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Creating a Bias-Free Corporate Structure : Human Resources: Experts say employers should consider overall strategy when choosing a diversity consultant.


Even in a lackluster economy, some businesses flourish. One of those is the business of advising companies on how to manage the diversity of their work forces.

With two-thirds of all the nation's workers either women or people of color--and that figure continues to grow--more companies are searching for guidelines on how to select a diversity consultant.

Specialists on diversity issues differ on approaches to corporate change, but they agree on one rule of thumb--a company must first define its needs before selecting an outside consultant.

While some companies develop their own diversity managers--often using human resources staff--most companies turn to outside consultants with special credentials in such areas as personnel development, cross-cultural communications and equal employment practices.

"Affirmative action, understanding diversity and managing diversity are three different approaches to diversity in the workplace," said R. Roosevelt Thomas, president of the American Institute for Managing Diversity, a think tank at Morehouse College in Atlanta. "A company that hires one consultant to simultaneously handle all three approaches will be disappointed. A company must first select one approach and then select a consultant who is compatible with that particular approach."

If a company has an adequate human resources budget and wants a variety of diversity programs, that firm might spread those resources by hiring a number of specialists, Thomas said. For example, if a company does not already have an affirmative action program, it may need a consultant with expertise in that area, he said.

If a company does not have in-house techniques for facilitating understanding across racial, ethnic and gender lines, an "understanding diversity consultant" might be sought for that task, Thomas added.

In addition, he said, a "diversity management consultant" might be needed just to deal with the overarching corporate culture that creates inequities and prevents the establishment of a bias-free system that empowers more employees.

For those who do not understand the difference between the three approaches, Thomas--author of "Beyond Race and Gender"--offers his "jelly bean analogy."

* Affirmative action: "Where are the yellow and green jelly beans in the jar's hierarchy? And, are there enough yellow and green jelly beans in the jar, considering the number of yellow and green jelly beans surrounding the jar?"

* Managing diversity: "Is this jar of jelly beans--with its mix--fulfilling its potential? Would we gain by changing the jelly bean relationships by changing the shape of the jar?"

The jar, Thomas said, is analogous to a confining corporate culture--an environment with narrow rules and self-fulfilling assumptions. Within corporate cultures, there are dictums on how ideas are generated, rules of behavior and expectations based on race and gender, some consultants say.

* Understanding differences: "Are the jelly beans of different color getting along?"

Among the companies opting for the "understanding differences" approach is Avon, one of Thomas' clients. After reviewing its needs, the New York-based cosmetics giant determined that it already has a strategy for managing diversity. For example, a diversity leadership team made up of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, working parents and older employees meets periodically with top management to develop business strategies.

And, Alvin Smith, Avon's chief diversity manager, is a strategist who also handles matters related to affirmative action--a second approach to dealing with diversity. Indeed, Smith said Avon selects consultants only to help employees understand and appreciate human differences.

"Some consultants in this area only focus on race and gender," Smith said. "We require someone who can also deal with issues related to age and global cultural differences."

On the other hand, AT&T is among the corporations that hire a number of consultants for a variety of diversity programs. Some deal with affirmative action, others focus on improving communications among workers. The company also promotes cultural diversity through programs to help its employees understand foreign markets.

"There is no shortage . . . of consultants in this country, and we're approached by many," said Burke Stinson, an AT&T consultant. "We don't make a selection quickly. We obtain a client list and review the track record. We also carefully consider the consultant's demeanor and the strategy."

However, many firms cannot afford a smorgasbord approach and must hire a single diversity consultant. In that case, firms must be especially selective, said Tsehai Essiebea Farrell, a Los Angeles-based consultant who offers diversity training workshops called "Transformation of Race."

The workshops are designed to help employees confront and eliminate biases based on racial, ethnic and gender-based stereotypes.

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