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Minority Execs Want an Even Break

May 1, 2000
Related Topics: Diversity, Retention, Featured Article
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When the doors to Aetna Casualty and Life's headquarters swung open for Darnell Williams, there seemed no limit to how far he could rise in the ranks. After all, he had worked his way up the lower rungs of the corporate ladder at field and regional offices in just five years, and he was ready for greater challenges.

Instead, 28-year-old Williams found himself in the slow lane for advancement. No matter how hard he worked, plum assignments went to others. "Year after year, I never reached my objectives because the goal line would move. I would do 10 things right and if the 11th was wrong, it became the focal point of my performance appraisal," he remembers. "You're hard-pressed to say, is it me?"

Williams found that other professionals of color at the company had similar experiences. "I worked in HR, so I can tell you what their frustrations were," says Williams. "It wasn't about skill sets; it was about fitting into the social fabric of the culture," he reflects. "If you didn't hook up with a rising star, you'd never make it to the fast track. I came to realize that there was nothing I could do or say to change the situation, so I left."

Fortunately, Williams was able to apply this insight to finding a better job. He values his experience at Aetna and regrets only that he didn't make a career move sooner.

It also helps that times have changed from 10 years ago when EEO audits, legal concerns and fears of criticism were believed to be the fuel behind numerous minority-executive recruitment initiatives. Today, many corporations hire top minority talent for other reasons -- they see these senior-level professionals as a way to get a leg up on the competition. Because of changing demographics and fierce competition in the job market, a growing number of companies are starting to regard minority executives as an underused and undertapped resource.

Says Joanna Miller, a managing director at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International: "The most sophisticated [employers] realize that when it comes to solving problems and challenges, a diverse work group brings a variety of perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences, which can lead to creative and innovative outcomes." Plus, given the burgeoning purchasing power of minorities, many realize that they need diverse marketing, sales, and strategic-planning talent that reflects the minority groups they are targeting, she adds.

However, despite recruitment efforts, something is very wrong. Once they're on the job, a number of self-motivated, ambitious, senior-level minorities feel frustrated, undervalued, and downright angry -- and many quit.

According to some diversity experts and recent studies, the problem of retaining minority executives is a serious one. In a Korn/Ferry-Columbia Business School study of 280 minority executives conducted last year, 40 percent of the respondents report having been denied a promotion and suspect that it was because of race or cultural background. Thirty-seven percent report that they've suppressed thoughts about organizational roadblocks they have personally experienced for fear of losing jobs or future career opportunities. Also, approximately 21 percent say that office support staff tend to give their work lower priority.

"Many companies don't have faith in minorities' intellectual or leadership capacity, and often don't have confidence in their social skills," explains Verna Ford, vice president and senior consultant at JHoward & Associates, a diversity consulting firm in Lexington, Massachusetts, that primarily works with Fortune 500 companies. "So they give [these workers] the jobs, but not necessarily the authority. They give them the money, but not the support. They give them titles, but not the plum assignments. You have these highly paid, well-educated, polished people in top corporate jobs twiddling their thumbs and looking for work to do. It hurts everybody."

Yet the intense need for minority talent is unquestionable. "Locating talent in the midst of this tight labor market is a concern that keeps CEOs up at night," explains Ford. "Retaining people of color is a big deal because well-equipped workers of any sort are needed."

So how can HR managers tackle one of society's greatest ills -- an issue that few experts have a handle on -- and at the same time develop a workplace where professionals of color want to stay? It can be done, says Ford, and a growing number of companies are making it work by creating an environment that promotes opportunity and advancement.

Help companies see the light.
Ford estimates that 75 percent of the senior-level professionals her company works with feel unhappy with their work situations. They secretly air their woes through internal audits, requested by clients concerned about low minority retention rates, and/or diversity workshops.

For example, one executive curses the day he accepted a position at a prestigious Fortune 500 company. A top graduate of a top MBA program with an impeccable work history, he believes that racism plays a part in the unchallenging projects that are assigned to him, and the lack of support from his peers, subordinates, and executive leaders. As soon as he finds another job where he thinks things will be better, he will leave.

In the Korn/Ferry-Columbia Business School study, respondents indicated that the four discriminatory experiences they most often observed were:

  • double standards in delegation of assignments (59 percent)
  • harsh or unfair treatment of minorities by whites (55 percent)
  • being the personal target of racial or cultural jokes (45 percent), and
  • the need to hold back anger so as not to be seen as having a "chip on the shoulder" (44 percent).

But many JHoward clients can't believe that active exclusion is going on in their businesses, says Ford. And although many HR professionals may be aware of the problem, they often feel powerless to do anything. "We spend a third of our time in sessions helping to suspend their disbelief," Ford explains. "They don't think of themselves as discriminatory because they believe they are good, decent American citizens; and in many ways they are just that, but so many have blind spots. And if leadership can't accept the truth, you can't expect middle managers -- who have a vested interest in leaving things the way they are -- to accept it, either," she adds.

So consultants like JHoward put these business leaders through exercises that demonstrate how easily they can miss stuff right in front of their eyes. In one activity, program participants are asked to count the number of times the letters fs appear in a sentence. Eighty percent routinely miss some. "We tell them that if they can miss what they are consciously looking for, something as literal as alphabets on a page, isn't it possible that there are discriminatory management practices going on in their organizations that they don't know about?" explains Ford.

