Diversity Adds New Categories

Posted on November 01, 2004 | Type: In the News
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The face of diversity is changing as some businesses move beyond considering gender and race in their employment strategies.

Many corporations are now defining diversity as including any group that is underrepresented in the work force, said Bill Krutzen, director of new media operations at HireDiversity.com, an online job site and a division of Hispanic Business Inc.
He cited new categories of diversity such as sexual orientation, religion and - to a lesser extent - lifestyle differences, such as socio-economic status and single parenthood.
The changing demographics of the American population have created the need for companies to hire increasingly diverse individuals adept at cross-cultural and societal relations, said Cindi Gilliland, a senior lecturer in management and policy at the University of Arizona's Eller School of Management.
"As our country diversifies, the customers for any business or organizations diversify, too," she said.
Consider it the inevitable result of businesses responding to changing market conditions.
Technology has contributed to the trend, as evidenced by the growing number of Web sites such as HireDiversity.com or ProGayJobs.com.
These sites help employers identify candidates with qualities they are still not legally permitted to ask for - such as their sexual orientation - while at the same time capitalizing on the broader reach of the Internet to attract more applicants, Kurtzen said.
Beyond recruitment, the issue becomes how businesses manage diversity within their organizations.
But the question of how diverse hiring will play out in the long run still stirs up debate.
Those who disagree with the practice point out the seemingly contradictory nature of the broadening trend. If by loosening the definition of diversity more people can fit under the umbrella, what is the necessity of hiring for it in the first place?
Can a white male - usually considered the dominant majority - be labeled a minority worker if he identifies himself as a homosexual, or disabled?
A company's choice
Companies can choose to answer "yes," but they're under no legal obligation to do so.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, originally passed in 1964, outlines the groups employers are prohibited from discriminating against. The law includes race, gender, age, national origin and disability status among the underrepresented classifications - but it does not include sexual orientation.
That's not for lack of trying.
"There's been a bill to amend Title VII each year for the past 10 years, but it's never passed," said Mary O'Neill, Phoenix regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
With no federal law on the books prohibiting such discrimination, there exists no mandate requiring businesses to track the number of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender employees they hire.
The lack of statistics makes it difficult to determine how successful any one business is in recruiting from this community. But with little data to guide them, advocates frequently turn to surveys on human-resource practices and policies for information.
A study conducted by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which polls Fortune 500 companies on their hiring and human-resource practices, reported a rise in companies that include sexual orientation as part of their anti-discrimination policies - from 17 companies in 2002 to 59 in 2004.
"In terms of recruitment, more companies are showing up at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender MBA conferences and career days at universities," said Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, based in San Francisco.
"Where once there used to be maybe one company booth, and that was usually The Advocate (a national magazine for the gay and lesbian community), those numbers are rising."
Equally important are employee resource groups, Berry said, which can provide additional anecdotal evidence of progress within companies.
Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson is one company that uses resource groups to identify issues affecting employees of the company's minority communities. Versions of the current Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance at Raytheon have been around since the early '90s, originating with employees who transferred from other tech-based organizations, the group's Web site says.
Linda Taylor, diversity manager at Raytheon, said such groups are key in pointing out what barriers may yet exist in the workplace. In terms of recruitment, she added, the trend in hiring from more diverse categories results from the simple reality that the applicant pool for such jobs is more diversified, lending itself to the trend.
"There's been a steady decline in white males entering engineering programs, but there's been a steady increase in other populations," Taylor said.
Still, Raytheon - Tucson's largest private employer - actively pursues relationships with local organizations whose members reflect a more diverse population, scouting for potential employees.
"We need to develop relationships with those communities to be effective in terms of our recruitment. That's just step one," Taylor said.
Religion gains importance
Religious diversity also appears to be taking on new importance in the workplace.
Some experts cite the rising number of religious discrimination complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as evidence that more people are asserting their religious rights on the job.
In the past 10 years, claims of discrimination on the basis of religion have risen by almost 75 percent nationwide, to 2,532 in 2003.
David Lopez, a senior trial attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Phoenix, said the increase indicates employers are still lagging in accommodating religious diversity in the work force.
"These are part of what we call post 9/11 backlash cases," he said. "We've seen an upsurge in them, and not just in the number we're receiving but in the blatant seriousness of each case."
One involved a Muslim woman in Phoenix who was prohibited from wearing a hijab, or traditional head covering, while at work. The state Supreme Court dismissed the case on the grounds that restrictions on religious dress did not fall under the definition of discrimination as stated by the commission.
What made the case egregious, Lopez said, was that one of the individuals who enforced the restriction habitually wore a Catholic cross.
Similar to sexual orientation, the subject of a person's religion remains an interview no-no.
Some employers, such as Carondelet Health Network in Tucson, focus their efforts on managing the religious diversity that occurs rather than recruiting from any one faith.
"We're a Catholic hospital, but we do embrace people of all faiths," said Jane Levine, director of retention, recruitment and relations at Carondelet. "We don't ask about a person's religion, and it doesn't come up. We focus a lot on our mission, and that seems to resonate with people of all religions."
Before each staff meeting at Carondelet, employees are given time to recite a prayer or - for attendees who do not subscribe to any faith - a motivational story.
Further, the dress code at the health care center does not impose any restrictions on head coverings or other religious decorations, Levine said.
Keeping a flexible attitude toward faith-friendly human-resource policies could become increasingly important as the number of American adults who identify themselves as Catholic or Christian declines - giving way to members of other faiths or religious beliefs.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2003 Statistical Abstract of the United States, the percentage of the U.S. adult population that identified itself as belonging to a non-Christian faith - or none at all - had risen in 2001 to 17.9 percent from 11.4 percent 10 years earlier.
Also in 2001, nearly every non-Christian group doubled in size from the previous year, as more respondents identified themselves as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or "other."
Does diversity help?
There remains debate, however, as to whether creating a more diverse workplace will truly benefit a company in the long run.
Mark Trommer, owner of Human Resource Solutions in Tucson, consults with businesses nationwide on incorporating diversity management into their employee policies.
"The companies that are at the forefront of this trend describe it by saying it's a business issue. The more diverse your business is, the more successful you are," he said.
Having on staff employees who can contribute a variety of thoughts, ideas and cultural perspectives, he said, adds to the overall value of a company and increases its competitive advantage.
But does loosening diversity's definition undercut its purpose?
Satya Thallam, a fiscal policy analyst with the Goldwater Institute - a Phoenix-based research organization that analyzes public policy in Arizona - questions whether true diversity hiring can really be achieved - particularly when the idea of what constitutes diversity is forever changing.
"Diversity had a borderless definition to begin with," he said. "Is it a representation that reflects the overall population of the city, the state or the national average? Or does it mean having an equal number of every group?"
Although he acknowledged that the practice is unlikely to be halted any time soon, Thallam remained cautious about the sustainability of hiring for diversity in the long term.
"Ultimately, if a company is sacrificing giving the job to the most productive person, they're going to be sacrificing the success of the company," Thallam said. The most efficient policy, he said, "is simply to hire the best person for the job. That's a purely non-discriminatory policy."  
   Contact reporter Tiana Velez at (520) 434-4083 or tvelez@azstarnet.com

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