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Employees Drive Diversity Efforts at GE Silicones

May 1, 1993
Related Topics: Diversity, Featured Article
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During a period of rapid growth in the late 1980s, GE Silicones undertook a major expansion. The Waterford, New York-based silicone manufacturer hired several chemical engineers and other professionals to participate in several key initiatives. These initiatives included the formation of a total-quality department, expansion of the research-and-development effort and upgrading of the manufacturing infrastructure.

The number of women and minorities graduating from engineering programs was increasing, and these individuals made up nearly 30% of the company's new hires. In some companies, such hiring practices might pose no pressure to change the established corporate culture, but at GE Silicones they did. For many years, white males had managed and staffed the company, which in the late 1980s possessed traditional, white-male-oriented values.

"At that time, the company's management ranks heavily favored white males. We were locked into a single management style that didn't value other approaches," explains one mid-level male manager.

Bill Raynor, manager of human resources and community relations, adds, "The attitudes at that time sprang from the legacy of the chemical and refining industries, with their demanding schedules, physically tough and dangerous work, and male bonding."

Consequently, as these women and minorities began working, it became apparent that company policies and employee attitudes were out of touch with the needs of a diverse work force. In some cases, employees felt that these policies had an adverse affect on their performance and on acceptance into the organization. Says Raynor, "When the women came to us with diversity issues and concerns, I wasn't surprised."

Those issues ranged from:

  • The presence of pinup-style calendars in work areas
  • The lack of women's rest rooms in the plant
  • Managers' condescending attitudes toward women
  • Managers' reluctance to give women assignments that were considered to be difficult and therefore more suitable for men.

Women were afraid to mention family responsibilities or plans to become pregnant, fearing a negative impact on their careers. Instead, they discussed their concerns among themselves.

Minority employees also expressed concerns about professional acceptance and advancement within the organization. Although they had strong qualifications, minority employees felt that management didn't always offer them the same promotional opportunities as it offered their nonminority peers.

In addition, minority members in management positions expressed frustration at having their ideas or proposals challenged or resisted while upper management accepted the ideas and proposals of their nonminority peers. One manager revealed that he felt that management saw him but didn't hear him because he wasn't part of the dominant culture.

According to Diana Hickert-Hill, a chemical engineer who was part of the group that joined the organization in 1989, several of the new women and minority employees started an informal network to discuss:

  • Their concerns about problems in the work environment
  • The attitudes of their co-workers
  • The apparent shortage of role models and promotional opportunities.

In the beginning, just talking about these issues with the other new hires was helpful. The group soon realized, however, that it would be unable to make any progress until management knew of its concerns.

Instead of going straight to the top, the women first brought their concerns to me because I was one of the few senior-level women at headquarters. It was from this grass-roots initiative that the cultural-diversity program at GE Silicones was born.

Employees drive GE Silicones' diversity program.
Once management knew of employees' concerns, GE Silicones moved quickly to initiate a diversity program. In keeping with the grass-roots nature of the movement, the organization formed a steering committee comprising volunteer employees. This committee didn't receive mere corporate lip service. GE Silicones' senior management made a commitment of resources and personal involvement, which has given the program validity.

Fred Shinners, GE Silicones' vice president and general manager, sums up the company's commitment this way: "If our business is to meet its goals, all employees need to function in an environment that allows them to participate and contribute to the full extent of their capabilities. An organization that doesn't promote and value diversity puts unnecessary impediments in its path."

Diana Yoshimura, a chemical engineer who joined GE Silicones in 1989, says that top management's support of the cultural-diversity program is evident. "In spite of across-the-board budget tightening, the program is still a high priority two years after it began. This is evidence of its success," she says. "In addition, several division-level staff are members of the steering committee and serve as liaisons with senior management," she adds.

In the design of the cultural-diversity program, GE Silicone's management and steering-committee members used two components: teamwork and diversity training.

1) Teamwork.
Under the direction of the steering committee, the company formed volunteer teams representing a cross section of the organization to investigate a variety of cultural-diversity issues raised by employees. These issues included:

  • Family leave
  • Flexible hours
  • Working couples
  • Minority recruiting
  • Personal and professional development of employees
  • Mentoring
  • Long-term employment issues.

