Diversity in the workforce

Shirley Hawkins | 8/27/2008, 5 p.m.

When a CNN and Essence magazine recently conducted a poll to find out whether diversity has been fully implemented in the American workforce, they found that whites said racial discrimination is no longer a serious factor, but that blacks disagreed.
Affirmative action has been successful in bringing substantial numbers of black professionals into corporate America since 1970. However, statistics aren't so encouraging when looking at the movement of blacks up the corporate ladder. African-Americans comprise 10.1% of the nation's 112.4-million employed civilians; 6.2% of its nearly 28 million managers and professionals and 8.5% of its 3.3. million technical and related support staff.
While diversity and inclusion are considered an important aspect of America's workforce, many blacks believe that white corporate America still has not fully embraced diversity. Dean Jones, CEO of the Southland Corporation in Compton, Calif., a nonprofit company that provides employment development and supplier engagement programs for major corporations, maintains that diversity in many areas of big and small business remains an elusive animal. "Corporate managers seem to be too selective in who will fill certain positions," Dean observed. "A lot of companies will say that we need to identify a certain color or gender for a position. And that means that they are not working from a base of inclusion but more so from a base of selective diversity."
And Jones noted that despite an available pool of black and white applicants across the nation, many corporations are focusing their diversity efforts on hiring immigrant populations who will accept lower working wages. "Employers are already filling jobs with immigrants from India, China, the Philippines and possibly some South American countries. That's not even counting the immigrants who are already living in the United States. I don't think they are going to be pursuing diversity candidates on the corner of 76th Street and Vermont Avenues."
According to Dean, employers are also increasingly seeking employees who are adept at more than one language- a growing trend that he said could portend trouble for African Americans who speak only English.
"The new discrimination is language," Dean maintained. "We get job applications where everything about the job sounds very doable until you read the bottom of the job description and it states; 'Spanish and English preferred' or 'Korean and English preferred.' That tells me that if you are seeking an applicant who speaks Spanish and English, you want a Hispanic person. Or if you're asking for someone who speaks Korean and English, you probably want a Korean."
Jones also observed that the other wrinkle in diversity hiring is that in some instances, a corporation will bypass qualified African American males to hire an African American female. "It's cost effective to hire a black female over black male," he pointed out. Sixty percent of the workforce is female and as a consequence, it's cheaper to hire women because they have yet to get equal pay for equal work . Corporations are able to make more profits because they are paying lower wages. The interviewer thinks, 'I can offer the black female a lower salary than I can a black male and I'll save the company money.'"
With the workforce becoming more multicultural and the competition for jobs increasing, Jones observed that blacks will have to "step up their game" to remain competitive in the workforce. "They are going to have to enhance their professionalism and that means everything from the way they dress, to their speech to their market insight. The corporation works from two pendulums: How can I increase my sales and how can I lower my costs? So you have to come in with the mindset of 'The better I understand the company's product, the easier it will be for me to be indispensable.' If you can approach the company doing the hiring and show them how you can enhance their revenue base, then you have a shot at being a part of their corporation."
Pausing, Dean said that blacks should not hesitate 'think outside the box' to keep that steady paycheck coming in. "Sometimes you have to say, 'If you can't beat them, join them.' Learn another language," advised Dean, who left corporate America eight years ago to start Southland Corporation. "My other suggestion is to learn how to start and operate a business. That means that you're going to be the best employee you've ever been. You're going to be punctual and responsible. You don't need a college degree to start your own company-running a business is all about moving products and lowering costs."
Despite the implementation of diversity which is geared toward giving talented employees an equal share of jobs in the worplace, some feel that minorities and immigrants are receiving an "unfair advantage" in the workforce. "I stopped at a tavern to talk about some football," said one black business owner who wanted to remain anonymous. "A white male engineer asked me about my executive recruiting business. He said that blacks in corporate America have an advantage over whites, especially black women. He explained how during recent years, when he was employed by one of Chicago area's top employers, he saw blacks not nearly as talented as him get further along. We discussed this topic but I told him I have never felt my blackness was a competitive advantage over white men. I told this worldly and intelligent white male I could line up blacks that would feel differently. Diversity programs and programs like affirmative action are meant to overcome discrimination and provide an opportunity for more blacks in business. Yet, some high achieving whites feel it represents reverse discrimination."
Chris Strudwick-Turner, vice president of marketing and communications for the Los Angeles Urban League, maintained that the push toward diversity will continue to remain high on the list of corporations. "From what I can see, diversity is only getting better. The opportunities for jobs are opening up and the corporations are looking for a more diverse workforce. Many companies understand the value of diversity and that their workforce needs to reflect the community that it works in. If your workforce does not reflect the community there's no relationship with that community. If you can't speak the language of the community, if you don't have people on your staff who reflect the community, it is very hard to do business there."
One corporation that continues its commitment to diversity is Toyota Motor Sales. "Toyota's commitment to diversity and inclusion has been among our top business priorities since we started operations in the U. S. over 50 years ago," said Zoe Zeigler, media relations representative in the corporate communications division at Toyota. "With continuous improvement and respect for people as our key business principles, we strive to create an environment where a variety of cultures and backgrounds are respected and valued.
"This commitment to diversity and inclusion translates into meaningful jobs and career advancement opportunities, new and long term business partnerships with ethnic minority suppliers and dealers, committed investment in the communities in which we do business and mirroring our diverse customer base in marketing and advertising initiatives," Zeigler said.
Zeigler said that for the past eight years, Toyota has formalized its diversity objectives with its Toyota 21st Century Diversity Strategy, which focuses on areas of business that include employment, procurement, dealer training and development.
