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1992 Managing Change Optimas Award ProfileBRUS West Inc

April 1, 1992
Related Topics: Managing Change, Diversity, Featured Article
Pluralism: A culture that promotes mutual respect, acceptance, teamwork and productivity among people who are diverse in work background, experience, education, age, gender, race, ethnic origin, physical abilities, religious belief, sexual affectional orientation and other perceived differences.

U S WEST recognizes that diversity is strength—that diversity is an issue of fairness—diversity is an employee representation that mirrors the communities in which we work and the customers we serve.

Recently, a vendor was giving a presentation to managers at U S WEST, the Denver-based telecommunications company. Attempting to create camaraderie among participants, he opened the meeting with a joke that made fun of a particular ethnic group. His effort backfired. No one laughed at the joke because U S WEST has spent considerably more than a decade helping employees to respect all people, regardless of any real or perceived differences.

Fifteen years ago everyone would have laughed at his joke and someone would have come up with a better one, explains Darlene Siedschlaw, director of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action compliance. Today, thanks to the company's pluralism efforts, U S WEST employees recognize that diversity is strength and that, to survive in a changing society, the company must capitalize on these differences, not ridicule them.

Siedschlaw attributes this shift in attitude to the company's pluralistic philosophy. "Here, pluralism isn't a program with a start and a finish," she says. It's an ongoing process of changing the makeup of U W WEST to reflect the melting pot of American society.

Although many companies are just beginning to grapple with workforce diversity, U S WEST already demonstrates significant progress. The company selects women for management jobs 52% of the time, for example. People of color constitute 13% of the managers, and an accelerated development program for women of color is moving more of these women into management positions than ever before.

Furthermore, the company is learning how to respond better to customers who are just as diverse as employees. As Siedschlaw explains, "Pluralism is a sound business strategy."

For its efforts, U S WEST has been recognized as one of PERSONNEL JOURNAL's 1992 Optimas Award winners. The award is given annually to companies that display excellence in human resources management in any one of 10 categories, ranging from quality of life to global outlook. U S WEST is the winner in the Managing Change category.

The company's pluralism efforts have their roots in sexism and racism workshops developed in the mid-1970s at Northwestern Bell under the direction of President Jack MacAllister. When MacAllister took charge upon divestiture as CEO of U S WEST, his pluralism efforts followed, gradually evolving into the comprehensive set of programs that have an impact on hiring, promotion and the day-to-day activities of every employee. "The key to our success has been the support of top management," Siedschlaw says. "Jack was truly a visionary before his time."

The most far-reaching pluralism effort to date is a training program that all 65,000 U S WEST employees will have attended by April 1993. The company's business leaders—including union stewards who might be occupational employees—are required to attend a three-day program called Managing a Diverse Workforce. All other employees will attend a one-day version called The Value of Human Diversity.

"As is the case with other kinds of diversity, pluralism education is something we all need to keep working on," Dick McCormick, the company's current CEO, said after attending a three-day session.

"This workshop gave me some new insights into other people's feelings...and my own. It reinforced my belief that, deep down inside, everyone has essentially the same feelings," he added. "The workshops also helped me resolve to keep working on the processes and behaviors that will make us a truly pluralistic company."

To ensure that managers embrace this notion fully, the company has developed a Pluralism Performance Menu, a vehicle for appraising the top 125 corporate officers based on how well they meet pluralism-related criteria. "For the first time," Siedschlaw says, "instead of asking the officers 'do you support pluralism,' we'll ask them to demonstrate what they've actually done to support it."

For example, officers will be assessed based on the profiles of employees who are hired or promoted within their function, and whether or not they and their direct reports have attended diversity training.

They also will be evaluated based on the overall profile of their organizations, and whether it's representative of the labor force in that geographic area. In New Mexico, for instance, 50% of U S WEST employees are Hispanic, in keeping with the state's demographics. Having operations in 14 states, the company strives to have the employee makeup at all its locations mirror the regional workforce.

If a manager continues to hire and promote only white males from a diverse population base, or otherwise fails to show support for the company's pluralism efforts, he or she could see a salary reduction or lose the annual bonus. "The process had to have teeth in it to get their attention," Siedschlaw explains.

Managers aren't the only ones expected to abide by the company's pluralistic standards—recruitment firms must conform as well. "We've made it clear to search firms that they must provide us with a pluralistic mix of candidates," Siedschlaw says. "This means they must work harder to keep our business."

