Monday, January 28, 2008

Corporate America -- Don’t Preach Diversity, Practice It

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
New America Media

Editor's Note: Stanley O’Neal, forced out of the top job at Merrill Lynch, is the highest ranking casuality of the sub-prime loan fiasco -- even as diversity in corporate America is still an issue.

With the forced retirement of Merrill Lynch CEO E. Stanley O’Neal, the ranks of African-American top gun Fortune 500 company CEOs was sliced from six to five. O’Neal’s fall had nothing to do with race, but rather questionable investments that caused the company’s stock to plunge, and supposedly being a loner type in a corporate culture that thrives on “good old boy” insider networking. But the demise of O’Neal, for whatever reason, still raises fresh questions about how committed many corporations are to making diversity a reality in their boardrooms and in management.

The answer varies widely from corporation to corporation. Fifty companies appear on Fortune Magazine’s list of corporations with the best track record for cultural diversity. Minorities made up almost 21 percent of their boardrooms in 2003, compared with 11 percent two years earlier. The figures almost certainly have edged up even more since then.

But for every one of the 50 corporations that makes diversity more than a buzz word, there are dozens more that pat themselves on the back for having one Latino, Asian or African American on their board, or for hiring a handful in lower-level management positions.

In recent years, some of America's biggest and best-known corporations that have been widely praised as having a good track record on minority hiring and promotions have been plastered with discrimination lawsuits. Texaco, Coca-Cola, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Toyota have been thrust into the legal hot seat and have made costly settlements or signed consent decrees with the EEOC.

Forty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that forbade workplace discrimination and Executive Order 11246, signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1965, that prodded firms to promote management diversity, many companies still practice their own subtle brand of workplace apartheid. Despite the well-publicized rise of O’Neal and other black executives at AOL-Time Warner, American Express and Aetna, black CEOs are still a rarity at most of the Fortune 1000 corporations.

The overwhelming majority of senior managers at these companies are white males, and as is evident from the rash of management discrimination lawsuits, women and minority managers are still paid less on average than their white, male counterparts. They are still just as likely to be pigeonholed in departments such as head of “special markets” or “minority affairs.”

An embarrassing and highly publicized corporate discrimination case may bring the issue onto the public radar, but then it’s back to business as usual. That business, more often than not, is discrimination. It takes place quietly and far out of public view. The worst offending corporations employ a variety of tactics to mask discrimination. They issue glowing press releases, brochures, assorted handouts and annual stockholder reports loaded with pictures of smiling women and minority employees that tout their commitment to diversity. With much public fanfare, they establish minority and women hiring and training programs.

The refusal of many companies to make cultural diversity the watchword in middle and upper management is bad enough, but even worse is the relentlessly hostile environment that many companies create and maintain toward minorities.

Since 1990, the number of complaints of racial disrimination toward employees has climbed. Black and Latino employees have been poked with sticks, called racial slurs, have had pictures of burning crosses and white sheets placed near their lockers, have discovered the initials KKK carved on tables and benches, and even found nooses hanging at or near their desks.

Most CEOs are not hypocrites when they say that they work hard to hire and promote more minorities and women. But the degree of real commitment to cultural diversity hinges on the commitment of a corporation’s top CEO and its board. When CEOs implement an outreach program that includes a diversity task force, aggressive recruiters, and a mentoring program aimed at moving talented female and minority employees up the corporate career ladder, cultural diversity will be readily apparent in the company’s hires and promotions.

O’Neal’s departure was disappointing, given the still relative paucity of minority and women Fortune 500 CEO leaders. But even if O’Neal had stayed in good grace with Merrill, and had a long shelf life there, the challenge to corporate laggards on diversity wouldn’t change. And that is, don’t just preach it – practice it.

About the Author

New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press).

Source : New America Media

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