"Since our consumer base is so diverse, having a diverse workplace and incorporating diversity into our guiding principles helps us to mirror what our customers want and need in both product and service experience as well as advertising and managing," she pointed out.
And Zeigler said Toyota is proud of its record of diversity, especially among African American-owned dealerships. "I'm happy to tell you that we currently have more than 120 dealers that are minority owned or operated and we plan to increase this number in the future," she said.
Wal Mart, with 1.4 million employees nationwide, employs more than 250,000 African American associates and is one of the leading employers in the United States for African Americans. "Diversity is a top priority for Wal Mart," said Phillip Keene, Wal Mark spokesperson. "Our commitment to diversity is not just something we talk about, it's who we are."
Keene pointed to the fact that Wal Mart actively recruits from historically black colleges. "We participate in the Thurgood Marshall College fund Strive for Excellence Program, where we provide scholarships and professional development opportunities for scholarship recipients. We are also strong partners with the United Negro College Fund," Keene pointed out.
Keene said that diversity will continue to play a key factor in recruitment of minorities for the organization. "We believe we can do a better job serving more than 140 million weekly customers by cultivating respect for diverse lives and backgrounds through our company inititives," said Keene. "We offer several different types of development opportunites that are open to all our associates and that will allow them to position themselves for leadership in the organization."
In the entertainment industry, diversity remains a thorny subject among blacks working behind the scenes. Despite the fact that black faces can be spotted on the big and small screen, the picture of inclusion is very different when strolling the boardrooms and sound stages of Hollywood, where employed African Americans are usually few and far between. Many blacks in tinseltown feel that the issue of diversity is still not taken seriously and has a long way to go before it makes an impact across the board.
Marcy DeVeaux, president of DVG, a full service public relations agency, has consulted with clients on the issue of diversity in the entertainment industry for years.
"I don't see that diversity is part of a strategic plan or part of a business strategy for many studios or networks," DeVeaux frankly disclosed. "It's like diversity is thought of as an add on-like the entertainment industry thinks, 'Gee, we really should be thinking about this-maybe we'll think about it next year.' There seems to be a lack of consciousness for many in Hollywood over the issue. The issue of diversity in entertainment seems to ebb and flow and is based on who's cracking the whip at the time," DeVeaux observed.
"I think that for the most part, network executives want to embrace their audiences of color but in these tough economic times, their focus is elsewhere. It's ironic that since black and brown audiences compose a sizable segment of the film and television viewing audience-and that we might possibly elect the country's first African American president-networks are still maintaining that they cannot find talented writers or performers of color for their television programs."
DeVeaux affirmed that only a handful of blacks are employed at any one time in Hollywood, making diversity an arbitrary subject. "The fact is that most of television programming lacks cultural diversity, and this coming fall season is typical--it is a whitewash again. So one has to ask the question, 'Is it good business to ignore a huge segment of your (black and brown) viewing audience?'"
DeVeaux acknowledges that networks such as UPN, FOX and the CW have employed black writers and producers black actors in the past, but that only one network was currently making a concerted effort to implement diversity in its hiring practices. "If I had to point to any television network that is making a real effort, that would be NBC," DeVeaux observed. "It hasn't shown up on the screen, but behind the scenes, NBC is placing professionals of color in key decision making positions. NBC is the only network that has an executive vice president of diversity, and an African American man is now the Washington bureau chief who stepped into the shoes left by the late Tim Russert. And there is a buzz going around that an African American woman-Gwen Ifill-may host 'Meet the Press."'
Pausing, DeVeaux observed, "Diversity has just not trickled down to the entertainment side. It has not become part of a business model and eventually it will catch up with the network. The statement that you often hear from industry executives when the subject of minority hiring is brought up is, 'We need to do better.'"
Screenwriter Sharon Johnson agrees that diversity in Hollywood remains elusive. Formerly a staff writer on "The Sinbad Show," "Buddies" starring comedian Dave Chappelle and "Goode Behavior" starring Sherman Hemsley, Johnson has labored in Hollywood for over 15 years, but discloses that opportunities for black writers are sorely lacking when compared to her white counterparts. "I remember referring white writers to my agent and then seeing them getting hired for top 10 shows on major networks and eventually becoming producers. I've asked my agent, 'Why don't you put me on one of those shows?"
Theorizing on why agents are reluctant to pitch writers of color for projects, Johnson observed, "In my opinion, agents live and die by the number of clients they get jobs for, and it is easier to put a white writer on a white show than to fight to put a writer of color on a white show. It's the path of least resistance."
Johnson felt that agents needed to be more proactive and less scared of going to bat for writers of color. "They need to stop pigeonholing and stereotyping writers of color," she observed.
Pausing, Johnson observed, "Networks and studios say they can't find qualified writers of color. We know that there are quality writers of color here in Hollywood-and everybody deserves an opportunity. The bottom line is, Hollywood really needs to take chances on writers of color and they need to do more leg work in finding where the writers of color are. As for diversity existing in Hollywood, in my opinion, it is still a work in progress."
As businesses continue to tighten their bottom line and seek qualified candidates to fill their ranks, one African American blogger on a black business site commented, "This country is facing a shortage of skilled workers, and soon talent, not color, will be the hiring factor. We (blacks) must prepare ourselves for the future opportunities by being well educated and committed to being and doing the best at what we can do."
Jim Walton also blogged, "As black people, we must strive to be what our parents told us, twice as good. Performance can provide opportunities, and race provides an additional barrier that can be overcome. Hard work is not a stranger in black communities. Our forefathers worked hard for free and dreamed of a better life for us. We need a sense of community support to encourage each other to go for the brass ring."