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Diversity as Policy, Not as Window Dressing

AMERICAN workers are willing to accept diversity in their workplaces, but they fault top management for not promoting diversity in the right way, according to a national survey of 5,500 workers by the National Urban League. Following are excerpts from a conversation with Marc H. Morial, president and chief executive of the league:


Q. What were the main findings of your survey?


A. Workers embrace diversity, feel comfortable with it and believe in it. But less than one-third feel their companies have an effective diversity program or a diversity initiative. Workers are a little bit ahead of management in their thinking on this issue.

Q. What kinds of top management initiatives fail?


A. If top management sees diversity just as a P.R. thing, as a way of putting lipstick on a pig, it will fall flat. They have to recognize that to do it right, you’ve got to make it a core value of your company. You’ve got to work from the minute you hire an employee to instill in them that it’s important, that you give ongoing training and that you really have a level playing field. Some companies also evaluate managers partly on the basis of how effective they are in implementing diversity policies.


Q. Why do 63 percent of workers say marketing is the most important area for diversity?


A. It’s in marketing where the image of the company is translated and where the image becomes most visible. You see a growing recognition that there’s a strong business case for diversity, given the fact that customer bases are dramatically changing.


Q. So this means advertising in different languages or with different messages?


A. Yes, different languages and different messages. Where you market and how you market are also important. Marketing by larger companies is not only television and radio advertising, but it’s also soft marketing and relationship building. It’s the community causes that a company embraces, the trade associations and the organizations at whose shows they exhibit.


 In terms of advertising, it’s a question of, “Do you use minority and niche press for print ads?” For television and radio advertising, the consumer goods companies are far more sophisticated than anyone. They’ll have different kinds of commercials for maybe a political convention and different commercials for the very same product for sports events. It’s different commercials for the young, for African-Americans, for Latinos or for a daytime audience of stay-at-home moms. It may be surprising that employees and workers place a great premium on marketing, but that’s the company’s most visible manifestation externally.


Q. Have discrimination lawsuits like those at Coca-Cola and Eastman Kodak helped or hurt the cause of diversity?


A. The right of people to pursue their remedies in court is just a part of the American system that we’ve got to respect, even if it sometimes is irritating. But I will say that those companies that do nothing are much more likely to be exposed to litigation than those companies that do the right thing.


Q. Do certain industries or companies do a better job on diversity?


A. Many of the larger companies with large work forces that span many regions and diverse markets, in both urban and rural areas, tend to be the most aggressive about diversity. They tend to be more global in nature or large national companies.


Q. But fewer than half the workers who responded to your survey believe that diversity is very much a part of their company’s culture. Could this be the time when more top executives become serious about it?


A. The climate has changed. There are still many who don’t get it, but there are those who do get it and do understand it. One of the things the employees we surveyed indicated was that a company that embraces diversity is more productive. There is a business case for diversity. When you get this right, you don’t have the drag or the tension.


Q. Do the best companies manage diversity from the human resources department or do they create a chief diversity officer or a diversity committee of some sort?


A. We’ve seen a move toward chief diversity officers. It’s a recognition that diversity is larger than simply human resources. It also involves procurement, philanthropy, marketing and other parts of the company that are beyond the purview of the H.R. department. It’s a recognition that the C.E.O. wants to elevate the issue.


Q. It’s interesting that you found a clear regional pattern, with the western part of the country more open to diversity than the north central part. Why?


A. It may reflect the fact that there’s typically been more diversity in the West. The West has probably had, for a longer time, both African-American and Latino populations. It suggests there are parts of the country where, philosophically, they embrace the idea more.


Q. What do you hope to communicate with this survey?


A. What we’ve been focusing on saying is that by the time we get to 2050, the country will no longer have a majority ethnic group. Inculcating diversity as a core value in the institutions of this country is so important to our ability to grow and thrive as a nation. Secondly, the world in which we have to navigate is much more global from an economic and political standpoint. That’s why embracing diversity is important to our ability to continue being a power on the world stage.


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