Acceptance of Gays, Lesbians Is a Big Part of Kodak's Diversity Picture

Article excerpt

Company says its efforts have cut waste and boosted productivity in manufacturing and finance

LAURA BROOKS, a former regional manager for logistics at Eastman Kodak Co., recalls her first inkling that the workplace might feel hostile for gay co-workers.

The company was conducting a culture audit of the warehouse and distribution operation and took pains to ensure anonymity when planning a focus group of gay employees. A consultant, not someone from Kodak, would facilitate the meeting. It would be held off-site so co-workers wouldn't see participants. And invitations would be sent through the gay employee resource group.

"Despite all of the effort to maintain confidentiality and to do it in a way we thought would be safe for people, nobody came," says Brooks, now operations manager for Kodak's engineer ing and design center. "That was our first data point."

To understand what gay employees might be facing, Kodak asked other focus groups-based on everything from years of service to racewhether they thought that they had any gay coworkers and whether gay jokes were part of the usual workplace banter. "It validated that there was a pretty good dose of harassment," says Brooks, who became involved in gay diversity programs at Kodak after her best friend came out as a lesbian, telling Brooks that keeping the secret had been a burden.

"We had made some progress on gender and race in our community," Brooks says, but harassment toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender employees "still was rampant."

Brooks worked with peers at Kodak to curb harassment and educate employees about their "GLBT" co-workers. The acronym stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. The last is a blanket term for transsexuals and others who cross gender lines.

Unlike managers in some organizations Brooks had ample resources to achieve her goals. Kodak offers a novel approach to diversity training and a wide range of programs. The company has not one but five education programs that address workplace inclusion of GLBT employees. They're available to any work group in or near Rochester, New Yorkfrom the senior management team in Kodak's world headquarters to the third shift in the sprawling Kodak Park manufacturing complex.

CEO Dan Carp has declared diversity as a business imperative as the company cultivates teamwork, and the GLBT initiatives are just one part of a comprehensive effort encompassing myriad dimensions of diversity. Employees risk termination for practicing any kind of discrimination or harassment, and Kodak has fired employees who have acted counter to its GLBT policies. Managers emphasize, however, that attending the gay-awareness programs is voluntary. The training complements a workplace strategy Kodak calls its Winning and Inclusive Culture, which outlines the basis of teamwork and serves as the social foundation of the Kodak Operating System, the company's lean-manufacturing framework.

"If you don't have a workplace that is free of harassment, free of mistrust and free of disrespect, the teamwork that leads to breakthrough ideas-the creativity (that fuels) the productivity solutions-isn't going to occur," says David Kassnoff, manager of communications and public relations.

The result: The company has eliminated waste and improved productivity in manufacturing and finance, Kassnoff says, though he declines to provide statistics or specifics because of competitive reasons.

Kodak's commitment to diversity also helps it attract and retain a diverse workforce, Kassnoff says. The company's efforts have earned it a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization. And Kodak executives believe that providing equitable treatment toward gay employees makes Kodak products more appealing to the 15 million domestic gay consumers, who tend to be brand-loyal.

"They clearly are doing a lot of things right," says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization that supports GLBT workers and has honored Kodak for its inclusive policies. …