Valuing Cultural Diversity; Industry Woos a New Work Force

By Allen, Gray | Communication World, May 1991 | Go to article overview

Valuing Cultural Diversity; Industry Woos a New Work Force


Allen, Gray, Communication World


From the shop floor to the executive suite, the once all-White, all-male corporate culture of industry is transforming into a mosaic of cultural diversity. Rapidly changing demographics and economic necessity are encouraging corporations to open more career doors to women and minorities.

The US Department of Labor projects that by the year 2000, 85 percent of the new entrants into the US work force will be minorities, women and immigrants.

In response, industry is struggling to discard age-old prejudices and ways of doing things to attract and retain this new work force. Executives accustomed to hiring, training and managing a homogeneous group of workers are hiring consultants and attending training courses to learn new skills that enable them to manage and motivate a work force made up of diverse groups of people with widely varying cultural backgrounds.

To woo, win and retain the new work force, industry is going well beyond the policies adopted following the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s and '70s - policies that attempted to treat everyone the same. Corporations are discovering that, despite their best efforts, everyone is not alike and that personnel policies and management techniques must change to deal with a diverse work force. In most instances, this requires no less than a major change in corporate culture. Melting Pot Myth

When Coming Inc., the nearly US $3 billion glass and ceramics giant whose products include Coming Ware, Pyrex and Steuben, became dissatisfied with the results of its "melting pot" approach to personnel administration, it had to overcome a culture that for years had insisted that only White males could run the business. While the company had a good track record in hiring women and Black managers, it was having difficulty retaining them. Their rate of attrition was triple the rate for White men. In exit interviews, women and Blacks complained that their progress up the ranks was restricted.

In 1986, CEO James R. Houghton became concerned and made this issue a major corporate initiative. Teams of employees studied the matter as a quality problem and held workshops and seminars to help people overcome sexist and racist attitudes. Corrective actions, including better avenues of communication and new career planning programs, were put in place. Houghton championed diversity in his communication to employees, promoting a better mix of women and Blacks in the company's management and professional ranks and making a virtue of the mix.

Coming provided day care for employees' children, and coaches and mentors to help new women and Black employees adjust to the Coming environment. And Houghton went one step further. He told his executives that their own bonuses, raises and promotions would depend in part on how well they helped women and minorities reach their fullest potential.

Coming acknowledges that progress has not always been smooth and the necessary behavioral changes do not occur overnight, yet the company's record today is much improved. The attrition rate for women and Black employees has been cut nearly in half. Avoiding Stereotypes Dealing with a changing corporate culture can go beyond the obvious differences between people. An influx of new managers in 1988 prompted administrators at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Hayward, Calif., to look for ways to help supervisory staff develop skills to effectively manage the institution's changing work force. After asking their managers to identify cultural diversity issues that they felt were important, the administrative task force, with the help of a consultant, developed a training program for managers.

The eight-hour series focused on creating awareness of cultural differences. "But we stayed away from stereotypes," says Sharon Wamble, senior public affairs representative. "We moved past the recipes about ethnicity, race, gender and lifestyle to look at what culture is and how it defines and manifests itself in the work place. …

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