The teams, which continue to meet during and after working hours for two to three hours a week, are responsible for finding ways to solve problems relating to these areas. Their goal is to find ways to remove roadblocks that might prevent certain individuals and groups from achieving full participation in—and acceptance by—the GE Silicones organization. Several policies and programs are now in place:

  1. Family-leave policy: The company revised this policy to permit leaves of absence for both men and women who experience family-care needs, such as the illness of a child or elderly parent. One new option under this policy makes provisions for working at home for as long as four weeks, if the job permits it. Another option is unpaid time off for as long as 12 weeks with a job guarantee. With approval, an employee also may choose to work part-time (20 to 32 hours per week) for as long as one year.

  2. Family-care service: Employees now have access to a free referral service for child and elder care. The Child Care Solution offers practical information about quality child care and parenting issues. Local referral specialists help parents find appropriate child-care programs. The organization also offers similar services for elder care through the Elder Care Connection. Deb Devoe, the GE Silicones manager who heads the Family Care Team, says, "These programs are designed to help employees balance work-and-family priorities better and to reduce the stress that comes with supporting that balance."

  3. Job sharing and flextime: Designed to accommodate variations in employee schedules, these programs give flexibility in working arrangements and hours.

  4. Mentoring program: Begun in part to provide role models for women and minorities, the mentoring program for employees, including white males, also provides insight into the corporate culture and management system. The organization matches an employee with a mentor (who must have had at least three years' experience with the company) on a case-by-case basis. The organization also is considering an expansion of the program into career mentoring.

  5. Relocation policy: Traditionally, GE Silicones' management has expected its employees to relocate at the request of the company. In the past, objections to a move often had a negative impact on the individual's career.

Under the cultural-diversity program, the company has clarified the mobility issue in a policy statement. In essence, GE Silicones won't judge employees who choose not to relocate as less valuable or less committed to their careers than those who do. The organization will continue to consider these individuals for future positions involving a move.

In connection with the issue of relocation, the Working Couples Team has proposed a new human resources position. This position is dedicated to coordinating job relocations, including assisting spouses with transfer logistics and the job search.

In response to the other needs of employees, several proposals are under study for future implementation. These proposals include:

  • A community-based child-care facility in collaboration with other companies
  • An employee wellness and fitness program and fitness center
  • Stronger efforts in minority recruitment on college campuses
  • On-site support groups for minorities and women
  • Surveys of employees regarding career opportunities at GE Silicones.

2) Diversity training.
Early in the development of the cultural diversity program, GE Silicones decided that on-site support and diversity training were important to the success of the program. The company hired Philadelphia-based Elsie Y. Cross and Associates to perform these functions.

Diversity training began with top management. Professional employees and managers attended three-day, off-site awareness workshops that explored individual attitudes toward diversity. According to one white male participant, the workshops were highly effective but emotionally draining. "It took about a day and a half to break through people's intellectual barriers and reach their honest feelings," he explains.

The techniques used by the consultants range from role-playing to group activities. Greg Slocum, project manager for total quality, participated in an exercise at one of the workshops. "It was a subtle way to introduce [the topic of] categorizing people based on race, gender and age," says Slocum.

The training facilitators had put up three signs around the room that read Logical Thinkers, Tough Battlers and Friendly Helpers. The trainers then asked participants to categorize themselves. The participants formed groups to discuss how they viewed themselves and the people in the other groups. This led to a discussion of how people label themselves and others.

Yoshimura participated in an exercise called Star Power. On the surface, it appeared to be a bartering game using colored poker chips that carried certain point values. The trainers told participants to trade chips with each other to increase their total points. In reality, the facilitators had rigged the game so that the people who had received a good selection of chips stayed in the high-point group. Participants who started with a poor selection of chips were unable to improve their scores.

The facilitators reinforced the effect of this exercise by praising and giving privileges to the top group and harassing the low group. In the discussion afterward, employees gained insight into the tendency to treat individuals in certain groups according to their status. The training exercise also demonstrated that disadvantaged people may give up efforts to improve, feeling that management has rigged the game.

