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MANAGING DIVERSITY: Grappling With Change in the Work Force. A SPECIAL REPORT : Lack of Candor Hurts Fight on Prejudice, Expert Says

April 17, 1988|JIM SCHACHTER

Edward W. Jones Jr. is dedicated to shattering illusions.

Fifteen years ago, Jones, then a middle manager for New York Telephone, authored an article in the prestigious Harvard Business Review that repudiated any notion executives may have held that blacks were receiving a warm welcome into corporate management.

Two years ago, another piece by Jones in the Review challenged the same, resilient myth.

Drawing first from personal experience and later from interviews with hundreds of black MBAs, Jones has sought to fix corporate leaders' attention on business's failure to face up to what he considers its ongoing, insidious discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

"There is no company in America that has solved this problem," said Jones, now a consultant in South Orange, N.J.

Jones blames a lack of candor on the part of both whites and minorities for the persistent toleration of prejudice within corporations.

He tells of a trip to Virginia a few years ago to visit with John D. deButts, the courtly Southerner who had been chairman of American Telephone & Telegraph through most of the 1970s and who died in 1986.

Jones showed deButts the results of his surveys of black business school graduates: 98% believed that corporations had not achieved equal opportunity for blacks; 98% agreed that subtle prejudice pervaded their companies and more than half said the prejudice was overt; 84% said race was a negative factor in their pay and promotions, and less than 10% said their firms favored open discussion of racial issues.

DeButts told him that minority managers had led him to believe that things were all right for them, at least at AT&T.

"What we need, Ed," deButts said, "is black managers and executives with the insight and courage to tell us what we need to know, and not just tell us what we want to hear."

The honest person, Jones insists, has to admit that his reaction to others depends, at least in part, on their color, age, sex and other distinguishing characteristics. And with more women and minorities competing with whites in business settings, he says, business people need to recognize that the chances for stereotypes to foster ugly conflict only increase.

Situation May Change

"When a white loses to a black, what do his wife and family and children think?" Jones asked. " 'You lost to a black? You're dumb.' " And if a woman beats a man in a business skirmish? " 'You lost to a woman? And they're undependable? And they're emotional?' "

These conflicts can be eased, and teamwork and productivity improved, only when workers and bosses become more attuned to their biases, Jones says.

"If we can get people to stop denying there's a problem, that there is difference, that's progress," he said.

Of all things, Jones says, it may be the recent flood of foreign investment in U.S. companies that finally opens white managers' eyes to the pain minorities in business have experienced for years.

"For the first time, white males are in a situation where they are not in power, and the Japanese are doing the same thing white males have always done," he said. "I think we're at a great moment to re-evaluate the whole issue."

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