JHoward raises clients' awareness by stressing bottom-line business issues, says Ford. "A lot of our clients aren't aware of how much they spend in turnover -- recruitment, orientation, and training costs -- let alone the loss of institutional knowledge. We tell them that administrative costs can be as much as 150 times the departing employee's salary, not including the replacement wage."

Next, they describe how discrimination works by explaining that everyone has, based on socialization, a natural attraction to people who are similar to them, and sometimes that results in exclusion of people who are different. "Emotional reactions to these differences can result in negative treatment," she says. "And negative treatment [doesn't provide] the support employees need to get their jobs done." The company tells clients that if they institute management practices that value all employees, not just minorities, their productivity will go up. "If you're fixing this piece, fix it for everyone," says Ford.

For instance, snack-food maker Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas, offers diversity programs to all its exempt or salaried staff. Workshops, for example, demonstrate that women and people of color can build confidence politically, socially, and around their technical skills; teach managers how to work with diverse employee populations; and coach select employees to become leaders.

Ramona Ploof, diversity specialist at Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas, says it's hard to prove that her company's diversity initiative lowered turnover among employees of color, but she does see a difference. Since the program was rolled out in 1997, Frito-Lay employees have discovered a newfound loyalty to the company.

"We've had people attend our programs and later give testimonials that maybe they were at a point at which they were going to put their r sum on the street," says Ploof. "But once they've gone through our programs, they recognize they're in a company that cares about them, their development, and about inclusive management. They're excited that their development is something they are partnering with the company on, and they have decided to stay with us."

Create a land of opportunity.
It's common sense: Minority executives want the same things as majority executives. Miller says that retaining successful minority executives is, in large part, dependent on the extent to which their talents and abilities are applied, the responsibility and authority they are being given, how well performance appraisals are tied to career-development goals, and the supportiveness of their work environment.

Yet oftentimes the path to the top is different for minorities than for their white peers. In a study published in the book "Breaking Through: The Making of Minority Executives in America" (Harvard Business School Press, 1999), co-authors David A. Thomas and John J. Gabarro found that minorities who were placed on the fast track had careers that stalled in middle management. Their pace increased from middle to upper management, but was slower than that of whites. In the final move from upper management to executive, minorities and whites progressed at the same speed.

Thomas says the slow movement during minorities' early careers is the result of a tax placed on them in the form of time. For example, white managers were rewarded for high performance with promotions to the next level, while minority executives were rewarded with the opportunity to compete again at the same level with more responsibilities and more challenging job assignments in the same position. As a result, these executives spent two to three times longer in a position before being promoted than white executives or minority managers.

"When I started with my former company in 1990, I was promised a promotion to executive level, but I was lied to," recalls a frustrated minority engineer who asked not to be named. "Although I received lots of kudos, I was never promoted. I was fed up and I quit."

On the positive side, the additional time that's spent being tested and re-tested allows minority executives to build a deep foundation of competence, establish credibility, and develop confidence that contributes to their ability to break through the glass ceiling. Says the frustrated engineer, "My experience at this company has come in handy in landing me my present job. Today I have an executive-level position at a small start-up and I'm very happy."

Encourage informal mentor relationships.
Executives of color in the study by Thomas and Gabarro cite mentors and sponsors -- especially during the early stages of a career -- as an ingredient in their success. Therefore, companies must identify and train informal mentors to advocate upward mobility.

"But these mentors need to work longer and do different things to sell minorities into good opportunities," says Thomas. "Companies should make managers aware of obstacles that racial differences can make. You must show that the potential to discriminate resides in most people and that stereotypes can influence the way people are managed."

Yet there are managers who take diversity awareness to the point of discomfort. It's because of the issue's sensitivity that minority executives seem to lack more casual relationships with leaders.

"Often, minorities are placed in formal mentor programs where everyone walks on eggshells, concerned about what they should or shouldn't say," says Ford. "It's one thing to give a person positive emotional support and exposure to plum projects or key stakeholders; it's another to give a good, swift kick in the butt when they aren't performing well. Sometimes people are so afraid of lawsuits that they won't give minorities constructive feedback on what they should be doing differently to be more successful."

Teach minorities the right way to fight back.
In addition to teaching diversity awareness to the workforce overall, companies must help minorities respond to unfair treatment. Progressive companies help them look at ways they've been treated and how to get beyond feeling angry or isolated so they can get their work done and take advantage of new opportunities, Ford says.

Anna Duran, adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, says, "Many minority executives the Korn/Ferry-Columbia Business School study polled appear to have found ways to handle discrimination in the workplace that help mitigate potentially damaging consequences that could block their careers." For instance, when respondents observe harsh or unfair treatment or feel that their work is given lower priority, they:

  • give direct feedback to correct the situation
  • view the situation as an opportunity for learning how things are done within the organization, and
  • analyze the situation and develop an action plan.

But for executives to be able to handle the situation professionally, they should feel comfortable expressing these concerns when they arise. And that depends on the company's attitude and atmosphere.

Not long ago, when Darnell Williams disagreed with a negative assessment provided by a senior vice president at his current employer, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, he chose not to sulk, but made his point in a professional way.

"I developed and sent out a survey to my internal clients to determine areas that were satisfactory or needed improvement," he explains. "Their feedback provided me with a better understanding of my services and ultimately refuted the negative evaluation. In addition, this same senior vice president [who did the assessment] is now my mentor and nominated me to become a member of our CEO's diversity committee. Looking back, I'm grateful for the experiences I've had that didn't work. Here at Massachusetts General Hospital, I'm in a situation where I can make them work."

Workforce, April 2000, Vol. 79, No. 4, pp. 50-55.

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