Do You Have the Right Approach to Diversity

October 1, 1995
We Americans can get a little smug about our multi-ethnicism. We boast about our Great Melting Pot of a country. We beam about our expansive nature and open minds. We brag of the United States' rainbow of different people. But we may be a bit ahead of ourselves. A glance around many offices reveals our "rainbow" to be less colorful than we'd like to think. In fact, it's often downright pale (and predominantly male).

We've all heard—we all know—that the glass ceiling is still firmly in place: A 1990 survey conducted by New York City-based Catalyst reveals that women made up less than 5% of senior managers at Fortune 500 companies. A 1992 survey by New York City-based American Management Association shows that minorities held only 7.4% of senior management positions. Three years later, the number has risen (barely) to a modest 10.6%.

But most companies will tell you they're tackling the issue.

Diversity programs—the darlings of many HR departments—have sprung up throughout Corporate America. Indeed, chat with any HR professional, and you'll more likely than not be treated to some anecdote about their much-lauded diversity program. Yet, turn around and engage a group of women and minorities on the issue, and you'll often hear a different story. This group continues to give corporations low marks in recruiting, retention and career development.

So where's the disparity? For most, the glitch lies in the approach many diversity programs take. They lack full company commitment. They're implemented as a goodwill gesture. They have limited bottom-line focus. If these descriptions sound a little too familiar, don't despair. A successful diversity initiative is within reach—if you follow the right steps. Companies that have been successful offer HR departments strikingly similar advice.

The message must infiltrate every nook and cranny of the workplace—from the top on down.
Like reengineering or total quality or any other change issue, if diversity doesn't receive top-level support, it's simply destined to fail. Certainly, it may thrive for a bit in divisions in which managers take a special interest, but it will never blossom into an all-encompassing workplace attitude.

Diversity needs top-level support for several reasons. First of all, cultural change requires a shift in recruitment goals, management strategies and work-force training—all of which need some sort of monetary support.

Secondly, and just as important, many lower-level managers and employees have that "what's in it for me?" attitude. They understand that diversity is a "good" thing to do, but the issue lacks urgency. Why? Because it's competing for time with managers' other duties—such as performing their jobs well so they get that promotion.

Top executives must send the message that diversity is a business issue. Only then will diversity receive the same attention as other primary work tasks. Only then will it become a basic part of the job to recruit, recognize and develop women and minorities. "If the chairman of the company doesn't speak out and say that this is important, then nothing will happen," says Madelyn Jennings, the recently retired senior vice president of personnel for Arlington, Virginia-based Gannett Co. Inc. "If nobody at the top talks about it, it's not considered important, and so people [feel like] 'We'll get to it later.'"

Through an extensive communication effort generating from the highest levels, Gannett ensures its diversity message doesn't receive short shrift. For instance, the chairman issues an EEO statement of the company's commitment each year, and Gannett has addressed diversity in its ethics statement. In addition, the company's top executives report to the board at least once a year on Gannett's progress in diversity—a report that is then shared with the rest of the company.

But diversity can't be handled by the top dogs alone. As we know all too well, no one is guaranteed to stay at a company forever, so it's imperative that diversity is not one person's or one department's "pet project." Says Jackie Hempstead, vice president and manager of equal opportunity and diversity programs for San Francisco-based BankAmerica Corp. (B of A): "When I first came to B of A, I asked if there was a commitment to visibly make some changes [to support diversity]. I was told that the CEO is very committed, and I said that's wonderful, that's great. But that's not enough. You've got to find a way to engage all levels of management, because management has got to walk the talk. If diversity is tied to one individual, and that individual leaves, what happens to your efforts? It needs to be ingrained throughout the company."

Last year, B of A jump-started a strenuous effort to push diversity throughout the company. It began with the corporate diversity task force, which the CEO initiated. Twenty-eight executives from a variety of geographic locations and business functions were charged with this mission: Gather employee feedback, review current programs and suggest new ways of promoting diversity.

One of the group's early recommendations was to establish a corporate diversity-development department to handle day-to-day strategies, implement new diversity initiatives and serve as a link between the company's other diversity efforts.

In addition to the diversity-development department and task force, B of A spreads the message through diversity business councils. These councils formulate strategies to ensure the effort doesn't become a one-size-fits-all program at B of A, a 96,500-employee company boasting impressive diversity figures: 69% of its employees worldwide are women; 41% are minorities.

