In good company

A diverse work force can have far-reaching benefits for a company's reputation.

A diverse work force can have far-reaching benefits for a company's reputation.

It's hard to find an American company that doesn't want to talk about diversity. In the time it has taken for baby boomers to make room for Generation X-ers in their corporate offices, the country's demographics have shifted dramatically, leaving businesses with work forces and customer bases that are colorful, multifarious, and often unconventional.

"If you just look at the growing trends of the population, it has become a community of diverse ethnicities, backgrounds, and races," says Corliss Hill, manager of business development for California-based PacifiCare Health Systems' African-American Health Solutions. "We need to reach our market and our clients where they are. That's the only way we are going to be successful."

In addition to creating offices and executives charged with promoting diversity, leaders in the field have expanded its definition to include everyone from working mothers to older employees - in short, anyone in the workplace faced with extra challenges.

"You would be surprised at how many people think diversity is just about race, and it's not," says Brenda Mullins, chief diversity officer at insurance giant Aflac, whose company runs programs on everything from "generational diversity" to "military diversity."

Just 10 years ago, companies may have given lip service to the concept of inclusion, while in practice shunning working moms, isolating minorities, and encouraging a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy for GLBT employees. Today most executives realize that approach is bad for the bottom line, hurting not only a company's image, but also its ability to compete for customers and employees. That reality has made diversity not just an add-on image effort, but also a cornerstone for staying competitive.

"Diversity is a priority at DaimlerChrysler," says Michelle Cook, senior manager of the corporate diversity office at the automaker, echoing her counterparts across a broad spectrum of industries. "It is part of our overall company strategy. We see diversity as enabling us to have the robust decision making and innovation needed to create products that will appeal to a globally diverse market."

From healthcare to manufacturing, promoting diversity both internally and externally has become such a priority that leading companies in this area almost all have full-time staffs and offices dedicated to it. Eastman Kodak's manager of communications and PR for global diversity, David Kassnoff, says diversity efforts are "all part of a whole. We don't think that if a consumer reads that Kodak is on one of the 'top 50 companies for diversity' lists that they are going to run out and buy a Kodak product. However, we think that if they are an ethical investor or a consumer, it will have some influence."

Mullins adds that diversity "benefits the company in so many ways. If people see that you are supporting them and doing some things to build relationships, then those are the people that want to do business with you."

The power of rankings

For the average consumer, one of the key ways to learn about a company's commitment to diversity is through the numerous lists put out by magazines like Fortune, Latina, Working Mother, and dozens of other lifestyle and business titles. From best companies for minority women to best companies for Hispanics, there is a plethora of rankings that have become more complex and analytical in recent years. While Fortune's lists might be the most widely known (although it did not do a best companies for minorities list this year), corporations are just as ambitious about making the cut for more niche titles that reach a certain demographic. Carol Evans, president and CEO of Working Mother magazine, which puts out a list of best companies for women in its October issue, says the lists are important to companies because readers take them seriously and make decisions based upon the information. "Our readers hold onto this issue for a long time, and they look at it as almost a job search companion," she says. "We often hear people tell us, 'I got my job at Pfizer because it was on the list."

Kassnoff adds that media rankings "represent a value to our corporate reputation and our brand, and in some cases they get the Kodak name in front of an audience that is desirable to us that might not otherwise think of us in terms of diversity and inclusion."

PacifiCare's PR manager, Dan Miller, agrees, but also adds that the internal PR efforts sparked by achieving inclusion on such lists are just as important. As language skills and cultural understanding become increasingly desirable in employees, firms are doing more to attract and retain diverse talent. "Being able to be recognized [for diversity] makes Aflac an employer of choice with minorities," says Mullins.

Kassnoff points to Kodak's strong track record with the GLBT community as an example of how diversity - and being recognized for it - helps retention. "We have a very active employee network for our GLBT employees. And whenever I meet with them, they say Kodak policies and the recognition they get is a factor in first applying to Kodak, and it helps not only recruit them, but in many cases it helps them to stay and enjoy Kodak."

Workplace pride

Hill adds that strong diversity programs can turn staff into company ambassadors. Almost all firms that make diversity lists have programs that encourage staff to take part in internal decision making on areas from hiring to marketing and give them opportunities to represent the company in their own communities. DaimlerChrysler, for example, has "employee resource groups" in five areas: African American, Asian, Hispanic, people of diversity (GLBT), and Native American. "These groups have really expanded their efforts to focus on the workplace and marketplace," says Cook. "For example, our Asian network has been really strong in terms of how to attract Asian customers. Hopefully, it's a direct link to the customer in terms of showing them a face they can relate to."

Mandeep Dhaliwal, a senior manager who participates in the Asian group, says he feels it functions "like a strategic link between the company and Asian communities around the country." He gives the example of the group arranging for journalists from Asian publications to have a tour of the company in June - a first for Asian journalists. "We are seen as an asset," he says. "It shows the company is keen on tapping into the changing demographics. It has a positive impact on morale."

Dhaliwal isn't alone in appreciating his company's diversity programs. At Scripps Health in San Diego, which has been recognized for its female-friendliness, PR manager Lisa Ohmstede says her company's commitment to programs that help her as a working mother, such as allowing her to clock only 75% time, have made it a place she intends to stay. "The loyalty I feel toward Scripps is unparalleled," she says. "I'm so happy here. I don't foresee myself ever looking for another job, even though I am only 36."

Hill says that sentiment is common when diversity programs work well. Staffers "feel proud," she says. "They see us as a responsible company."

And that, says Mullins, is the point of diversity. "When you think about it," she says, "if you recognize the importance of the human side, just think what it's going to do for the business side."

Making the list

As Brenda Mullins, chief diversity officer at insurance giant Aflac, points out, diversity has a far broader meaning in today's workplace than just ethnicity. Companies that work hard to accommodate their employees' changing needs can achieve great recognition.

Carol Evans, president and CEO of Working Mother Media, helped Working Mother magazine create its "best companies" list long before she took the helm. With its latest list about to debut, the mother of two talks about what diversity rankings mean for corporations and what it takes to make the cut.

PRWeek: Why do companies care so much about diversity lists?
Evans: When they make this list, these companies do a lot of internal PR. They put it out on their intranets, they put up banners and signs, and they do speeches. And then every company on the list mounts a PR campaign in the local community to make sure people know because it's great outreach for them for future employees, and it's great community outreach. If they are helping working mothers, they help the community and get much more back than the 1,000 hours it cost them. The reputation enhancement is huge.

PRWeek: What criteria do you look at?
We measure not only the depth of programs, but the usage of programs, so companies have to actually track the usage, find out how many people use each program. We found that companies were offering programs and then discouraging people from using them or not publicizing them. We took out that show factor.

PRWeek: How competitive is it?
Evans: We get a couple hundred applicants. Companies know if they have the goods to make the list. This is a numerical, objective ranking. It's not subjective. We do have essay questions in the applications and use those questions for knowledge for our editors.

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