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The Future of Diversity Changing Focus, Practices Can Create New Business

May 23, 2008
Related Topics: Career Development, Diversity, Employee Career Development, Workforce Planning, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration

In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau projected that by midcentury the U.S. population would be 50 percent nonwhite. For many Detroit companies, the report crystallized what they were already starting to understand—diversity is the future.

    Since then, many can show how they have adjusted business practices, improved relationships among diverse employees and, in some cases, landed new business.

    "The danger of not embracing diversity is you’re going to look up one day and be out of step with your customers and out of step with those you want to work for you," said Bill Jansen, partner in charge at Warner Norcross & Judd’s Southfield, Michigan, office.

    It embraced diversity with the equivalent of a bear hug in 2004, appointing a diversity partner, Rodney Martin, and making him responsible for integrating inclusion into the law firm at every level. In addition to stepping up its recruitment of women and minorities, the law firm now seizes opportunities to help diverse partners and associates learn from one another.

    "This is as much a talent war we’re all facing as it is anything else. We want to get the best and brightest," Jansen said. "If you decide [cultivating diversity] is not something you do, you will not attract and maintain the best workers and you will not attract and maintain the best business."

Front and center
   The Human Rights Campaign champions gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community issues. It produces an annual Corporate Equality Index, rating U.S. companies on policies that affect GLBT people at work.

    Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Borders Group Inc. has always scored high on the HRC’s list. The bookseller strives to serve its diverse workforce and customer base. But when the HRC recognized Borders Group’s efforts last summer with a 100 percent rating, Borders recognized not just the honor, but the opportunity.

    At the suggestion of a member of the company’s GLBT employee action group, the Borders Group commissioned window clings with the index’s 100 percent seal and sent them out to be put in the front door of every Borders store.

    "We want our customers to know we’re committed to diversity," said Leah Maguire, associate general counsel and director of diversity programs for Borders Group.

    Other groups at Borders focus on women, African-Americans and Latinos, and the company will launch a mature workers group later this year. The groups themselves are diverse, made up of people from all over the company, and they raise issues and perspectives that might otherwise be missed.

    The window clings have been up since February, and though Borders has no hard numbers on their effect on store traffic, HRC workplace project director Daryl Herrschaft said the GLBT market is more than $680 billion a year—and market research shows that GLBT consumers look at a company’s policies when they shop.

    "You see places put their Fortune Best Places to Work award on their door, but this is the first instance where a retail store has prominently identified its Corporate Equality Index 100 percent score at the store level," Herrschaft said.

Change is more than skin deep
   Dr. Ash Gokli is the chief medical officer at St. Mary Mercy Hospital in Livonia, Michigan, part of the Trinity Health system. An emergency medicine specialist, Gokli appreciates what Trinity Health’s emphasis on cultural sensitivity can do for health care. But he also gets it on a personal level.

    "I am from India, and my mother is 85 years old," Gokli said. "She wears a traditional sari and she has a red dot on her forehead. She is already very conscious that when she shows up at the emergency department, people might perceive her as ‘different’ and might treat her differently."

    Caregivers need to understand that this stress works against the mission of making people well, Gokli said. People heal best when they’re comfortable.

    "If you look at the mission of Trinity, we talk about healing the body, mind and spirit," Gokli said. "To me, healing the body means being a doctor—making the diagnosis, prescribing treatment. But healing the mind and healing the spirit are where healing the total patient occurs."

    When Joe Swedish joined Trinity as its president and CEO in 2005, he appointed himself chief diversity officer and made diversity a priority. On his watch, the health system has overhauled the way it trains people in cultural sensitivity, among other things.

    Trinity’s executive leadership went through a three-day retreat that stressed the roles dignity, respect and acceptance play in caring for people. Thirty-five physician leaders donated their time to go through a condensed version of the training, and it’s gradually being offered to other groups.

    "Having a culturally competent workforce and creating the right culture and an environment that’s sensitive to our customers will impact our bottom line," said VeLois Bowers, Trinity’s senior vice president for diversity and inclusion.

    Gokli’s entire emergency department—150 people—went on the three-day retreat and learned things to apply immediately.

    It helped them understand, for example, why when there’s a death an African-American family may gather in the patient’s room and grieve very loudly. Or that an entire Middle Eastern extended family may show up in the emergency room because one member has a sore throat.

    Understanding those cultural dynamics, Gokli said, helps keep them from being seen as intimidating or disruptive. And that helps doctors, nurses and staff manage situations without treading on patient dignity.

Financing lifeline
   In the late 1990s, banks weren’t lending to many of the Arab-speaking immigrants trying to start businesses in southeastern Michigan. That left two options for startup capital: arrange land contract financing through a seller or cobble startup money together by borrowing from friends and family.

    "That was not enough at times," said Ahmad Chebbani, founder and president of Omnex Accounting and Tax Services in Dearborn, Michigan. With more than 600 small-business owners as clients, he was all too familiar with their struggles.

    When Comerica Bank launched its Arab-Chaldean market segmentation team in 1999, former bank chairman Eugene Miller asked Chebbani, then chair of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, what the Arab community needed from the bank. No one had ever asked before, Chebbani said.

    The bank hired Arabic-speaking loan officers and clerks who knew the community, and Comerica became the bank of choice in the Arab-American community. According to Chebbani, the arrangement led to about $75 million in loans that first year; and though other banks have come in, Chebbani and others in the community haven’t forgotten who was first.

    In 2006, Comerica expanded its ethnic market segmentation program to include 14 different teams nationwide. In the Detroit market, teams devoted to the Hispanic, Asian Indian and Asian Pacific Islander markets joined established teams focused on African-Americans, women and Arab-Chaldean customers.

    The bank teams are diverse groups, both in terms of social categories and their jobs within the bank. Each one gets a budget and sets, tracks and is held accountable for a specific dollar goal.

    "You have to ask yourself, ‘How is this segment unique?’ Ultimately it’s about driving business. It’s a business imperative to reach out to diverse markets." said Janice Tessier, Comerica vice president and manager of diversity initiatives.

Next generation
   If you’re looking for new clients or new young professionals to hire, it pays to be diverse.

    "As I think it is demonstrated by the Barack Obama campaign, younger people are not as set in their ways," said Jerome Watson, a principal at Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone and the firm’s diversity chair. "They’re open to people of all races and creeds and colors; they’re not looking at things in terms of colors and ethnic groups and such. They want to be in a diverse environment."

    Aside from salary, Watson said, the most frequently asked questions of Miller Canfield prospects are about diversity. The firm has a diversity committee that keeps tabs on internal matters—making sure women and minorities get a fair share of casework, pushing the firm to hire lawyers who more closely represent the region’s diversity.

    "Even though there can be more problems with a diverse workforce, if you can work through the problems and get along with each other, you’re better at problem-solving and better at looking at innovative solutions," Watson said.


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