Smart businesses learn to tap the creativity of all employees


July 13, 1992|By Bob Cox | Bob Cox,Knight-Ridder News Service

WICHITA, Kan. -- One foggy Christmas Eve, one of the world's most important employers learned how valuable it was to have a diverse work force.

If it hadn't been for Rudolph, that outcast reindeer with the bright red nose, old Santa Claus would not have been able to make his appointed rounds. And the next day, having shattered the dreams of millions of children, Santa would have been out of business.

When Aaron Hazard talks to managers and executives of the Boeing Co. about the importance of having and appreciating a diverse work force, he uses the example of Rudolph to get his point across.

After Rudolph saved the day, the other reindeer decided he wasn't such an oddity after all.

"Well, Rudolph always was OK," says Mr. Hazard, manager of work-force diversity for Boeing. "He was just different."

In a world where American companies face stiff competition, tapping the creative resources of all workers is becoming increasingly important. The next great idea may come from a woman, or a non-Caucasian.

That's the message Mr. Hazard and others are preaching to business people, primarily white male managers and executives.

"Diversity is a way of life. It's here," Mr. Hazard says.

Studies have shown that by 2000, the majority of new employees hired by U.S. companies will be women and members of various racial and ethnic minorities because they will make up a larger and larger proportion of the available work force. Many will be recent immigrants.

The issue of diversity goes far beyond simply hiring minorities and women to meet quotas or targets.

"Diversity and EEO [equal employment opportunity] are very, very different," says Vince Berkeley, vice president for equal employment opportunity and minority affairs at Pizza Hut.

The people who make up the future work force will bring different personal styles, values and customs to businesses that all too often have expected their employees to be pretty much alike.

The key to success in the future, experts say, is to take advantage of differences, even encourage them. Management practices and styles must change. Companies will have to rethink personnel and benefits policies.

"A lot of employers don't realize what an important issue this is going to be," says Marlene Harris, executive director for the Kansas region of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Some companies, primarily major corporations, say they have recognized the issue and are trying to meet the challenges.

The relatively recent awareness of the diversity trend has launched a whole new school of management training.

It's called managing for diversity.

Boiled down to its simplest elements, this requires treating employees as unique individuals rather than a largely homogenous group. It's not an easy task.

"There's nothing in most managers' backgrounds that teaches them to manage diversity," Pizza Hut's Mr. Berkeley says. His company is looking for ways to improve its management training programs to meet this challenge.

Beech Aircraft Corp. has taken several steps in recent years to attract more minority and women managers and to develop them from within. Among them:

* An internship program for college students.

* A system in which managers identify subordinates with managerial potential.

* A skills inventory, still being developed, that would further enable the company to spot talent in its ranks.

"We try to identify individuals in-house and try to prescribe growth avenues for those people," says Jerome Williams, manager of employment at Beech.

Boeing has an extensive diversity training program headed by Mr. Hazard. The company has produced a videotape and distributed hundreds of copies to its plants around the country.

The key to changing managers' perceptions of other people, Mr. Hazard says, is to show them how they got those perceptions and why they may be erroneous.

Everyone is a product of the environment they grew up in, and their view of the world is altered by the filters of experience. Strip those filters away, Mr. Hazard says, and you can change the way you see the rest of the world.

"Many CEOs today grew up in that traditional home," Mr. Hazard says. "They didn't have day care. So they don't understand the day care problems of a working mother."

The key to changing people is to get them to identify their goal. Is it to increase production? Improve quality?

Armed with those answers, Mr. Hazard says he can then show a manager how making full use of all the resources offered by a diverse group of people can be the key to achieving goals.

"If people can see there's a business reason to do it, they'll do it."

As with the Rudolph example, Mr. Hazard uses analogies to change thinking. He will tailor analogies to the region of the country. It takes somewhat different tactics to teach the diversity message in Wichita than in Seattle.

Another way Mr. Hazard gets his message across is to ask people whom they would want to perform surgery on them: the best surgeon in the world, who might be of a different race or sex, or the third best, who is white.

"When we can get that philosophy in the workplace, we'll be all set."

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