Diversity: Reaching for Diversity

By Lin Grensing-Pophal May 1, 2002
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HR Magazine, May 2002 What minority workers hope to get from diversity programs is what all employees want in the workplace.

Dan Sapper says he felt “fairly isolated” when he went to work at Eastman Kodak Co., in Rochester, N.Y. So to widen his contacts within the company, he became a charter member of Kodak’s group for gay and lesbian employees. Taking part in the organization gave him the visibility he wanted, he says, and it “gave me a reason to talk about being gay.”

Sapper, a divisional quality leader at Kodak, now chairs the group’s board, and he says he wants to use his leadership role to help others “who might be in my shoes in the future”—employees who may be “thinking of ‘coming out,’ or people who left something of themselves at the gate when they entered work.”

Like Sapper, many minority employees know what they want to gain for themselves and achieve for others through their employers’ diversity initiatives. In fact, minority employees’ aspirations in the workplace are essentially what all employees want from their companies: fair treatment, a sense of belonging, understanding and acceptance, and a feeling that they are making a contribution.

Fairness, Inclusion, Acceptance

For minority employees—as for all employees—“the issue is fairness, period,” says Carolyn Pemberton, senior vice president and director of diversity for LaSalle Bank in Chicago. “Not ‘Am I being treated the same?’ but ‘Am I being treated fairly?’” In gauging fairness, she says, employees consider a variety of matters, from vacation scheduling to recognition for their contributions. It’s up to management, she says, “to make sure that there is equity and fair treatment going on.” Says Joy Relton, an assistive technology specialist for Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa.: “It’s not asking for a free lunch; it’s asking for something you’re entitled to.”

Many minority employees say they gain a sense of belonging in the workplace when their employers create opportunities for workers with diverse backgrounds to interact with others and to become involved as part of a group. Sapper says his participation in Kodak’s gay-employees network made him feel “connected to the company.” Relton, who works with a Unisys task force on decisions concerning products designed for people who, like her, have impaired vision, says: “The opportunity to interact with other employees with similar backgrounds is important. You may not have exactly the same experience, but there are going to be some parallels.”

Employees also need to feel that the ways in which they may be different are understood and accepted. Relton says she was favorably impressed when she discovered on her first day at Unisys that her own assistive technology needs had already been accommodated. “I had never walked into a job before in which I had computers with assistive technology already attached and didn’t have to wait for it to be ordered,” she says. She appreciated the company’s awareness of her needs, she says. Within Unisys, Relton adds, she is perceived not as a person with disabilities but “as a person who also happens to be blind.”

Making a Contribution

The bottom line for employees, says Pemberton, is how they feel about coming to work every day. “Is it a horrible thing? Or do they feel that they’re able to contribute?”

A company’s diversity efforts can go a long way toward enriching the employee’s experience in the workplace. Ohmny Romero, a manager in AT&T’s technical community in Middletown, N.J., finds what he needs—a means of “giving back,” a way to benefit others—in the company’s business resource group for disabled employees.

Romero, who is sight-impaired and is a past president of the group, says, “We felt that we could give recommendations and suggestions about how a product could be more accessible for people with disabilities.” And some suggestions, he points out, have proved helpful even for people who are not disabled.

For example, making the edges of a telephone rounded rather than sharp is doubtless more comfortable and potentially safer for sight-impaired individuals, Romero says, and also offers the same advantages to customers who aren’t disabled, such as parents with small children. Another example of a design modification that helps others besides those with impaired vision is the raised dot on the number 5 on a telephone keypad. The dot provides a point of reference for anyone who might have trouble seeing the keypad, such as a person with normal sight who’s trying to use a phone in the dark.

Through his participation in AT&T’s diversity initiative for disabled employees, Romero has been able to address his “need to help people,” he says. “I’ve been able to disseminate information to other groups by giving speeches about what it means to be a blind person in the corporation, about how we work and what kind of equipment we use.”

Don Showell, national president of the Ryder System Inc.’s Black Employee Network, says organizational diversity programs can help employees of differing backgrounds “communicate feelings and experiences about climbing the corporate ladder or breaking through the glass ceiling.”

Showell, senior director of transportation solutions at Ryder and based in Alpharetta, Ga., says a key to the success of the company’s diversity efforts is that they’re based on specific objectives tied to the organization’s mission and goals. Respect for diversity becomes part of the fabric of the organization and provides real meaning to, and recognition of, the value of individual differences—whether they are obvious or subtle.

In addition, a diversity of employee groups can generate multiple benefits within a company and contribute to an understanding of diversity in general. Julie Crisante, manager of technology assessment at Kodak and head of the Women’s Forum—the company’s diversity group for female employees—says Kodak’s various employee networks “collaborate on a number of things, and many people belong to multiple networks. You learn about the issues of other groups, and it becomes a part of you, and you bring it back to the workplace, so you’re more sensitive, you’re more thoughtful, you’re more respectful.

What Companies Cover in Diversity Initiatives Click here for an enlarged view.

“When I first got involved, I had no idea how much I didn’t know about issues that other groups faced.”

Benefits That Flow Both Ways

Although companies’ diversity initiatives help employees by creating opportunities for networking and interaction, they also can help their sponsoring companies, and employees in turn can see the tangible results of such initiatives. The product innovations, marketing efforts and other process improvements that can come out of diversity programs can demonstrate to employees that they are making a difference and that their viewpoints and contributions provide real value to the organization.

“The signs of meaningful diversity efforts pervade an organization when they’re effective,” says Pemberton. “An awareness workshop cannot be a stand-alone, or the only thing that a company does. A combination of efforts—affinity groups, benefits for non-spouse partners, multi-lingual newsletters, contributions fairly disbursed among various charities—are the things that employees are interested in,” she says.

Kodak’s Crisante notes that participants in the Women’s Forum “really build their self-confidence, and I think that carries over into what they do in their day jobs.”

“If nothing else,” Pemberton says, “at least there’s been more conversation about diversity”—through newsletters, committees, affinity groups—demonstrating management’s attempts “to make sure that there is equity and fair treatment going on.” And although positive results may not flow all the time, she says, “at least managers are talking about it.”

Says Michele Fantt Harris, managing director of human resources at National Cooperative Bank in Washington, D.C.: “If you do a good job in diversity, after a few years you should be out of a job. You shouldn’t have to have a diversity department or a diversity initiative. You’ll have managers who just look for qualified people; it won’t matter if the person is female, male, Hispanic, gay—that will just be transparent. They will just automatically hire the best candidate, and you’ll have a diverse organization.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).
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