensitivity or awareness training on race or gender issues that impact the work force but is a competitive weapon that helps the company capitalize on its talent pool and compete in the global marketplace.

SECURE a visible commitment from top executives to address employees directly and often about why diversity is important to the company's bottom line and global competitiveness. Carefully monitor programs, and hold managers accountable for meeting diversity goals.

WHAT COMPANIES SHOULD AVOID

STEREOTYPING groups of employees such as white males to explain cultural or ethnic differences. Instead, stress respect for individual differences and characteristics that all employees have in common.

AGITATING employees with one-shot sensitivity workshops and seminars that stir up emotions by pitting different groups against each other. Favor ongoing training programs that seek not only to educate workers about ethnic, racial, and cultural differences but also seek to change the company's culture.

BLAMING white males or others for the company's problems or inequities in society. Instead, find trainers with experience in diversity who are not divisive in their approach, emphasize similarities among groups, and stress the connection between managing diversity and competitiveness.Michele Galen, with Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago


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