The Diversity Imperative (1994)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

The Diversity Imperative (1994)

Almost two thirds of the new entrants into the workforce between now and the year 2000 will be women. People of color will make up 29% of new entrants to the workforce over the same period.

Paul Holmes

by Paul A. Holmes 
Almost any discussion of multicultural­ism, increasing diversity and the impli­cations of those two issues for American corporations starts with statistics. Almost two thirds of the new entrants into the workforce between now and the year 2000 will be women. People of color will make up 29% of new entrants to the workforce over the same period. Immigrants will represent the largest share of the increase in the population and the workforce since the First World War. The average age of the pop­ulation and the workforce will rise.
When the Workforce 2000 report from which those figures were extracted was published by the Hudson Institute in 1987, it served as a wake-up call for corporate America, a reminder that the corporate policies of the past would not necessar­ily be effective in the future and that the relatively limited talent pool from which most corporate executives had been drawn in the 20th century would not be sufficient to sustain American com­petitiveness in the 21 st.
For minority workers, the report concluded, the changes in the nation's demographics and economic situation represents both a great risk and a great opportunity. "With fewer new young workers entering the workforce, employers will be hungry for qualified people and more willing to offer jobs and training to those they have tradi­tionally ignored.
"At the same time, however, the types of jobs being created by the economy will demand much higher levels of skills than the jobs that exist today. Minority workers are not only less likely to have had satisfactory schooling and on-the-job training, they may have language, attitude, and cultural problems that prevent them from taking advan­tage of the jobs that will exist."
The rationale for encouraging greater diversity is not complicated. Nor does it rely on altruism. It is a pragmatic imperative.
"Because we must reflect the diverse society we serve, it is critical to our business that we become more diverse," says a corporate statement devel­oped by employees at NYNEX Mobile Communications. "Thus, as an organization, we are committed to creating a culture that promotes mutual respect, acceptance, cooperation and pro­ductivity among people who are diverse in work background, education, age, gender, race, ethnic origin, physical abilities, religious beliefs, sexual/affectional orientation and other perceived differences.
"Understanding and valuing differences will maximize the growth and the development of our employees and meet the needs of our increasingly diverse customer base."
Pitney Bowes, the Connecticut-based office equipment company, is identified in The 100 Best Companies to Work or in America as one of the ten best for minorities. Since 1985 it has subscribed to a 35-15 plan: at least 3 5 % of all new employees hired must be women; 15 % or more must be members of a minority.
Says CEO George Harvey: "It doesn't make sense to cut yourself off from half of the talented people in this world. If we're known as a good place to work, more good people will want to work here. That will make us more competitive, which means more sales and higher stock prices."
Moreover, as companies have begun to empha­size diversity in response to demographic changes, it has become apparent that not only does sensitiv­ity to mutlicultural issues expand the talent pool, it also has intrinsic benefits. Diversity is in and of itself an advantage. Heterogeneous companies have an inherent advantage over traditional, monocultural competitors.
"There is a growing sentiment that diverse employee teams outperform homogeneous teams of any composition," says Robert Lattimer, man­aging director of Towers Perrin subsidiary Diversity Consultants. "Managers tell us that homogeneous groups may reach consensus more quickly, but often are not as successful in generat­ing new ideas or solving problems, because their collective perspective is narrower."
Says William Fuller, human resources director at Bank of Boston: "In a valuing diversity com­pany, you see employees who are less risk averse, who play to win rather than not to lose. As a result you see more creativity, more leadership, more innovation."
It is worth noting that diversity, in this context, does not refer simply to race and gender differ­ences. It also includes issues of age and experience, physical ability, sexual and affectional preference, and even socio-economic status and upbringing among white males.
Says Hewlett-Packard chairman and CEO Lew Platt, who recently went through his company's six-hour diversity training class: "I was really struck by one exercise that pointed out that diver­sity goes beyond gender and skin color. We learned that even among white males there were considerable differences in background, upbring­ing and socioeconomic status. That helped me redefine diversity in my own mind."
The downside of not handling diversity issues effectively is equally apparent. AT&T, a company that has devoted a great deal of time and energy to making its managers more sensitive to multicul­tural issues, was threatened with a boycott by African-American activists late last year after an in-house magazine published a racist cartoon. Employee morale suffered too.
And Miller Brewing is being sued over inci­dents at its plant in Fulton, New York, where one employee says that after taking psychiatric leave to deal with the stress caused by continued racial slurs, he returned to work only to be greeted by a voice over the paging system: "Welcome back, Harold, but you're still a nigger."
Since 1990, complaints of racial harassment filed through local and regional offices of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and state human rights agencies increased about 17%, with 6,000-plus filings in 1992. Among the recent cases is a class action suit against Ford Motor Co. charging racial discrimination and harassment. More and more companies are being held accountable for the racist attitudes of some of their employees.
