Are Diversity Programs Truly Effective?

Rafael Nieves, 38, a manager of financial process improvement at Carrier Corp. in Syracuse, N.Y., helped create diversity councils at each of the firms business units. Still, Mr. Nieves, who is Black and Puerto Rican, says he hasnt participated heavily in them. Hes wary about linking his own career to the firms diversity initiatives. "My goal has been to conduct myself so that it doesnt matter what my background is," he says. "I want my actions to speak for themselves."

Diversity at Work

Diversity has become a rallying point for proponents of equality in the workplace. Its aim is to create workforces that mirror the populations and customers their organizations serve and is viewed as a more inclusive strategy than affirmative action. A multi-million dollar industry has sprung up to feed the demand for diversity programs - consultants, games, videos and a catalog of products. Though corporate staples such as sensitivity training and ethnic potluck dinners have a short-term value, the question is whether these and other efforts have a lasting impact on the work climate. Its even harder to gauge their effects on the careers of minority professionals such as Mr. Nieves.

Employers say their programs are making a difference and are quick to point to the success of their efforts at their companies. But other observers say that the efforts of these individual employers are not enough to address the persistent problem of workplace discrimination. Leroy Warren, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Federal Task Force on Discrimination in the Workplace in Washington, D.C., says that despite corporate efforts, bias in the workplace still exists. "Today, Jim Crow Jr. is an Ivy Leaguer whos smarter and slicker than his grandfather was. But the end result is the same."

Most diversity activities, experts say, have not been held to the same level of accountability as other human-resource activities. "If they were evaluated vigorously the results would be disturbing," says Carol Kulik, management professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz. "How would you feel if you invested all this money and found out that it had no effect? I think thats true when you talk about changing day-to-day relations at work. Companies do it for other reasons: legal protection, symbolism."

Subtle Discrimination

Though overt discrimination has declined, minorities and women remain a small cohort of professional organizations. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1983, 3% of engineers and attorneys were Black. In 1999, Blacks made up 5% for each profession. In 1983, 3% of physicians were Black; in 1999, between 5% and 6%. Over the years, Blacks in marketing, advertising and public relations rose from 3% to 5%; financial managers from 4% to 7%.

From a financial perspective, Blacks were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed in 1999. The ratio has remained the same since the 1970s. And for every dollar a white male earned in 1979 (the first year figures are available), a Black male earned 78 cents. In 1999, the numbers were identical. In 1979, Black women earned 58 cents for every dollar a white male earned; in 1999, 64 cents.

One problem, diversity advocates say, is that managers continue to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. "Invariably that means people that share their own background and characteristics," says David Benton, workforce policy adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard Commandant in Washington, D.C.

Some believe bias in the workplace is more subtle today. "People have become smarter; theyre more in the closet," say Ron Johnson, associate director of corporate ratings at Standard and Poors in New York. "Theyve learned how to hold their tongues."

Diversity often takes a backseat in the hiring process. Its "not a priority for a search firm thats racing to find qualified executives to keep with a clients timetable," says Willie E.

Carrington, an executive recruiter in Chicago. "We go to the candidate pool we know; identify the best candidates we can find at that particular time. Then we look for diversity."

Diversity Diversion

Some professionals, such as C.J. Rosenblatt, 37, a Chinese-American at Microsoft in Seattle, find the emphasis on diversity a distraction that shifts the focus away from excellence. Ms. Rosenblatt, a product planner for Microsofts homeadviser.com, says at Microsoft brainpower rules. "I dont think I was hired because Im Asian," she says. "Im smart and Im here with other smart people. The only time I think of ethnicity is when I work with partners outside of Microsoft."

Ms. Rosenblatt says that all you need to do to learn that Microsoft is inclusive is to have coffee in the cafeteria. Moreover, the company teems with affinity groups formed around special interests from sexual preferences to babysitting. [There are about 100 at the firm.] Shes aware of these groups, but hasnt used them. "I havent participated, havent needed to; if you feel theres a problem, youre more likely to get involved."

Before joining Microsoft, Ms. Rosenblatt worked at Clorox and General Electric where, like at Microsoft, the quest for top performers was guided more by brainpower than race or gender. In her view, diversity will take care of itself if people are hired and promoted based on their abilities. "I can see how people would try to use their ethnicity to get ahead, but its probably not the right tactic," she says. "Id never think about using it; its not a good way of thinking. Ultimately, when youre brought into a situation purely because youre a minority, youre always wondering if you're worthy of belonging to the group. Its very demoralizing. Ive never felt that way at Microsoft."

Diversity Is Good Business

At the basic level, diversity programs are designed to make everyone feel good. They feature sensitivity training, cultural exchanges, networking and the establishment of affinity groups where minorities, women, gays or other interested individuals can share information and support each other.

"Companies are sponsoring wonderful diversity initiatives that are outlets for people to voice their concerns and views without fear of retaliation," says Lisa Willis Johnson, HR director for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and chair of the diversity committee for the Society for Human Resource Management, a professional organization based in Alexandria, Va. "The sharing is good. It provides validation and it improves race relations because it generates a dialogue."

IBM is a case in point. In 1995, Big Blue launched eight executive-led task forces -- women, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, gay/lesbian, disabled and men. Each task force was asked to look at IBM from the perspective of their constituency and tell the company what it could do to make them feel welcome and valued. "The intent was for us to identify anything where change would make things better," says Ted Childs, vice president for workforce diversity in Armonk, N.Y. "We looked at recruiting, mentoring, stereotyping and external agencies we should work with."

So far the program is producing. "Weve increased the number of African-American executives from 62 to 115 from January 1996 to September 1999," Mr. Childs says. During the same period, the number of executives who are women of color, predominately Black and Hispanic, increased to 54 from 17.

Mentoring and Coaching

Mentoring and access to informal work groups are crucial to career advancement. But establishing these relationships continues to prove daunting for people of color and women. For example, John Fernandez, author of "Race, Gender & Rhetoric" (McGraw Hill, 1998), found that 72% of Blacks in 1978 and 78% in 1995 reported they were excluded from informal work groups and unable to find sponsors and mentors. In its recent study of women of color in the workplace, Catalyst, a nonprofit research and womens advocacy organization in New York, found that only 50% of African-American women in upper-level jobs had mentors. The percentage fell to 37% for mid-level positions and 34% at lower levels. Overall, 47% cited lack of access to a mentor as a barrier to advancement.

Since most senior managers are white males, it follows that when mentoring occurs, theyre the most likely mentors. "Its harder if the person feels she doesnt have a lot in common with her mentor," says Katherine Giscombe, director, research and advisory services at Catalyst, a nonprofit research and womens advocacy organization in New York.

As result, mentoring has become a central part of many corporate diversity programs.

Mr. Nieves, a 12-year employee at Carrier with an MBA from Syracuse University who is working toward a masters in finance, attributes his advancement to his mentors. "I was fortunate to find two white women who took interest in my career," he says. "They took me under their wings, gave me feedback and coaching. With their support, I flourished."

Now as he prepares for another jump up the corporate ladder, hes decided to take advantage of a mentoring relationship that Carriers diversity program has created for him with the CFO, George Mentich, who is white.

"Hes genuinely interested in diversity and since he understands me and my background, hes positioning me for some high visibility projects," Mr. Nieves says.

Mr. Grossman is a lawyer and a professor of management studies at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.