Monday, September 06, 2010

7944: Diversity At Work.

From The Chicago Tribune…

Managed well, diversity can lead to innovation
Experts say better results can come from different points of view

By Ann Meyer

Attorney Steven Hunter wasn’t looking for a job when a recruiter encouraged him to interview at Quarles & Brady. The fact that the firm had an African-American chairman, John Daniels Jr., influenced his decision to take a position.

“That speaks volumes,” said Hunter, a senior associate in commercial litigation and one of five African-American attorneys in Quarles & Brady’s Chicago office. “You assume that a law firm that would promote an African-American to lead the entire firm embraces diversity.”

And it does, Daniels said. But the firm’s interest in establishing a diverse workplace goes beyond recruitment.

“It’s been demonstrated that by having exceptional people with diverse backgrounds, you get the best solutions,” Daniels said. “It’s essential to delivering the best service to the client.”

Hunter, a Chicago native who graduated from Brown University and Georgetown Law School, has found that not everyone feels the same way, and he has seen firsthand the bias sometimes attached to race.

“It’s definitely ingrained that if you want to do well, you have to be twice as good,” he said.

While Hunter has confronted some “overtly racist statements,” he said clients generally regard his minority status as an asset once they realize that jurors might better connect with him than a white male attorney. “I look like a lot of people on the jury, so that can make (clients) less uncomfortable.”

As the United States becomes increasingly diverse, businesses of all kinds are likely to face more minority customers, job candidates and even jurors. “Companies should be taking a good look at this issue,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

The demographic trends are particularly pronounced when America’s young population is examined as a predictor of the future, Johnson said. About 49 percent of babies born in the U.S. last year were minorities, while the overall population is one-third minority, Johnson said.

The population is changing from the bottom up, he said, because the number of minority children is increasing while the number of non-Hispanic white children is declining. As a result, minorities represent about 40 percent of the 15- to 19-year-old age group, 31 percent of 45- to 49-year-olds, and 20 percent of those 65 and older.

“Whether you like it or not, your organization is going to become increasingly diverse unless you deliberately decide not to,” said Jim Rodgers, a diversity coach and president at J.O. Rodgers & Associates in Lithonia, Ga.

Firms that embrace diversity and manage it effectively should have a leg up on the competition, Rodgers said.

“Diversity is really, truly our (nation’s) competitive advantage in the world,” he said. “It is the underpinning of our power and our success.”

Diversity in the workplace goes beyond numbers, Rodgers said. When managed well, diversity brings forth different points of view, which can lead to new ideas, innovation and better business results, he said.

Companies like Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp., where 40 percent of owner-operators are women and minorities, have made diversity a business imperative, spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling said. She attributes the company’s commitment to diversity to founder Ray Kroc’s principle: “None of us is as good as all of us.”

The company offers employee networks to encourage connections among African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, and women. “We continually strive to maintain an environment in which everyone feels valued and accepted,” Yingling said in a e-mail.

In the legal profession, however, change has come more slowly for women and minorities.

While women are graduating from law school at equal rates as men, only 16 percent of women are equity partners in law firms, about the same as 20 years ago, said Roberta Liebenberg, chairwoman of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women and a partner at Fine, Kaplan and Black in Philadelphia.

What’s more, just 1.4 percent of female attorneys of color are equity partners, compared with 4 percent of male minority attorneys who are partners, Liebenberg said.

According to the Chicago-based ABA’s research, 86 percent of female attorneys of color leave law firms before the seventh year. In surveys and focus groups, the women reported experiencing inferior assignments, less meaningful access to networking opportunities and comments reflecting bias. Almost half of the women reported being the subject of demeaning comments or harassment, compared with 2 percent of white men, Liebenberg said.

Many companies can’t be bothered with what Rodgers calls “relevant diversity,” and instead pay it lip service by hiring token minority employees without giving them an opportunity to have their ideas heard.

“Organizations tend to suppress diversity and rely on the same old types of people,” Rodgers said. In part, management believes it’s just easier to keep doing things the same way, he said.

But over time, companies that don’t embrace change will lose their competitive edge, while those where managers are willing to entertain “crazy ideas” from anyone will leap ahead, Rodgers said.

Listening to more ideas takes time, yet can result in more thoughtful solutions.

“America is the best example of the power of diversity you could see,” Rodgers said, “and yet it is a messy process.”

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