From Representation to Inclusion

Virtually every large corporation in the state has a diversity program for employees, and many have made impressive strides in increasing the number of minority employees. Companies actively promote their rankings in diversity, and managers support and encourage the programs. Issues like workplace fairness, market representation and supplier minority business partnership have moved to a priority position on the corporate agenda. Business leaders agree that diversity isn’t just good social policy, it’s good business.

“Diversity is a business imperative,” says Steve Bucherati, director of diversity and workplace fairness for Coca-Cola. “As a consumer goods company you are making sure your products are relevant to those communities you serve. There is a tremendous business opportunity to grow your market share through speaking to consumers in a relevant way. The bottom line is there is a lot of money to be made in understanding the diversity of the consumer landscape. Failure to do that will lead to failure of your business.”

Of course, many of the corporate giants with high-profile diversity programs are also subjects of class action discrimination lawsuits. A spate of them, filed in Georgia around the year 2000, targeted Coca-Cola, as well as Georgia Power, BellSouth and others. And a number of corporate diversity offices seem to date back to about 2001.

But despite obvious progress in establishing diversity as a corporate priority, insiders and critics say that companies still have a long way to go as they move from minority representation to full-scale inclusion — a key step that may be the hardest of all.

No company knows the importance of managing diversity better than Coca-Cola, the Atlanta-based global beverage maker. Coke is accustomed to making headlines for business performance and marketing genius. The class action racial discrimination suit filed against the company by current and former African-American employees in 1999 was, in the words of CEO Neville Isdell — who came back from retirement to lead the company – “an embarrassment … an embarrassment to me from the outside looking in and to everyone who loves our company.”

In a speech to the executive leadership council in Washington last fall, Isdell went on to say, “It was also indicative of a much more substantial breakdown: the failure of Coca-Cola shareowners to receive the full benefit of our unrivaled global reach.”

By focusing its legendary resources on the problem, Coke has managed to turn an embarrassment into a point of pride – even an advantage. The company has since won awards for its diversity efforts. More importantly it has won praise from the federal judge overseeing its court ordered diversity turnaround. When the company settled the class action suit in 2000, it agreed to pay the plaintiffs nearly $200 million and enter into a four-year oversight program by an independent task force. Coke found the task force so helpful that the company asked for an additional year.

According to the court transcript of the last task force report in 2005, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Story said, “Your willingness to go beyond what you had to do to settle this case is what makes this a special case. The fact that you chose not to try to hide things, but have worked openly with the task force to try to resolve issues has made this a much more pleasant experience for everyone, especially me … . What has been created here is an excellent model that others can use.”

The judge also referred to the proceedings as a “mutual admiration society,” compared it to a “1960s love fest,” and concluded with “Thanks for giving me a bright day.”

Coke is now proud of its diversity efforts. “Anytime a federal judge uses the term ‘love fest,’ you know you’re having a good day,” says Coke’s Bucherati. “We took a very positive and proactive approach.”

Bucherati says the company cannot claim victory, but has seen substantial progress toward its goals of creating fairness and inclusion for all people and becoming a corporate leader in diversity programs. The company is especially proud of its recent move from number 6 to number 3 on the Top 50 diversity list compiled by DiversityInc.

Coca-Cola also made a $1.5 million grant in 2001 to the American Institute for Managing Diversity to launch a new educational program – the Diversity Leadership Academy of Atlanta. Corporate diversity officers who have attended now list it on their resume.

Changing The Culture — Or Not

“In 21 years, we’ve seen change — and then some things have not changed,” says Roosevelt Thomas, Jr., the author, former professor and Atlanta University Business School dean who founded the Atlanta-based American Institute for Managing Diversity in 1984.

“When we first started out people were primarily concerned about representation. It is now referred to erroneously, I think, as creating a diverse work force. It was referred to then as mainstreaming minorities and women. I think we’ve become very skilled at getting representation from minorities and women. The question was what would you do when you got that representation. People were assimilated into the corporate culture. They didn’t act like themselves.”

Diversity fails, Thomas says, when people try to fit into the corporate mold without bringing their individual and cultural gifts to the table, because after a while they feel limited. They find they can’t advance. They leave. People talk about glass ceilings, glass walls and revolving doors. Nothing changes.

Thomas is not denying that diversity has come a long way in the past two decades. Rather, he’s saying that it still has a long way to go.

“I think we’ve made great progress in figuring out how to mainstream, bring people on board. We’ve also made great progress in getting along. We can deal with not offending people,” Thomas says. “The issue is – how do we sustain that progress?”

At the many diversity seminars and conferences where Thomas frequently addresses audiences, business leaders express to him their frustrations with increasing minority representation only to lose it. “Many organizations are concerned about the limited presence of minorities at higher levels,” he says. “I’m not saying you don’t find some representation, I’m just saying many organizations are concerned about representation at higher levels.”

Even in the areas where people assume the most progress has been made, problems remain. “Many organizations would say that we have licked the issue with respect to women. They are really talking about white women,” Thomas says. “Now if you talk to white women, they are saying something else.”

The problem as Thomas defines it is a flawed focus on appearance rather than substance. “Going back to the 1960s, the country has said it wanted to have minorities involved. It’s never said we want these people to come on board and be different. Fundamentally, we have endorsed representation rather than diversity,” he explains. “I’m not clear, once we get people on board, that we have a culture that engages everyone. We need to learn to access talent fully however it comes packaged.”