But wait, there's more. B of A's 18 diversity network chapters—located across six different states—assist employees in their personal and professional development. The emphasis is to bring a wide range of employees together so they become accustomed to open communication and discussion of diversity issues. Held on employees' non-work time, the networks aren't limited to women and minorities: White males serve as presidents of some chapters, alongside Asian Americans, Hispanics, African Americans and women. "Our goal is to institutionalize this whole process so that regardless of changes in management, respecting diversity is akin to the way we do our business," says Hempstead.

Diversity must be driven by solid business objectives.
These days when you open the door to the cry "Ding-dong! It's the Avon lady!" you can't be sure just what that Avon lady will look like—and that's a good thing. Today's Avon representative is just as likely to be black, Hispanic or Asian American as she is to be white (heck, she may not even be a woman—men now make up a select few of the reps).

With approximately 500,000 U.S. representatives making direct contact with Avon customers and a huge employee group marketing products to these customers, the more eclectic its employee base is, the more likely Avon is to hook the wide variety of consumers out there.

It's all part of New York City-based Avon Products Inc.'s grand business plan. "With the country's changing demographics—the rising number of people of various ethnicities and cultures—we're trying to reflect that diversity within the organization," explains Al Smith, director of managing diversity. "It isn't a numbers or quotas strategy per se. Diversity is a need based on understanding our consumers."

Contributing to this understanding are Avon's non-sales employees, who are as diverse a group as the Avon reps: U.S. management is composed of 86% women, an appropriate number for a company whose primary customers are women. As for non-management employees, staff is still heavily weighted with women—76%—and minorities, who make up 26% of Avon's 6,500 U.S. associates.

"It's very important that we understand differences in cultures, differences in languages, differences in ethnicities, because it gives us a pretty good idea of the wants and needs of consumers," Smith says. Even subtle cultural differences affect the type of skin cream a woman may need or the type of fragrance she may be attracted to. "That basic understanding of the consumer is critical to our operation."

Mark White, of Chicago-based recruiting firm White, Roberts & Stratton, believes that Avon has a winning attitude when it comes to diversity. The firm, which places about 75 minority candidates a year in Fortune 250 companies—including Avon—believes that diversity is a business issue that will become even more urgent. "The world is changing. If an organization has the approach of 'Hire more African Americans! Hire more Hispanics!' they haven't grasped the concept and have a long way to go. If diversity is looked at as something that will help solve a business [need], they're in the right ball park."

Like Avon, Gannett recognizes its bottom-line interest in promoting diversity. The news and information company owns 10 TV stations, 15 radio stations and more than 80 daily newspapers—including USA TODAY. If its work force doesn't reflect its broad customer base, people will pick up on it. "Diversity is important in every company, and certainly in the news and information business," says Jennings. "If you're in the business of ideas, then the philosophy makes good sense. A diverse work force is more innovative and creative. The whole point of all this is a competitive edge. It's an economic model as opposed to altruism."

Indeed, any HR person worth his or her salt understands that diversity can't be a touchy-feely project. "If a company wants to improve the diversity of its work force, it needs to do one thing immediately, and that is to not treat the issue as one of social engineering or affirmative action or charity, for God's sake," says Jim Loose, president of Dallas-based executive-search firm Galloway-James Inc. and a frequent speaker on diversity. "Reframe the issue from one of social engineering to the issue of how to make money."

"Women and minorities continue to enter the workforce in huge numbers. If your company isn't handling diversity, they'll go to your competition."

If your company isn't already viewing diversity as a money-maker, or holds a wavering commitment to the issue, you need to shift gears immediately. You shouldn't have too hard a time. Loose suggests HR have a talk with top executives, outlining the compelling business reasons your company should get on the ball. And there are many. For one thing, within a decade, non-whites are projected to outnumber whites. Their buying power—customer power—will continue to grow. In 1990, the earnings of Hispanics in America were in excess of $200 billion, and that same year, the earnings of African Americans were more than $263 billion. By the year 2002, it's estimated that ethnic markets will comprise more than 30% of the total U.S. market. If your company lacks employees of color, it will also lack the diversity of viewpoint needed to satisfy non-white consumers. And in the future, that will be like handing money over to your competitors.

Says Loose: "The [minority] person can't be seen as simply a dark-skinned version of a white person. There are subtle differences in culture that aren't as easy for majoritarians to appreciate. Those companies that can figure out what those subtle differences are simply have gained more intelligence on the market than their competitors."

In addition, women and minorities are going to continue to enter the work force in large numbers. The Hudson Institute's Workforce 2000 estimates that by the turn of the century, 47.5% of the work force will be women, and 29% of the net additions to the work force will be non-whites. If your company isn't effectively handling diversity issues, your talent isn't going to patiently wait for their turn in the spotlight. They'll head over to your competitors who have respect for a diverse work force.