The workshop participants, including Lesly Regis, manager of quality assurance, also participated in an activity to illustrate the complacency or denial of the dominant group in an organization when faced with dissatisfaction from a minority group. In the exercise, the participants separated themselves into male and female groups and discussed gender issues. When they reconvened, the contrast between the level of concern felt by each group was dramatic. "The men had few issues, while the women had 10 flip charts full," says Regis.

Another group activity involved skits. The trainers divided the participants into four groups and told three of the groups to make up skits showing discrimination in the workplace. The members of the fourth group observed each skit. The employees vividly illustrated many common workplace situations involving overt or subtle behavior for the rest of the participants, who then tried to pinpoint each instance.

Recently, GE Silicones held reunions, or follow-up meetings, to discuss the changes that have occurred since the initial awareness workshops a year ago. Unlike the workshops, however, the company organized these one-day, off-site reunion meetings by department to focus on a plan of action within specific functional areas of the company. Two departments currently are working on programs to introduce diversity issues to their employees.

The research-and-development department's program is serving as a pilot program for the company. All 120 R&D employees have attended an initial diversity session, including a video and discussion period. Approximately one-third of these individuals also have attended a three-day pilot workshop. The cost of this program, however, has led to plans for a shorter session for the remaining employees.

Currently, two R&D subcommittees are planning different aspects of the program. The Workshop Group is designing a shorter workshop model. The Bridging Group is exploring ways to encourage and empower all employees to use their talents within the organization.

The finance and information management department has formed a core committee to develop a program to introduce diversity issues to its 50 employees. So far, the committee has introduced such possibilities as small group meetings and a survey.

According to Carol Brantley, a diversity consultant for Elsie Y. Cross and Associates, after all managers complete the workshops, hourly employees will view a 90-minute videotape and participate in question-and-answer sessions. In addition, all employees have completed 90 minutes of sexual-harassment awareness training. This training included:

  • A video
  • A discussion led by a GE lawyer
  • An explanation of the policy
  • Questions and answers.

To date, about half of GE Silicones' employees have completed the orientation session. This session provides an overview of diversity, a manufacturingcompany-oriented video and a discussion. The company schedules all employees to attend the orientation.

GE Silicones has seen positive results.
Although still in its infancy, the cultural-diversity program at GE Silicones already is yielding positive results. In addition to the policies that the company has introduced, it's putting mechanisms into place to measure individual performance in diversity areas and to recognize managers for their actions in support of diversity.

There now is a section of the GE Silicones performance-review form for evaluating an individual's performance in the area of diversity. Also, a number of people who have taken a leadership role in the diversity program have received monetary awards and recognition under the standard, companywide GE Special Awards program.

The company is actively seeking to hire and promote minority and female candidates. With the growth of cultural diversity within GE Silicones, management and employees are beginning to place value on different approaches and backgrounds. Says one male manager, "I've seen firsthand an effort to promote minorities into management."

According to Raynor, during the past year, the company selected a woman to fill the top position in the total quality department. Two of the company's eight manufacturing managers and its safety manager are women. In addition, GE Silicones recently hired an African-American research-and-development manager and promoted a Hispanic employee to be maintenance manager.

What is perhaps more important, attitudes toward people who have different backgrounds are beginning to change. Says Brantley, "Through the awareness workshops, we're building a critical mass of people who are committed to the diversity effort. A change in the outlook of a significant group of employees will have a snowball effect on others." Several employees, including Rich Allen, a research-and-development manager, cite improvements in attitudes at all levels and a heightened awareness of diversity issues. "There's more talking and listening going on," says Allen.

Although GE Silicones began its diversity effort from the difficult starting point of a highly traditional, male-oriented culture, the company has made unusually rapid progress because of two factors: 1) the initiation and design of the program by employees, rather than management, has encouraged people at all levels to participate; 2) employees have a vested interest in the program because they and their co-workers are choosing its direction and components.

On the other hand, employees can't effect organizational change alone. Without the sincere commitment of senior management to the program, cultural diversity would have remained at the grass-roots level where it began. The combination of employee enthusiasm and management support should enable GE Silicones to continue to transform its homogeneous culture into a diverse mix of experience and viewpoints.

Personnel Journal, May 1993, Vol. 72, No. 5, pp. 148-153.

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