Companies Seek Synergy in Diversity

After more than two decades of affirmative action, corporate America is still trying to figure out how to do the right thing

P> For some time, analysts have made apocalyptic predictions of ruined businesses if companies don't start fixing their information systems now to accommodate the year change in the new millennium. But a far greater force, the rapidly changing workforce in corporate America, threatens to supplant even the most successful companies.

Since 1987, U.S. companies have known that they would have a different workforce by the turn of the century than the white male pool that built today's corporate America. But many have been slow to change, hoping a quick solution would emerge.

However, there are no quick fixes to deal with the predictions set forth in the Labor Department's oft-quoted "Workforce 2000" report of 1987. By 2000, women, minorities and immigrants will account for more than 80 percent of new workers, and the average age of a worker in the United States will be 39.

The study noted that 90 percent of the new jobs by 2000 will be service-oriented. This puts information technology companies at the forefront of the nation's move from an industrial, manufacturing-based economy to one driven by information and knowledge where services and people -- not products -- are the assets.

For the last three decades, companies found a quick fix in the aggressive hiring of women and minorities, largely due to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Corporations set up affirmative action and equal employment opportunity programs and offices to deal with the issue of diversifying the workforce. However, the notion of quotas resulted in a backlash of reverse discrimination.

The schisms led to a new, more inclusive definition of diversity -- perhaps driven by what modern historians call a salad bowl, not a melting pot. Each ingredient, different in color, flavor and texture, brings something unique to the total salad.

Only recently have many companies begun to appreciate this more subtle approach to diversity. A new breed of diversity trainers is teaching companies to value the differences brought by each individual, regardless of race, gender, socio-economic class, educational background, sexual orientation, age or physical disability. Issues of diversity also extend to work/family policies, performance appraisals, career development policies and benefits packages.

There are compelling reasons for companies to put issues of diversity on the corporate boardroom agenda. The results of a 1994 survey of 4,300 working Americans by The Wyatt Co., a consulting and actuarial firm in Washington, D.C., tell the story. The "Wyatt WorkUSA" study found that age, income level, gender and race remain key factors that affect employee satisfaction and, ultimately, company performance.

Generation Xers, the under-30 demographic segment, were the most positive about their places of work, and baby boomers, who range from 30 to 49 years old, were the least positive. For example, on the subject of fairness in promotions, 76 percent of the under-30 population believed employees received fair consideration regardless of age, but only 61 percent of the over-40 group felt the same way.

Along gender lines, the study found that women consistently provided more positive feedback than men in virtually all of Wyatt's questions about quality, communications, performance management, supervision, benefits and overall satisfaction. But when asked about salaries, 62 percent of men said they are paid fairly, compared with 58 percent of women.

But the most dramatic gaps in work attitudes occurred among employees from different ethnic backgrounds. Asked whether employees received fair consideration for promotions, 75 percent of whites said yes, compared with 37 percent of African Americans.

Faced with the disparities outlined by the Wyatt study and the Labor Department predictions, companies have no choice but to change if they plan to survive the information revolution.

Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., made working with diversity a strategic objective in 1985. Although the PC manufacturer successfully attracted women and minorities, its attrition rate was two to three times the rate that was entering the HP workforce. The company integrated courses on managing diversity into its overall management training program, strengthened its college recruiting program for women and minorities and established a mentoring program.

At Computer Data Systems Inc., Rockville, Md., President and CEO Gordon "Stonie" Glenn has made diversity one of CDSI's quality initiatives. CDSI, he said, must "focus on our key people while promoting diversity in the workplace -- placing the highest emphasis on recruiting, rewarding and retaining proven performers regardless of their sex, race, religion or ethnic background." Diversity now is a mandatory element of a CDSI senior manager's performance review.

Sue Sprecher, director of employee services, said, "The goal is to make sure women and minorities see CDSI as an organization where they can grow."

Likewise, at American Management Systems of Fairfax, Va., diversity has become of strategic importance. Esther Ivory-Shelborne serves as AMS' recruiting specialist for minority programs. Her task is to broaden the company's pool of potential minority hires by leveraging AMS' relationships with 175 colleges and universities nationwide and college chapters of national business and engineering associations.

Two years ago, AMS focused on expanding diversity, which has resulted in national recognition of its work/family policies by Working Mother magazine. Paul Brands, CEO, said flexibility is key to the company's culture because people sometimes need to modify work commitments at different times in their lives.

The company allows employees -- even senior managers -- to telecommute and work part-time. For headquarters employees, the company subsidizes daily fees for emergency child care, offers corporate discounts for permanent child care and sets aside rooms for nursing mothers. In AMS' Denver office, the company offers concierge services, such as picking up mail, for employees on extended travel or relocation.

At DynCorp in Reston, Va., the voluntary diversity program has resulted in a series of videotapes and a training program to improve cross-cultural communication and address women's issues. "Ultimately, the hope is to create a better workplace, enhance our business posture so the company is viewed as one that cares about its employees," said Bettie Kennedy, vice president of human resources at DynCorp's information and engineering division.

Although leading diversity thinkers discourage companies from focusing and limiting diversity initiatives to women and minorities, companies have found it easier to do just that.

Take the differences between an introverted and extroverted worker. Those differences alone probably affect a company the most, regardless of race and gender, said Joy Leach, co-founder of the training and consulting firm Professional Resources Inc. in Herndon, Va.

In the end, the corporate definition of diversity may remain unnecessarily restrictive. In his book "Beyond Race and Gender," R. Roosevelt Thomas, founder of The American Institute for Managing Diversity in Atlanta, wrote: "By limiting the term to minorities and women, and ignoring diversity's other dimensions, this definition blocks understanding. It is extremely difficult, for example, for a white male who defines diversity in terms of minorities and women to stifle concerns about reverse discrimination and preferential treatment."

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