Companies Ramp up Diversity Efforts

"The world economy is changing dramatically," says Andres Tapia, chief diversity officer at consulting firm Hewitt Associates, "and so is the definition of diversity."

U.S. corporations are diving into global diversity by:

Going native. Diversity managers say that U.S. multinationals are growing more savvy and knowledgeable about native cultures and traditions in other nations. Instead of storming into a region and risking a backlash, corporations seek to gain the trust of locals and forge partnerships.

At Weyerhaeuser, the $23 billion timber giant with operations in 18 countries, executives hire and work with native people in Canada, Uruguay, New Zealand and elsewhere.

Over the years, Weyerhaeuser has faced lawsuits and protests from environmentalists and Canada's aboriginals, known as First Nations people. But the company has hired hundreds of aboriginal people at its wood-products plants, signed on aboriginal suppliers and contractors and forged several logging joint ventures with the tribes that have since been sold.

"Our goal," says Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal, "is to have good relationships with the aboriginal people, to be aware of their concerns and to understand their cultures."

Recognizing religious differences. As multinational companies hire more religiously diverse employees in the USA and other countries, they're wrestling with how to adapt their workplaces to employees of all faiths, including Muslims, Jews and Christians.

Texas Instruments, American Express, Hewlett-Packard, Ford Motor and many other companies let workers form religion-based employee networks for support and networking. Some corporations offer chapels or prayer rooms for employees or give their workers time off to worship on special religious days, from the Jewish Sabbath to the Muslim holy day of Friday.

"Religion is the next big megatrend to emerge in diversity, and companies understand they have to deal with it," said Georgette Bennett, president of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding in New York.

At IBM, Bennett said, when security was tightened after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, diversity managers came up with a clever solution for a Muslim employee who wore her veil to work. Since observant Muslim women do not show their faces to men outside their families, IBM issued the employee two identification cards. One featured her photograph with a veil, to show to male security guards. The other card had her picture without the veil, to be shown only to female security officers.

Cross-border networking. In earlier years, "affinity groups" -- women, ethnic and gay employee groups -- were social networks and support groups for employees who may have felt like outcasts.

But now companies from Procter & Gamble to Lehman Bros. and others are tapping into the groups as powerful cross-cultural tools for hiring and recruiting, employee and management training and other business endeavors.

At John Deere, the 170-year-old agricultural equipment company in Moline, Ill., more than half of its 47,000 employees are based outside the USA in Latin America, Asia, Russia and other regions.

The company has 20 affinity groups from Finland to Mexico, and, "The groups must be tied to a business objective of the company," says Deborah Taylor, director of global diversity. To that end, John Deere uses the worldwide networks to find and retain talent.

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