So let the top executives know—and make sure they understand—that if they want to stay in business, they're going to have to be diverse. Loose thinks this just may do the trick for companies that teeter on the edge of shallow diversity efforts and true diversity. "Human beings are more likely to successfully pursue things that they believe to be in their own interest," he says. "Realism always trumps idealism. If companies see that addressing diversity impacts their bottom line more favorably than not addressing it, they'll do a much better job."

Once your company is ready and willing, it's HR's turn to sweat.
If your company is prepared to become truly diverse, HR can be a key player in the metamorphosis. Before you start recruiting women and minorities, however, make sure you're retaining them. Three efforts can provide a solid backbone here:

  • Benchmarking
  • Training
  • Communication.

Gannett—whose company motto is, appropriately, "A World of Different Voices"—offers an excellent example of a firm that incorporates all three efforts seamlessly into a total diversity initiative. For instance, many Gannett units gain benchmarking information through a diversity survey that measures the climate for women and minority employees. Managers give feedback to employees on the survey results, and then work with employees to lay out a game plan to address their issues.

Gannett wants to make sure that managers really do effect change, so managers' compensation is tied in part to their progress in the area of diversity. Jennings says this plays a big role in Gannett's successful diversity efforts: "The HR person can be the conscience of the [diversity effort], but any company that really is a leader in this area has made diversity part of the appraisal system for managers—it's part of their jobs, just like product and profit."

Training and education currently play a key role in Gannett's "Partners in Progress," a program introduced 16 years ago to address race and gender issues, such as changing demographics, work-life balance and leadership development. As a way of addressing the issues, Gannett offers many workshops, some of which are personal and highly participative, such as "A Matter of Trust." Here, participants are challenged to address the baggage and barriers they carry so they can learn to trust those different from themselves. Jennings doesn't try to represent the workshop as a panacea for all prejudiced employees, but rather as a means of taking small chips at the problem. "If a person has a deep-rooted prejudice and goes through this process, it would at best modify behavior somewhat. But it does start to address the issues. The attendees learn as much from discussing as anything."

Another interactive program, "It Takes All Kinds," offers a series of case studies. Attendees discuss in small groups how they'd handle a situation involving, for instance, a woman who wants to work two days at home or a minority who wants to nominate himself for a position he isn't qualified for.

But Gannett doesn't stop there. Its extensive communications effort—the third prong of a successful diversity-support program—ensures the message spreads to all corners of the company:

  • A newsbrief headlines diversity efforts at Gannett units, inviting other units to copy the successes
  • A diversity progress report runs in USA TODAY after shareholders' meetings
  • The Gannetteer, a monthly employee publication, covers diversity too. One article, for instance, featured employees discussing how their names reflect their backgrounds. "In all of our publications—be it our annual report, our shareholders' summary, or our employee magazines—diversity is a topic that's very much alive and frequently mentioned," says Jennings.

Gannett's hard work has paid off. The number of women comprising the company's officials and managers has risen from 20.5% in 1980 to 36.5% in 1994; in the same time period, minorities in the same positions have risen from 5.4% to 14.6%. Women represent 33% of the board of directors and 40% of all department-head positions; minorities represent 33% of the board of directors and 11% of all department heads. "We've made progress year after year [in regards to minorities and females] that we wouldn't have if we didn't have a system," says Jennings.

If your company has set up a solid means of keeping women and minorities at your company, you can start looking at recruiting. Loose recommends making use of the women and minorities already at your company. "Any company that has minorities or women has an informal network supporting those individuals. Why not make it work for you?" Loose says many companies—to their disadvantage—feel uncomfortable tapping these groups for recruiting assistance. "We need to be less squeamish about approaching these networks. Just be open about the fact that you're trying to improve your diversity. Ask if they'd be comfortable making suggestions. Ninety-nine out of 100 people approached like that will respond positively."

Of course, once you have a strong reputation for diversity, recruiting women and minorities may become more a matter of picking from the cream of the crop rather than beating the bushes. Just listen to what successful companies have to say:

Jennings: "Gannett has established itself as a leader in diversity. I've been very pleased to see the increased number of diverse resumes that come to us."

Smith: "I get a lot of resumes from people of all cultures and ethnicities because Avon has a good reputation."

Hempstead: "Success breeds success. When people hear employees talk about what we're doing, it's easy for them to have an interest in coming to B of A."

One diversity effort does not a diverse work force make. But when a company commits on all levels, identifies its business reasons and sets HR to work, you can watch our infamous Melting Pot, our multi-colored rainbow, become a workplace reality.

Personnel Journal, October 1995, Vol. 74, No. 10, pp. 68-75.