1. Archive

A diverse assault on bias // Texaco case sends loud message

On paper, Texaco did everything right.

It had a company policy against discrimination.

It sent its employees to diversity training.

It even had a diversity officer in charge of overseeing its multicultural efforts.

So why didn't all of that keep Texaco from becoming a national, $176.1-million example of how not to handle workplace race relations?

Ask the people who are supposed to know _ the diversity trainers, the employment lawyers, the civil rights activists _ and they'll say that Texaco's ways of dealing with diversity issues simply didn't go far enough to solve any real problems.

They'll also tell you that most big companies across the country handle diversity the same way _ meaning that others could be headed down the same lonely road Texaco finds itself on today.

"Companies think we still do this by having policies and grievances and posters that say "You have rights,' " said Robert Bickel, who teaches employment discrimination law at Stetson University. "Texaco was just a wake-up call . . . that should tell companies that's not going to do it."

The wake-up call was a loud one.

Academics and activists have said for years that there is a problem with race relations in the American workplace. But when Texaco chairman Peter I. Bijur said that the bigotry at his company is just "the tip of the iceberg" in corporate America _ and backed it up with the $176.1-million settlement of a discrimination lawsuit filed by its black workers _ it got the attention of many corporate executives as nothing else could.

"Because it was the largest settlement of its kind, it's bound to have an impact on other companies," said Dan Willson, executive assistant to the president at the NAACP.

"Hopefully, they'll take a look at the amount of the settlement and realize they have to go above and beyond the typical diversity training and really look closely at how they treat employees."

"Band-Aid' solutions

Many companies already know the value of diversity.

A diverse work force is necessary to reflect the increasingly diverse United States. Besides, with diversity comes a range of ideas and perspective on how to improve business, make changes for growth and ultimately, how to make more money.

The root of the problem in today's workplace, people like Bickel and Willson say, is that many companies are superficial in their commitment. On the surface, they promote diversity. They might even hold a seminar or two. Beyond that, though, they do little to foster it.

"At one point in time, organizations were just clueless about what was taking place in their work force," said Lennox Joseph, president of the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, which started the practice of diversity training 50 years ago and now holds diversity and other workplace seminars worldwide.

"Now, they've moved from being clueless to spineless," he said. "They know what's actually happening . . . but they prefer not to take any real action to solve it because they know the problems are so monumental."

Instead, Joseph and others said, many companies today rely on short-term "Band-Aid" solutions like one- or two-day diversity training programs, or hollow company regulations about discrimination.

About 70 percent of the nation's biggest companies have some sort of diversity training programs for employees and executives. Most have policies against discrimination and some have programs designed to recruit minority employees for lower-level jobs.

But some other statistics show why those programs aren't enough to create diversity:

About 97 percent of top executives at the nation's biggest companies are white, according to some estimates.

About 88 percent of department managers, chief administrators and other executives are white.

About 52 percent of all corporate boards of directors don't have a woman or a minority on them. In Tampa Bay, about 82 percent of the boards of publicly held companies don't have a minority member, according to a January survey by the Times. About 75 percent of local boards don't have any women members.

How companies' executive offices got to be so white isn't hard to understand.

"About 85 to 90 percent of organizations today were created (decades ago) . . . with certain assumptions about the work force: that the work force was homogenous, that it was mainly white, that it was mainly male," Joseph said. "As a result, companies and their employees today have the same values that white males had years ago."

Long-term commitments

If companies are going to do a better job of creating diversity in the workplace _ and stave off lawsuits like those by black workers at Texaco _ they must make major changes.

Instead of just thinking about how to avoid discrimination lawsuits and appease minority workers, Joseph said, executives need to look at diversity as part of their long-term corporate plans and think about how a diverse work force will help them do business in a global economy.

One way to accomplish that, he said, is to move diversity officers and training programs out of companies' human resources or legal departments and into strategic planning departments. Just as companies plan ways to improve production and customer service, he said, they should plan ways to improve workplace diversity.

Likewise, companies, their executives and their employees need to quit looking at diversity training as something that you do once with the idea that after it's done, a problem is solved.

"The problem with corporations today is that they're doing diversity training at the lowest level possible and with the lowest effect on the bottom line," said Denys Blell, who is associate vice president of diversity initiatives at the University of South Florida. "They think diversity is an end in itself . . . and if you do that, it doesn't work."

Instead, Blell said, companies should look at creating diversity as an ongoing, long-term program. At the same time, he said, diversity training shouldn't be aimed at just emphasizing other people's differences _ like many of today's diversity training programs do _ but at creating long-term harmony and community among different types of workers.

In the meantime, to foster changes in corporate thinking about diversity, companies' executives need to be more diverse themselves.

"The progression to top management and the presence of women and minorities on the board of directors is probably the most important next step in the corporate culture," said Bickel, the Stetson professor. "You really have to have multicultural (executives) to introduce a true multicultural emphasis on the workplace."

Regardless of how they do it, Texaco's settlement showed American executives this: They probably should do more to promote diversity and discourage racism if they're going to avoid costly lawsuits, disgruntled employees and public relations nightmares.

"There is no one answer; there is no easy formula," said Claire Gonzales, spokeswoman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"But what this shows . . . is that it's not enough to just have policies on paper," she said. "Companies need to look at how to really manage diversity . . . and how to make it real."