The title of Thomas’ latest book articulates the hope of his career. It’s called Building on the Promise of Diversity: How We Can Move to the Next Level in Our Workplaces, Our Communities and Our Society.

Conversations with diversity officers from some of Georgia’s leading corporate citizens reflect common themes, starting with an organized effort to move beyond appearances to truly engage all employees.

A Focus On Inclusion

“We go beyond diversity to focus on inclusion,” says Rochelle Stockett, BellSouth’s director of diversity, an African-American woman who has been with the company for 29 years. “We understand that you can have diversity and not have inclusion. Inclusion is really the goal. That’s why you have diversity — to bring all different perspectives to the business.”

BellSouth takes pride in its holistic approach to managing diversity. The company has six employee networking groups — also called affinity groups at some companies. Such groups are open to all employees, but they promote the concerns of the minority they represent. At BellSouth, they are required to promote skill development, mentoring, community initiatives and demographic research. BellSouth’s current groups are: African American, women, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and Gay and Lesbian.

Another major shift in the discussion of diversity over the past 20 years is that advocates have become skilled at making their agenda a business imperative, not just a social justice issue.

“It would be nice to say that it’s part of the social process or the right thing to do, but the bottom line is, what is it going to do for my business?” says Parri Womack, director of corporate and minority business enterprise services for the Georgia Minority Supplier Development Council, which is an affiliate of the largest independent minority business certifying organization in the country.

Womack’s organization — known as GMSDC — now has more than 500 certified minority business enterprises — which means they are at least 51 percent controlled by racial or ethnic minorities. And the organization has about 300 corporate members who pay dues in order to gain access to the database.

Corporations are finding that diversity in employment, supplier partnerships, merchandising and marketing helps them reach their objective of winning customers across all demographic groups.

“Corporations do it because the main color they see is green,” Womack says. “Their objective is to create shareholder value. We’re capitalists.”

Womack herself is a former corporate diversity officer who enjoys her new role because she can be more of an advocate for minority businesspeople. But that doesn’t change her dollars and sense advice to them. “I tell our minority businesses you can be the cutest thing in the room or build the best mousetrap, but if you can’t help a buyer reach their bottom line, you won’t get the contract,” Womack says.

“It’s definitely about business,” says Gloria Johnson Goins, chief diversity officer for Home Depot. “Our workforce is certainly more diverse than it was 25 years ago. Our customer base is certainly more diverse. What companies have to do is create an atmosphere where your customers and suppliers feel respected and included. As competition gets stiffer for the best and the brightest employees, it really is about the bottom line.”

Some chief diversity officers are also responsible for affirmative action programs. Goins is one who is not. But an aspect of her job that others may not consider is merchandising. “We want to make sure our merchandise reflects what our customers want and that our staff reflects what our customers look like,” she says.

Successful Strategies

At Sandy Springs-based UPS, the diversity program involves strategies for seeking out minorities in three areas: employees, suppliers and customers.

“Diversity is definitely a business imperative for us,” says Lynnette McIntire, director of corporate reputation management. “We’re always needing talented people in our workforce. We’re always needing to get more customers. We’re always needing to serve the entire community. We have no choice. We want to be inclusive, not exclusive.”

Says Frank McCloskey, Georgia Power’s vice president for diversity and corporate relations, “Some people want to hear the business motives for diversity. They’re there. For others, it’s just doing the right thing.”

Like BellSouth, Georgia Power still has a class action suit pending. But the company also believes it has accomplished real progress in diversity. McCloskey says Georgia Power spends about 16 percent of its billion dollar annual supplier budget with minority and female businesses.

McCloskey first joined Georgia Power in 1972 and spent most of his career in operations. “When I first came, there were very few minorities working for us,” he recalls. The few women there were secretaries or home economists. Now, he says, the company’s workforce is 28 percent minority and 21 percent female. Change is slow, but it is happening.

“Georgia Power is a hundred year old company. We’re not going to change our culture in three or five years. It is what I would call a relentless pursuit of incrementalism,” McCloskey says. “We have structure in place to make that happen.”

Like Thomas, McCloskey has learned that true diversity goes much deeper than representation. “A key point here is increasing representation is not enough. You’ve got to continually work on your culture so that there is a sustainability to your diversity efforts. If you increase representation without changing culture you could end up with a revolving door. Whatever we do is going to be thoughtful and sustainable. The success is how well you build a culture of inclusiveness,” McCloskey says. “Our diversity and inclusion strategies benefit everyone.”

Everyone involved with diversity seems to agree that their work is difficult. “I think, any time you have diversity you will have tension. If you do this well, you will make quality decisions in the midst of tension,” says diversity consultant Thomas. “There have been a lot of changes. We’re getting to the point now where, once we understand that representation and diversity are two different things, I think we can make great progress.”

As organizations learn to fully engage diverse groups, they will be able to apply those lessons to all aspects of business in the global marketplace: mergers and acquisitions, international expansion, geographic mix, even immigration issues. “As we go forward, we’re going to become much more sophisticated about diversity,” Thomas says. “I’m optimistic about the future.”

Categories: Business Industry, Features