Diversity Efforts Uneven in U.S. Companies

Kevin Whitelaw, National Public Radio, January 10, 2010

The United States is becoming an increasingly diverse nation, but progress in the workplace has been a bit slower.

On one side, there are companies like Xerox, which have gone well beyond making a concerted effort to hire minorities and women.

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But for every Xerox, there are many other companies that do little more than pay lip service to the issue of diversity, says Robin Ely, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.

Moving Beyond the Mandates

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Still, experts say that most companies, particularly the Fortune 500 firms, are trying to move beyond the legally mandated minimum when it comes to affirmative action and anti-discrimination efforts.

“The vast majority of them have gotten on the diversity train and aren’t going to get off it anytime soon,” says Eric Peterson, the diversity manager at the Society for Human Resource Management. “They realize it’s necessary for their long-term prosperity.”

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Indeed, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported a record number of discrimination charge filings in fiscal 2008–some 95,402 nationwide, which marked a 15 percent increase over the previous year.

Uneven Progress

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The latest available EEOC statistics show that in 2007, minorities made up 33.4 percent of office and clerical workers–remarkably close to the overall proportion of minorities in the workforce, which is 34.1 percent. But at the executive and senior manager level, minorities represent just 16.6 percent of the total.

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The uneven progress among U.S. companies in general reflects the fact that much of the push for diversity was defensive, driven at first by legal requirements about hiring minorities and women. Peterson says that in the 1980s, companies started thinking about it as a values issue, where good employees wanted to work for companies that they were proud of.

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A Change in Culture

For some companies that have ambitious diversity programs, it’s about reaching certain customers or working in a global economy. Others believe that diverse teams produce the most innovations. Some companies promote diversity in part to help retain the most talented employees.

“It is true that diversity can have positive effects, but only if we manage it in a creative way to draw out the different experiences people bring to bear from their backgrounds,” says Thomas Kochan, the co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “It’s not an automatic kind of thing.”

Managers have learned that it’s not enough to bring a wide variety of people into a homogenous corporate culture. Instead, the culture itself often has to change.

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But there has been little systematic research into diversity practices in corporate America. Companies tend to closely guard data about minorities and women because of the sensitivity of the issue. Academics say that companies rarely grant them access to the inner workings of their diversity efforts.

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Part of the problem is that the entire topic of diversity, particularly when it comes to race, remains extremely difficult for many people to discuss openly.

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There is also a concern that America’s financial woes could force cash-strapped companies to cut their budgets for diversity programs and training. Firms just starting to invest in diversity often rely on outside trainers to conduct workshops for employees or hold special events to mark a particular group’s heritage.

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A Journey Without an End

Many U.S. companies are too small to support formal diversity programs or devote significant resources to training.

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The ultimate goal, says Harlow [Phil Harlow, Xerox’s chief diversity officer], is that diversity is integrated into the daily functioning of each department and employee at Xerox.

“By no means do we think we’re perfect,” he says. “We just happen to have been at it a lot longer than others, so we’re a lot further along in the journey. It’s really a journey without an end.”

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Minorities in the Workplace.

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