By Janet Perez
September 2000 - Diversity in Corporate America has traveled a long road. Born in the civil rights movement, it has evolved from an affirmative-action headcount to cultural sensitivity workshops to a business imperative. At the start of the 21st century, diversity programs continue to evolve in response to the changing work force.
"I really think this is a unique generation," says Carmen Argamasilla, vice-president of corporate communications at HBO Latin America Group in Miami. "Growing up Latin and working in Corporate America has really created a special individual that I think is particularly savvy and able to thrive in these multicultural environments. … At the same time, these individuals are more sensitive to different cultural nuances."
Ms. Argamasilla cites converging factors that have shaped the modern Hispanic professional. "There's been the increase in technology, the business boom in Latin America, and also the increasing buying power in the Hispanic market. All those things have groomed U.S. Latinos to the point we have an edge over others," she says.
The process of making diversity a company asset began in the 1970s as an exercise in numbers management. The goal was to get the right number of women and ethnic minorities on board so the government and private lawyers wouldn't accuse a company of discrimination. "Part of the evolution was moving away from affirmative action and beyond it," explains Marc Ortiz de Candía, CEO of de Candía International, a diversity consulting firm in Orinda, California. "Unfortunately for a lot of diversity efforts, because of the way either the consultant or the powers-that-be decided to position it, it was very closely associated with affirmative action and is seen as part of the affirmative-action effort. In other words, some people never really got beyond that initial connection to affirmative action. It makes the effort very limiting."
When approaching companies, Mr. Ortiz de Candía found they "would have this reaction of, 'We have an affirmative-action program, so we don't really see the need for this,'" he says. "I tried to explain to them that what I wanted to do was to focus not on the law, which is what affirmative action is, but on the behavior that would be supportive of an organization that embraces affirmative action."
Almost 25 years ago, McDonald's Corp. became one of the first companies to take advantage of diversity in the work force. With the help of consultants, it has created a system of making sure that differences are understood and celebrated. "Diversity is a whole approach to how we do business in terms of our suppliers and our minority vendors program – constantly monitoring our different employment efforts around the country," says Rey Gonzalez, director of diversity initiatives at McDonald's headquarters in Oakbrook, Illinois.
But after opening its doors to minority employees, McDonald's had to create a culture that would be inclusive all the way up the line, a situation that led to a new movement called diversity training. "When I started with McDonald's in 1976, there was a program called affirmative action in place," says Pat Harris, assistant vice-president of diversity initiatives. "Basically what we were doing was counting numbers. That's all we were doing up until 1979. That's when we began training programs to help educate the McDonald's system on managing the changing work force."
A year later, the fast-food giant introduced a series of career development training programs for its Hispanic, African-American, and women employees. Still in existence in expanded form, the programs are geared toward helping McDonald's minority employees thrive in a corporate environment. The program allows people "to talk about what it's like working in the environment and being a black person or a Hispanic," Ms. Harris explains.
Although ahead of the curve, the McDonald's diversity program mirrored that of the rest of Corporate America. Mr. Ortiz de Candía says he began seeing his business pick up in the mid- to late 1980s. That's when a report from the Hudson Institute, a public-policy research organization, predicted a large influx of minorities into the workplace. "It essentially said that by the year 2000, the workplace would become more diverse, and the question was, is Corporate America really prepared? And the answer was no," Mr. de Candía recalls. "The workplace really did not reflect the diversity of the ever-changing work force that would become more diverse and multicultural. That was really the compelling motivation for a lot of companies to move forward with the diversity effort."
For the complete story, see the September issue of Hispanic Business magazine. To respond to this article, click on the byline.
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