Diversity or Diversion?

Experts express their views about the effectiveness of diversity programs and offer suggestions on how to improve them

Who would have thought that white males would become the new minority in the workplace? Experts say that notion is already coming to pass since nearly half of employees are women and one-quarter are minorities. African Americans are now the largest minority group and steadily growing. But according to Workforce Economic Trends, by 2006, Hispanics will represent the largest minority segment in the U.S. workforce and Asians and African Americans will represent 17% of the workforce. These statistics indicate that American businesses will have to adjust accordingly to employees’ needs. Training programs and promotions will have to include employees that were once excluded. In response, many firms have implemented diversity programs based on supporting, nurturing, and using people with varied backgrounds, capabilities, beliefs, and skills. That’s the premise. But when we look at what is actually occurring in the workplace, the results don’t correlate. Studies indicate that the same barriers that plagued African American employees in the past, such as the glass ceiling and discrimination, still top the list as hindrances today.

So what’s the solution? The answers are as diverse as the employees who work in today’s corporations. But our panel of corporate diversity insiders and consultants offers some thought-provoking ideas as well as hope for the future. The diversity panelists included Juanita R. Mitchell, vice president of human resources for Volvo Cars of North America L.L.C. in Irvine, California; Guillermo L. Hysaw, vice president of diversity for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. in Torrance, California; Melanie L. Harrington, executive director for the American Institute for Managing Diversity Inc. in Atlanta; Mark Williams, CEO and founder of the Diversity Channel in Bethesda, Maryland, a diversity training company for Fortune 1,000 companies; and Ted Shaw, attorney and assistant director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund in New York City.

BLACK ENTERPRISE: How do you define diversity in today’s environment?

JUANITA R. MITCHELL: Diversity, literally, can mean just different. I can be diverse because I like Diet Coke and you like Coke. [But] that doesn’t get you anywhere, not with the initiative that we need to embark on, particularly in the Premier Automotive Group. We have chosen to say that our diversity initiative will begin with visible dimensions of diversity. We mean ethnicity, gender, and people with disabilities. We find it difficult to believe that you can embrace diversity that you can’t see if you don’t embrace diversity that you can see. Our focus is on ethnicity and women.

GUILLERMO L. HYSAW: Our focus is on the verb diversifying. When you can take diversity and make it a verb, now you have to come up with a plan. You have to take action. There are African Americans, females, different opinions, and different attitudes. We look at how to manage that diversity and that’s the process of diversifying.

MELANIE L. HARRINGTON: We define [diversity] as any collective mixture characterized by differences and similarities. That definition takes into consideration race and gender, plus behavioral diversity.

A lot of times, you think you have diversity representation because

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