Are Diversity Officers Changing the Face of Corporate America?

Bill Picture, Asian Week, Nov. 25, 2005

Are diversity officers really changing the way that companies do business, or is corporate America simply paying lip service to the diverse communities it serves?

Less than 20 percent of Fortune 500 companies currently employ diversity officers, but that number is growing quickly. And experts who have been keeping an eye on this booming corporate trend say that, when it comes to welcoming underserved communities into the corporate fold, including the Asian American community, overall effectiveness varies from one diversity officer, one company and one industry to the next.

JoAnn Mar, assistant vice president of ATM Banking/Distribution Strategies at Wells Fargo and a member of Wells Fargo’s Asian Connection Team Member Resource Group, representing APA employees, credits an aggressive diversity management program with helping 150-year-old financial institution better reflect the market’s ever-changing demographic landscape.

This year, Wells Fargo ranked 40th on DiversityInc magazine’s list of the “Top 50 Companies for Diversity.”

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The focus for diversity officers has changed numerous times since the late 1990s, when CEOs began appointing them to deal with growing numbers of employee discrimination complaints.

Since then, industry leaders have found that mirroring the market’s increasing diversity is a competitive necessity in an ever-more globalized market.

“More and more of these companies are having to build relationships with suppliers and vendors in other parts of the world,” explains DiversityInc co-founder Luke Visconti. “And let’s face it, 80% of the world is not white.”

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First American Title Insurance Company has had similar success with multicultural marketing. A pilot program created by the company’s then-director of diversity marketing, Pablo Wong, was so successful in the booming Bay Area region –– where 6 out of 10 new homebuyers are minorities –– that the program has since gone national.

Wells Fargo’s Asian Connection has gotten more involved in the APA community. For instance, the group sponsors an annual community leadership breakfast that benefits Asian-serving nonprofit organizations.

Altria Group and South San Francisco-based Genentech allocate a percentage of their annual procurement budgets to minority- and women-owned suppliers.

“Diversity is becoming more and more a part of the fabric of companies,” says Lisa Tealer, diversity manager at Genentech. The biotechnology company has consistently been rated one of the most-friendly companies for women, LGBT and people of color.

“At this point, diversity has really been engrained into [Genentech’s] corporate culture,” she adds. “I mean, the patients we serve are diverse, so, as the provider, we should also reflect that diversity.”

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“Diversity is the science of relationships,” expounds Visconti. “It’s about recognizing differences, understanding them and really utilizing them. The companies that get that are prospering. Companies that don’t, aren’t.”

As evidence, Visconti points to failed telecommunications giants MCI and AT&T, both of which had less than robust diversity management programs. Earlier this year, Verizon, which ranked ninth on DiversityInc’s Top 50 list for 2005, bought out MCI. Late last month, SBC, which ranked 15th on this year’s list, bought out AT&T.

“No one would have predicted that, but that’s what’s happening in every industry across the board,” he says. “Companies drag their feet in regards to diversity management and they get run over.”

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Visconti says that Native Americans, transgenders and persons with disabilities are grossly underrepresented at every level of the workforce.

Imada would like to see more diversity on corporate boards: “They’re still primarily older white men. That needs to change.”

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