U S WEST also reviews the colleges and universities from which it recruits to ensure the enrollment of the student body contains a good ethnic mix. The company even has developed partnerships with universities to help with diversity training of faculty and administration.

At Montana State University, for example, the U S WEST Foundation funded a retreat between faculty members and company employees to help raise awareness of diversity issues. "We were asked why the faculty should be concerned about diversity, because the state doesn't have a highly diverse population," Siedschlaw says. "I explained that if the managers of tomorrow who are graduating from MSU are going to stay in Montana, and if the economy of Montana is within the state boundaries, then they probably didn't need to worry about diversity, but that realistically, today's universities are producing tomorrow's leaders of a global marketplace."

These efforts help future employees deal with issues related to a diverse workforce. To make sure the concerns of existing employees are addressed, however, the company turns to its eight employee resource groups (ERGs). The groups are organized by employees who have similar interests and concerns, such as Native Americans, veterans, people who have disabilities, and gays and lesbians. The ERGs provide support, offer a collective voice to members, and are a means for them to come forward with their differences.

All of the groups, for example, participate in the company's Pluralism Calendar of Events by sponsoring employee awareness and education programs. Last February, the company celebrated Black History Month with presentations by members of the Alliance of Black Telecommunications Professionals. In March, U S WEST Women presented topics on women's history, and in September, SOMOS, the Hispanic Resource Network, developed programs on Hispanic Heritage.

"We support the employee resource groups," Siedschlaw says, "by listening to and addressing their areas of concern."

Margo Bonneville, a member of Voice of Many Feathers, the American Indian resource group, explains that a concern of her group is that Native Americans tend to be found in occupational rather than management positions. "We expressed this to management," she says, "and now the company makes financial contributions to Native American educational institutions."

Additionally, after listening to the group's concerns about the economic situation of many Native Americans, the company now tries to develop partnerships with tribes, in which such work as printing and equipment refurbishing can be contracted out to the reservations.

The ERGs help the company make better business decisions as well. "When a SOMOS chapter started in Arizona," Siedschlaw says, "members helped the company learn how to communicate better with the Hispanic market there. By developing bilingual printed materials and hiring bilingual service representatives, we now provide better service to our customers."

The ERGs also help U S WEST with succession planning by providing lists of candidates who they think are ready for advancement. The human resources staff compares this information with similar lists for managers to ensure that the right people are groomed for upper- level positions. "The intent is to develop a pluralistic mix from the bottom up," Siedschlaw points out.

Proof that the company values its ERGs can be seen every other month when representatives from the groups spend a day talking with the vice president of human resources. "How many corporations allow their employees to have dinner and share dialogue regularly with its officers?" Bonneville asks.

Recognizing that the attention paid to diverse employee groups could leave white males feeling a little left out, U S WEST has developed a workshop to help them adjust to the changes they face. "The role of white men is changing," Siedschlaw says, "not just at work but in their personal lives as well. We're trying to help them adjust to those changing roles and expectations."

With all the efforts under way to sensitize employees to differences in others—not only in terms of ethnicity and age, but in experience, education, physical abilities, religious beliefs and sexual orientation—doesn't the company risk employees' becoming too sensitive?

"Although a few people have told me they're afraid to open their mouths, I don't see it as a significant problem," Siedschlaw says. "Besides, I'm not so naive as to think we've eliminated prejudice altogether. You certainly don't hear blatant words such as 'nigger' or 'queer' any longer, because the workforce has become self-policing, but I've learned that, unless people truly embrace pluralism and it becomes a part of them, the best anyone can be is a 'recovering sexist' [sic] or a 'recovering racist.'"

"There have been a couple of cases in which people couldn't buy into our commitment to a pluralistic workforce. It was suggested very strongly that maybe they would like to work for another company," Siedschlaw says.

Although U S WEST has made significant progress in advancing the careers of women and people of color, the company claims it never will be truly pluralistic, because that denotes a finite process. "We'll become more pluralistic, however," explains Siedschlaw. "As the demographics of our society continue to change, so will U S WEST."

She adds that glass ceilings at U S WEST are far from being broken. "At every level in the organization there are glass ceilings for women and minorities. We've cracked them all, but to be successful, we must shatter them from the bottom up."

Personnel Journal, March 1992, Vol. 71, No. 3, pp. 40 - 44.

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