How Executives Are Pushed To Foster Corporate Diversity

Two years ago, Rod Bond, an executive at a U.S. unit of French food-services company Sodexho Alliance SA, accompanied female colleagues to a meeting of the Women’s Food Service Forum, where he was a rare man among roughly 1,500 women.

“That’s a profound experience,” says Mr. Bond, 57 years old. It prompted him to wonder how women managers of his generation had felt when they started their careers amid a sea of men. “I can begin to feel what it must have felt like to be different,” Mr. Bond says.

That is the kind of reaction Sodexho and other companies hope to provoke in executives, as they try to help leaders — still predominantly white and male — come to grips with an increasingly diverse work force and customer base. Experts say such efforts can be a valuable addition to traditional diversity training because they can foster a deeper understanding of unfamiliar cultures and help executives see how they are perceived. “Dealing with difference is also dealing with how other people see you,” says Hayward Bell, chief diversity officer at defense and aerospace manufacturer Raytheon Co.

Some companies, such as financial firm Wachovia Corp., urge executives to work with organizations representing other demographic groups. Wachovia’s head of human resources, Shannon McFayden, who is white, serves on the board of the United Negro College Fund. John Cole, who heads banking for midsize businesses around New York, advises groups of women business owners and attends a year-end holiday gathering of one such group. “That puts me in quite the minority,” says Mr. Cole.

Others encourage deeper immersion. Raytheon’s missile-systems division in 2004 required managers to spend a day in a wheelchair in the office to better understand the concerns of disabled employees. Raytheon also asks executives to act as liaisons for employee “affinity groups,” which bring together workers of specific races, genders, sexual orientations or religions.

“To really engage people, you have to create a series of epiphanies and take leaders through those epiphanies,” says Rohini Anand, Sodexho’s chief diversity officer.

Peter Bye, a consultant on diversity and former corporate diversity director for AT&T Inc., says working with people from other demographic groups can give executives insights that can’t be learned in a class. However, he cautions executives need to mentally prepare themselves for the experience. Executives who have an “us versus them” attitude toward people who are different from themselves can get scared and defensive when suddenly thrown into a situation where they are in the minority, Mr. Bye says.

Experts say executives should be asked to do things that relate to their work, so they can see how diversity is relevant. “If it’s a contrived experience, it’s almost dismissible,” says Anne McMahon, a management professor and workplace-diversity expert at the Williamson College of Business Administration in Youngstown, Ohio.

Sodexho’s efforts complement an extensive diversity-training program that includes outside speakers. The company also encourages executives to mentor younger employees from different demographic groups. And it backs up the program with money: 25% of executives’ bonuses are linked to diversity objectives independent of financial performance, such as hiring or training minority staff.

Ms. Anand asked Mr. Bond to sponsor the affinity group for women employees when it formed about four years ago. Mr. Bond, who runs the Sodexho division that serves public schools, says participating in the group helped him appreciate the concerns of women employees. One of the group’s first requests was for a lactation room at headquarters, where new mothers could pump breast milk. “It’s just one of those things I’d never thought about,” says Mr. Bond.

Working with the group also made Mr. Bond more sensitive to women’s feelings, he says. Recently, he found himself annoyed by a TV comedian making jokes about divorce, all at the wife’s expense. Mr. Bond says he has also changed the social activities he plans for his colleagues, arranging excursions such as dinner cruises instead of golf outings, which he thinks appeal primarily to men.

Lorna Donatone, who ran a Sodexho unit that supplies food services for cruises, chaired the women’s affinity group when Mr. Bond became its sponsor. She urged him to attend the Women’s Food Service Forum event, arguing it would be a valuable experience, as well as a good networking opportunity. Ms. Donatone, who is of Swedish-German ancestry, later asked to sponsor Sodexho’s Latino affinity group, to gain experience with a different culture.

Ms. Donatone says the experience of hearing a lot of Spanish spoken underscored for her the importance of language and prompted her to produce more bilingual promotional materials for her cruise services. Ms. Donatone says her work with the Latino group had an unexpected bonus: As she explored Latino culture, she started to reflect for the first time on her own roots.

“I grew up in Nebraska, and everyone looked exactly like me,” says Ms. Donatone. “It was just never something I thought about much. Now I start thinking: ‘That recipe from my mother was Swedish.'”

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