As chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 1994-97, Gilbert F. Casellas was a vigorous enforcer and educator. It was a natural follow-up to his early days at Yale University, where he co-founded the Puerto Rican Student Cultural Center. He continues those efforts, both as an employment-law attorney at the Washington D.C. law firm of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky, and in the nonprofit world. The Florida-native chairs the Committee on Workplace Diversity of the Yale University Council and is on the board of directors of the Hispanic Federation.
How important are corporate diversity boards, and are they effective?
To the extent that they're voluntary and the senior leadership of the company truly taps into the collective expertise and perspectives of the individuals on the boards, then, yes, they work. You gather lots of valuable information and perspectives from a talented group of individuals. If you don't leverage that talent, then it's window dressing. For the most part, the people you want to serve on these boards wouldn't serve if you were not committed. They have better things to do.
How do diversity workforce issues differ in foreign countries, and what issues do they present when those companies do business in the United States?
First of all, they don't even use the word "diversity." In fact, some countries use the term "positive discrimination." I think U.S. companies tend to pay a lot more attention to it and I think Asian countries for the most part – I'm talking about Japan – are still fairly homogeneous. It's been a challenge [to work with those companies] on ethnic diversity issues, but more importantly, on gender issues.
How have diversity programs evolved over the years?
We went from equal opportunity and affirmative action in the '70s to a concept of diversity. There are those folks who see diversity as a dressed-up way of talking about affirmative action. Some think of it as giving preferences to unqualified minorities, but in reality what's happening in diversity is that it's become more inclusive.
Should companies be examining their workplace diversity initiatives more closely?
Over the next 10 years, as baby boomers begin to retire, there will be a big jobless gap. So what will happen is [employers] will be fighting for this smaller group of people, who will be far more diverse than it has ever been and far more sensitive to the fact that they've got choices. It's imperative as a company to be a leader in diversity and not just in representation numbers but from a place that really values inclusion and experience. It's one thing to say 50 percent of our workforce is Hispanic. And when you ask, "Well, where are they?" They're all at the bottom.
What kind of workplace complaints do you see the most?
Race is still the No. 1 basis for complaints. It's been fairly consistent for 20 years. It's funny, with Latinos, in particular, you don't see too many of these suits. We don't sue. We just sort of leave the company.
What advice would you give employers to avoid workplace lawsuits?
No one is really immune from being sued, so it's really important when I counsel companies to tell [employees] that they can't be complacent just because they gave a training last year. Companies need to send constant reminders to their employees that you're an employer who will not tolerate those types of behavior, that there will be consequences.
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