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Diverse results Featured

8:36am EDT March 28, 2003
The Bush Administration is fighting to end the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan, and Danny Williams is watching closely.

As a graduate of the law school at Michigan, Williams understands the benefits that a diverse student population adds to the college experience.

"Most experts recognize the value of discourse at the university level from different points of view," says Williams. "It certainly is more credible when that discourse comes from individuals who have actually lived that point of view."

Williams is CEO of the Greater Cleveland Roundtable, a Cleveland-based nonprofit organization of leaders from the business, education, labor and religious communities who are committed to promoting positive race and ethnic relations and facilitating minority economic inclusion in Northeast Ohio.

Without a diverse work force, Williams says companies in our region could see a hit to their bottom lines. Diversity isn't about social engineering, he says; it has economic implications for everyone.

SBN talked to Williams about why diversity is important for businesses.

What are the advantages of having a diverse work force?

If you are operating in a location like Greater Cleveland that has among its population more than 50 different ethnic groups and a wide range of individuals of different faiths, obviously there will be issues that are different across them.

Unless you are trying to find a way to isolate yourself, it usually makes good sense to have representatives in your company that can relate to a wide range of constituents. If you have a company that operates at the retail level, people vote with their feet and their pocketbooks, depending on how they are treated.

If there are barriers to feeling comfortable within an institution, that can translate to the bottom line.

Is the lack of diversity hurting some companies without them even being aware of it?

I think one of the things we found in a recent survey on diversity was that there are certain job categories where there is a higher level of turnover among minorities.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but part of the reason is the atmosphere in the company that is created without the company being aware of it. Employees are not made to feel very comfortable. What I hear talked about a lot is that sometimes in male-dominated industries, the environment is not as inviting and accepting for females, even if they are one of the top performers.

The same is true of different ethnic or religious backgrounds. If upper management doesn't have a priority that accepting differences is a preferred way of behaving, the environment is not going to be inviting or inclusive.

How difficult is it for a company that hasn't done so in the past to start embracing diversity?

The thing that makes it easiest to start is a clear articulation of the importance of embracing it from the top, both from the CEO and the board. If they make a written commitment that diversity is valued, then that starts to send a message, but that alone isn't enough.

When workers see tangible evidence, such as board representation changing, or if you start to see people hired at the highest levels, that will send a strong single message. When making a commitment to invest in minority vendors and companies are buying significant amounts of goods and services, this demonstrates an active effort to make sure everyone is included. It will send a strong signal.

If you take managers in charge of purchasing or hiring and make them accountable in their performance evaluations for advancing diversity goals, then you will see a move toward embracing it in a meaningful way. You do what you measure.

If you put in legitimate measurement techniques to show how you are advancing, then you could start seeing movement.

Who should be leading a company's diversification effort, the CEO or the HR department?

It has to start with the CEO, and that person has to charge those who make real changes with the mission and hold them accountable for it.

Is it harder to get a diversification program started or to keep it going once it is in place?

It's a lot harder to keep it going. Making the statement about the importance of it and a flurry of hiring or naming someone to the board is important, but what happens is, if it's not an ongoing effort to keep an environment where diversity is valued, the effort will stall.

Institutionalizing it in a way that becomes ingrained into the company is a much more difficult activity and takes a lot more effort by people up and down the line. That's why it's important to develop some clear metrics on what success means and track it on a regular basis.

Is there anything companies do that they may not be aware of that prevents diversification?

Let's use one example of one company's commitment to giving minority vendors a shot at business.

It often doesn't happen because of assumptions, one of which is that minority companies could not be the low bidder because they are smaller and have higher overhead. There is no way they could be able to compete.

So purchasing agents just don't bother trying to seek out the companies to give them a chance. The assumptions may be true in some instances, but not across the board. Reasons like that prevent companies from making an impact.

It is also an assumption that certain members in the work force may not be interested in certain activities, so they do not get invited. I remember being told by one female executive that had several of her (employees) invited by a customer to a golf outing.

The assumption was that she wasn't a golfer -- when she was actually a very good golfer -- or that she would not be comfortable. As a result, this person missed an opportunity to network because of an assumption.

There certainly are also assumptions on the part of minority vendors as well that prevent connections. Minority vendors get the lion's share of business from public sector clients. As a result, the assumption on their part is that they really wouldn't have a chance at contracts that may be bid on in the private sector or those companies would not be willing to work with them. So there is some self-selection on both sides that inhibits diversity.

Do you see more companies with a positive attitude toward diversity than you have in the past?

I think companies are starting to recognize the business imperative behind greater economic inclusion. This is not a social service issue.

We think companies that recognize that they need to be as efficient as possible to reach out to the market need to have effective ambassadors in the ranks to get the best talent without regard to race, ethnicity and gender. They are dealing with customers who are demanding that they be more inclusive.

Companies are recognizing that board demographics and staff demographics need to be representative of the community they operate in. If they are dealing with public contracts, the incentive is there to make sure they are not excluding communities from employment or boards.

How does the issue of diversity affect the advancement of this region?

There is a lot of research that shows that communities that are highly segregated in housing patterns tend to not perform well economically. If you look at the last several years, those communities that are more inclusive tend to outperform the S&P 500.

Communities that encourage inclusiveness attract talent, and with that talent come the industries that follow where the talent is willing to go. This whole idea of embracing the value of inclusiveness in society is something that is very important to this region in order to be as competitive as we can be.

Is sensitivity training needed as part of a diversification effort?

As a beginning step, when a company doesn't fully value all of its assets, because there are subtle ways people can be excluded even when that is not a company's intention. There is value to having that initial training.

What really matters is, how does it translate to tangible benefits that people can see? This can be work force composition, vendors, or even where you give your charitable dollars, which is another indicator of corporate culture. It has to filter down to those levels.

Moving a company toward those expressed goals is very important at the beginning to lead the company to more substantive results.

Is the decline of affirmative action going to make diversification efforts more difficult?

I would point to corporate responses to the University of Michigan case, which I have been following very closely. There have been 40 to 50 major companies that have filed amicus briefs in support of the university's policy.

The rational for this as I've read it is that in order for them to maintain a talented work force, they need to have professional schools like Michigan churning out a diverse range of graduates. The same is true at a number of institutions that have filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

Those experts realize the importance of keeping the pipeline open. This is a crucial watershed case.

We at the Roundtable are not motivated by social engineering efforts. We want to make sure businesses can thrive in diverse markets, and it's imperative to make sure the companies are reflective of the world we live in. How to reach: Greater Cleveland Roundtable, (216) 579-9980.