For all that, there are still some who believe that multiculturalism and diversity poses a threat to traditional American lifestyles and workstyles, and who resist the movement.
Says Jack O'Dwyer, editor of a newsletter that bears his name and covers the public relations industry: "The meaning of America is to forget your background. America is a Eurocentric soci­ety. Those are the rules of the game. Our values, institutions, language are European-based.
"Here's how to get ahead in corporate America. Speak and write the king's English. Dress accord­ing to business standards. Following college, go to the Katherine Gibbs School for a year. Go to Dale Carnegie. Learn to dress right, give speeches in public.”
Such attitudes can still be found at many cor­porations. In a survey conducted among black MBAs and published in The Wall Street journal, for example, "indifference" and "benign neglect" were phrases used by more than one third of respondents to describe their organi­zations' treatment of black managers. Half of those surveyed said the corporate climate was "supportive in words only."
Another study in the Los Angeles Times five years ago found that out of 12,000 corporate respon­dents, four out of five African-Americans and three out of four women saw evidence of sex and race discrimination in the workplace, and percep­tions of discrimination grew more intense as women and people of color advanced to higher levels of management.
However, in general attitudes about diversity have come a long way in a rel­atively short period of time. Donna Blackwell, formerly an employee communications executive with Avon Products and Anheuser-Busch and now president of New Jersey consult­ing firm Human Works, says that in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of May 1960 companies were generally striving to comply with government imposed mandates.
"Managing diversity was not government man­dated," she says. For that reason, perhaps, compa­nies were much more successful at hiring minori­ties and women than they were at promoting them, or even preventing them from leaving. But for all the reasons outlined above, companies came to realize in the `80s that encouraging and nurtur­ing diversity was different than meeting quotas.
One important difference is that multicultural­ism does not simply focus on recruiting minorities and then helping them "fit in"
"Virtually all major institutions in America have been built around the values, attitudes and behav­iors expressed in the homogenous ideal," say Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener, authors of Workforce America! Managing Employee Diversity as a Vital Resource (Business One Irwin). "Until recently, acceptance of the mainstream culture was rarely questioned aloud by employees. Instead, it was assumed that because leaders of those institu­tions exhibited qualities associated with this idea, these qualities had to be important. Thus, most employees willingly adopted the homogeneous ideal as their ideal and became assimilated.
"In order to assimilate, new entrants into the organization had to learn about the dominant cul­ture. Such knowledge was needed to survive and succeed. However, members of the dominant group had no need to learn about the values, atti­tudes and behaviors of others. They believed their way of doing things was the ‘right’ way. Therefore, it was up to others to learn their methods and attempt to fit in.”
This forced behavior modification upon women and minorities, the authors assert. Women learned they had to strike a balance between being assertive and being ‘feminine.’ Asian-Americans learned that being indirect was often perceived as being indecisive. African-Americans learned that displaying strong emotions made people uncomfortable. Latinos and Latinas learned that speaking Spanish on the job was often viewed as conspirational. Lesbians and gay men learned that “coming out” could jeopardize their jobs and ruin their careers. Differently-abled employees learned that requests for signing or wheelchair access were viewed by dominant groups as “causing trouble.”
This notion of equality-as-sameness (as expressed in the oft-repeated in the oft-repeated insistence that, “when I look at an employee I don’t see sex or color; I treat everyone the same”) has worked for some minority groups, the authors say. But it has created a dilemma for those who feel that their success depends on denying the characteris­tics that make them different and striving to act more like members of the dominant group.
All of this clearly raises significant questions for communicators. They must counsel management not only on the formalized, written messages it sends through traditional media such as company newsletters and magazines, but also on face-to­face communications, and the ways in which dif­ferent ethnic and gender groups might respond to the same message. And they must ensure that their communications efforts are matched by the company's behavior and policies.
"Large corporations are finding that as the compsotion of their workforce has changed, a lot of the communications messages they have tradi­tionally employed are no longer effective or appropriate," says Bruce Crawley, president of Philadelphia PR firm Crawley Haskins & Rodgers. "Companies must be more sensitive to the fact that messages delivered to diverse audi­ences are perceived in different ways."
There are nuances of language, both verbal and body, that white managers may not be familiar with, since they have never before been required to understand or identify with those from other backgrounds. (Those from other backgrounds, on the other hand, are generally more aware of the way in which white males perceive communica­tion, and often more aware than white males themselves.)
"While many regard communication as a basic, straightforward management tool, it is actually one of the most complex aspects of managing a diverse workforce," say Loden and Rosener. "Without awareness of nuances in language and differences in style, the potential for garbled communication is enormous when interacting with others."
Managers, they say, must increase their language sensitivity, knowledge of words and expressions that are appro­priste and inappropriate in communicating with diverse groups, and their awareness of the stylistic elements of communication.
More important, however, is that communica­tions efforts be backed up by action.
