Leading the Way in Diversity

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning: diversity management isn’t about taking measurements. It’s not about reparations for past wrongs committed against any one particular group. Rather, it’s about understanding and celebrating the fact that more than one point of view can help a company grow. It’s about the bottom line. Diversity makes creativity. Creativity helps companies solve difficult problems and grow.

People with different backgrounds have different ways of looking at the world and while it may be easier to run a company of people who look the same and dress the same and have the same educational background, this group of employees probably won’t be turning out products that answer the needs of a changing population. The 2000 census has shown that groups typically considered minorities are rising in numbers.

For example, women outnumber men in earning bachelor’s, graduate and law degrees, and account for 40 percent of doctorates. Plus, new census figures show that while the Caucasian population remains essentially flat, there has been a sharp rise in minority groups, particularly among the Hispanic population. States like California and New Mexico already have a majority Hispanic population. What’s more, the Bureau of Labor Statistics report that women and minority groups will account for 70 percent of new job seekers by 2008.

Changes like these mean that companies need to re-examine their customer base as well as their employee base. McDonald’s corporation understood this back in the 70s. They took a look around and realized what many companies are just now realizing today: Their customers weren’t reflected in their corporate ranks. That means there’s a big gap between the people who run the business and the customers they’re serving. How can companies understand their customers’ needs, concerns and tastes if they are so different?

McDonald’s solved this problem by creating programs that helped groups attain positions of management. Today, 37 percent of all franchisees are owned by women or minorities. Groups like the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association and the McDonald’s Hispanic Operator Association helped to provide a base to franchisees to talk with McDonald’s senior management. People like Patricia Harris are helping the company to continue on in that tradition. As the vice president of diversity initiatives, Harris has been recognized as a Champion of Diversity in 2001 by Working Mother magazine. Harris began, like many diversity managers, in the human resources department. She was approached by a manager in the affirmative action department who asked her to join as an affirmative actions manager. We talked about the position. The fact that once I understood what the position was about – helping women and people, diversity education and community projects – all those sorts of exciting things, I decided to do it, said Harris. She eventually made her way up to vice president of diversity initiatives where she leads the company’s diversity efforts throughout North America.


Harris seems modest at first; even a little reluctant to talk about the major accomplishments she’s made. Like many people who’ve found a great place to work, Harris seems totally focused on making her environment -and thus the company – a better place to work. She laughs quietly when asked why she’s so good at her job and chooses her words with deliberation.

Perhaps it is these skills that allow her to talk and coach people through what can be emotional and difficult situations.

group of mentors who helped her throughout her career. I’ve had several mentors, she said. You can’t do it by yourself. Mentors are people who can be there in good times and in bad times. They can let you know when you’re off track and steer you back on track, she said.

Stan Stein, the executive vice president of human resources for McDonald’s, in particular stands out as a person who has made a big impact on Harris’ career. He was there the day I was asked to interview for a job in affirmative action. He was the person I went to for coaching and he’s there for me now, she said.

What makes a good mentor? They listen and provide honest feedback. They can also help you move up in your career by talking to other higher-ups about what you can contribute. Sometimes the best resume is a person in power who can talk knowledgeably about your strengths and how you can contribute to a company.

That’s how women and minorities can improve their careers, says a new study by Catalyst, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting women in the workplace. According to the study, women who want to get ahead should re-examine their networking contacts. While men tend to network with both men and women, women tend to network with other women. If it’s true that men still hold the highest ranks within companies – and according to Catalyst they do – women still won’t have a direct line to some of the most powerful people in the company. Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, suggests that women reach outside of their comfort zone and find both powerful men and women who can help them in their careers.

Harris now serves as mentor to several people within McDonald’s. She likes the fact that she’s giving back to the organization as well as helping out in someone else’s career.

Sometimes a mentoring program will be covered under a company’s diversity initiative, other times it’s completely separate. Many companies don’t have a structured program but young workers will do well to meet with influential people on a regular basis to keep a network in place.

While diversity initiatives have helped many people in their careers, it isn’t without critics who say it’s a waste of time and money. For some companies, that’s probably true. Diversity efforts like cultural awareness festivals are nothing more than an elaborate costume party that really do nothing to help workers feel like they are truly a part of the organization. I think people who criticize diversity don’t really understand what it’s all about, says Harris.

Many companies today say they have diversity initiatives but it can be difficult for students and first-time job seekers to determine just how serious a company is about attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. It takes time and a lot of personal research. Dig into the company’s Web site, talk to people who already work there and ask questions during the interview. Harris suggests students ask themselves if they would feel comfortable working there. To some extent, some folks walk into a company and they don’t feel included, she said. Ask in the interview – ask if there’s employee network groups or affinity groups. People entering the job market should be comfortable asking these questions.

Employee affinity groups, or network groups are the backbone of modern diversity efforts. They cover anything from women’s groups, to African-American groups, to people with disabilities. For more information about what companies typically cover under their diversity initiatives, see the sidebar.

Employee networking groups provide people the opportunity to meet with people with whom they feel a likeness to.

They can discuss the interests, concerns and ideas unique to the group and then present these to senior management. That, says Harris, is critical to the success of any diversity initiative. You have to have the backing of senior management, she said.

Employee network groups and other educational seminars also provide employees the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the company. To supplement the employee groups McDonald’s created corporate seminars geared toward different groups – women, African Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos. I know what having a network did for me and my career, said Harris. Plus, attending a women’s career development seminar or a black career development seminar really helps too. They teach you things you cannot learn in just a general work environment.

Harris knows her work is far from done. I don’t know if we’re ever finished as diversity managers. There’s always a need to educate as our business grows and we bring new employees on. Some people we hire are not used to this type of culture, she said. There’s always a need to start over.

But what about the day when they hire people who are already used to working and living in a diverse culture? Obviously I’d like to work myself out of a job, said Harris. I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime. I think that’s just the way life is and that’s the way our culture is.

So Harris continues to build the next generation of leaders through mentoring and educational programs. I have a fantastic team, she said. My goal is to continue to build processes and programs that will help build our business. The next step for Harris is taking many of these programs high-tech. With e-learning, employees will be able to access career development information at the click of a mouse.

What companies cover in diversity initiatives
The Society for Human Resource Management surveyed human resource professionals from Fortune 1,000 companies as well as those on the list of Fortune magazine’s 100 Top Companies to Work For to find out what companies cover under their diversity programs. Because diversity efforts are voluntary, each company responds differently.

Race-99 percent
Gender-88 percent
Ethnicity-85 percent
Age-65 percent
Disability-64 percent
Sexual orientation-57 percent
Religion-54 percent
Language-38 percent
Other-11 percent

-Source: Impact of diversity initiatives on the bottom line

–The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of EmploymentGuide.com, The Trader Publishing Company, or its approval of the opinions expressed therein.

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