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Marriott Under Microscope in Diversity Study

May 3, 2006
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Some companies ask whether having a diverse workforce is good for business. At Marriott, where six of every 10 workers are minorities, the company begins with the premise that diversity is good, then asks how to effectively manage its eclectic workforce.

Or, as Adam Malamut, a senior director of human research at Marriott, says in a tone worthy of a nuclear physicist, "How can we harness that energy to create an experience that is memorable for our guests?"

To answer that question, Marriott has partnered with George Washington University to launch an exhaustive three-year investigation into how differences in race, ethnicity and gender affect the ways workers relate to one another. It will explore whether those differences create tension and dissatisfaction in the workplace—problems that may eventually lead to turnover or unhappy customers.

The research into "relational demography," funded by a $263,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, is unique because it is the largest study of its kind.

Lynn Offermann, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology at George Washington University, will lead a research team that will gather data from 40,000 employees at Marriott hotels throughout the United States. That is more than a quarter of its worldwide total of 143,000 workers. Researchers will analyze the data to see what makes employees tick in diverse work environments.

Offermann will explore a host of sensitive issues that workers face in order to answer questions like: Is the experience of a white person in a predominantly black work unit similar to that of a black person in a white work unit, or likewise, in a Hispanic or Asian work unit? There is some evidence to suggest that a white male might react more negatively than others to being a minority in a work unit because white men have historically been in the majority and have held most leadership positions. This hypothesis is based on research that suggests men tend to react more negatively in female-dominated work environments compared with women in male-dominated work environments, Offermann says.

"We’ve seen gender issues explored, but we don’t know whether that will hold with race," Offermann says.

The study will build on gender research done by Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Kanter, a best-selling author who wrote Men and Women of the Corporation, and work done by Anne Tsui, a professor at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. Tsui says the long-term study is valuable because it is "rare in diversity research."

Eventually Offermann, along with Malamut, a co-principal investigator and former student of Offermann’s, will take their research to Marriott hotels where staff diversity has led to profitability and low turnover. They’ll see firsthand what is working there. They believe that if employees strongly identify with the company and their work unit, their individual differences will seem less significant.

Marriott says it has already collected some data that suggests hotels where associates are happy are 10 percent more profitable than similarly staffed hotels where satisfaction is not as great. Those numbers led the company to believe it had stumbled onto a hypothesis that this study will try to pin down.

"It’s not enough to chase demographic diversity," says David Rodriquez, executive vice president for lodging and human resources for the hotelier. "You also have to be very concerned about the inclusive environment you are building."

Given the demographic shifts in large urban markets, where traditional minorities will soon become numerical majorities, companies will no longer have to "chase" diversity. Diversity will be a fact of life.

"We want to be able to tell organizations what to do in order to successfully manage diversity, because diversity is where it’s at," Offermann says.

Jeremy Smerd

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