Says Alison Davis, a principal in New York-state based Davis Hays, which specializes in employee communications: "There are many companies that have communications programs dealing with diver­sity, but they have to be backed up by something more substantial. If they don't make diversity sen­sitivity part of the performance evaluation process, those programs are doomed to failure."
Allan Csiky, corporate employee communica­tions manager at Digital Equipment Corp. and president of the Council of Communications Management, a group for strategic employee communications professionals, agrees. He says those companies that have been most successful in addressing diversity issues are those that have succeeded in making it a strategic imperative rather than treating it as just another human resources program.
"A human resources program that doesn't have any accountability for the business man­agers who implement it is not going to be effec­tive," Csiky says.
Levi Strauss & Co. is today recognized as among America's most diverse. At the end of 1991, 56% of its U.S. employees belonged to minority groups. Its top management was 15% non-white and 30% female. Yet ceo Robert Haas is not satis­fied with the progress the company has made, and has placed enormous emphasis on eliminating what he perceives to be a "glass ceiling."
Levi's spends $5 million a year on "Valuing Diversity" educations programs, including a three-and-a-half day workshop for senior managers. The program is designed to help managers first become more tolerant of diversity and then understand how it can add value to the company.
But Levi's commitment goes beyond this one program. It is communicated in everything the company does. Ads for job openings "strongly encourage" minorities to apply. In-house network­ing groups for Hispanics, blacks, lesbians and gay men are supported by the company. A Diversity Council, including two members of every group, meets regularly with Levi's executive committee to raise awareness of diversity issues. Part of man­agers' bonuses is tied to meeting the goals in a cor­porate "Aspiration Statement" which demands that employees aspire to appreciate diversity.
Inland Steel has been identified as another of the ten best companies for minorities. Its work­force is 18% black and 16% Hispanic, with about 14% of top management coming from diverse backgrounds. Its policies for encouraging multi­culturalism are similar to those in place at Levi's.
More than 100 Inland managers attended race relations seminars led by the late Dr. Charles King, and an Affirmitive Action Focus Group ensures that minority issues receive the attention of senior management Recently a speaker visited the company to talk about Hispanic Heritage Month, and other events are planned to celebrate other significant ethnic festivals and holidays.
"We have taken the calendar and we are trying to feature a story about every ethnic group that is part of our workforce," says corporate communi­cations director Ron Pyke. He estimated that more than 50 groups are represented within the company's workforce. The springboard for cover­age could be a holiday like Martin Luther King Day, or one of the Eastern Orthodox religious observances, and stories will focus on the beliefs and values of the group being profiled.
"We also try to make sure that the weekly employee newspaper features people from diverse backgrounds," Pyke says. "We have two African Americans, including our controller, and we try to run stories about them and use their photographs whenever possible to provide role models for
others in the company, to show them that they can make it here. A lot of what we do is fairly subtle." Hewlett-Packard has an Accelerated Development Program, an intensive development program for promising managers that places spe­cial emphasis on women and minorities. There are also networking groups for women and African-American employees, and a gay and les­bian group is currently being formed.
A genuine commitment to diversity may force companies to look beyond the workplace at the wider community. Corning Inc. is a company that has placed tremendous emphasis on nurturing minority employees, but between 1980 and 1987 one out of every six black professionals at the company left the company, citing not only lack of opportunity within the company but also prob­lems in the community of the small New York town which is home to the company.
Prior to 1988, African Americans who worked for Corning were driving 100 miles to Rochester to get a haircut The company recruited a black hairdresser and helped bring in a new cable chan­nel, the Black Entertainment Network, and encouraged the local radio station to widen its music selection.
There is yet another issue that all of this renewed emphasis on multiculturalism and diver­sity gives rise to, and that is the growing feeling among straight white males that they are some­how the losers in this process. Their concerns center around the suspicion that minorities and women are benefiting because of their race or gender (a concern that ignores the fact that all white men in this country have benefited from birth because of their race and gender).
"They don't notice when six white guys get promoted," says Nancy Gheen, director of human resources at the Monsanto Co. "They notice the one black, or the women, and they say `These are the only folks getting ahead.' Sometimes I have to physically drag them to the bulletin board to prove it's not so."
Inland Steel's Ron Pyke says his company has addressed this issue by ensuring that when diversity is discussed it is not only in the con text of women and people of color, but also in the context of the different ethnic backgrounds of the white workforce. It is also important to stress that minority and women employees also need to take the time to understand diversity issues and value others.
Whether corporate America can achieve true equality of opportunity and educate people to value diversity and strive for harmony with people of different backgrounds and cultures remains to be seen. That is a goal, after all, that has eluded society at large. Barriers of racism and classism in the education system, in the home and in the media will be difficult to overcome. But the degree to which American business can be com­petitive into the next century clearly depends upon the degree to which it is successful.
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