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Monsanto's New Challenge: Keeping Minority Workers

Cover Story


'We don't want quotas, and we don't need quotas," says Colton Isadore, a maintenance supervisor at Monsanto Co.'s Chocolate Bayou chemical complex in southeast Texas. The white backlash, he explains, "would really set things back." Isadore's opinion of quotas, while far from unique, is noteworthy for two reasons. First, Isadore's employer is one of affirmative action's most vigorous corporate champions. Second, Isadore is black.

Welcome to the complex--and sometimes contradictory--world of affirmative action at Monsanto. For more than a decade, the St. Louis-based maker of chemicals and drugs has focused on affirmative action to boost the number of minorities and women in its work force as both a federal requirement and moral duty. But management has discovered that simply dictating affirmative action in hiring alone can't change a corporate culture that has been long dominated by white men. So Monsanto, like Isadore, is searching for new ways to encourage workplace diversity beyond preaching the moral high road or playing on white male guilt.

Boosting the number of minorities and women in its traditionally white, male chemicals subsidiary has been a priori-ty at Monsanto sincethe 1970s; the company even championed preferential hiring when the policy had come under heated assault by the Reagan Administration.

While a massive restructuring trimmed new hiring during the mid-1980s, the slimmed-down chemicals business has accelerated affirmative-action efforts in recent years. In 1988, 15% of nonunion new hires at the unit were minorities, while 21% were women. In 1990, those percentages for minority and female recruits were 17%and 29% respectively. That compares with a total division work force that is 11% nonwhite and 14% female. But women and minorities were also quietly leaving Monsanto at a disproportionate rate. In 1988, 21% of the nonunion employees who voluntarily left the chemicals unit were women, while 14% were minorities. By 1990, however, the percentages of quitting women and minorities had jumped to 26% and 20%, respectively. "We were good at getting them in the front door, but just as quickly they were going out the back door, the side door, or any other way they could get out of here," recalls Michael E. Miller, Monsanto's corporate vice-president for administration. Now at corporate headquarters in St. Louis, he previously managed affirmative action for the chemicals unit.

DAMNING COMMENTS. The company began performing a series of detailed exit interviews and held focus groups with minorities and women who had voluntarily left its chemicals unit. Fully 100% of the minorities who had left said they wanted more job responsibility and that they had experienced difficulty in dealing with their supervisors. Also, 30% more departed minorities than whites felt that Monsanto needs to give employees more help in adjusting to their jobs. Furthermore, they felt treatment by their bosses seemed arbitrary and unfair.

The survey brought equally damning comments from departing women. Twenty percent more women than men said they were treated unfairly concerning pay and promotion decisions. And of the 40% of women who had new jobs, a huge 70% said their new employers offered greater opportunities for career advancement.

Top managers were puzzled that these employees felt left out of things. But it was no surprise to the rank and file. "In the 1970s, we had lower expectations for minorities," says Gregg Goodnight, technical-services superintendent at Chocolate Bayou. "There was a lot of pressure to keep the numbers up to meet our affirmative-action targets,so very poor performers were carried. That kind of coddling erects a barrier with other workers--a hell of a barrier.They were always a separate group that didn't get the feed-back or the occasional kick in the tail they needed to develop, and eventually, a lot of them got tired of that treatmentand quit."

Even those who stayed often had to make personal adjustments. "I wasn't fitting in, so I started trying to act like a white male," recalls Nora Castaneda, a Hispanic project-engineering supervisor at Chocolate Bayou. "I started dressing like a man, I always made sure I had a comb sticking out of my back pocket, and I cussed up a storm--all of it just trying to be accepted."

Experiences such as Castaneda's have convinced Chief Executive Officer Richard J. Mahoney that Monsanto must go beyond affirmative action's emphasis on hiring. "At Monsanto, we must not force people to fight for their equal opportunity," he says. "We must give it to them as a right."

With that mandate, Monsanto began a series of managing-diversity programs, with Chocolate Bayou one of the key laboratories for the corporation's efforts. Already, more than 4,500 of the division's 12,000 employees have undergone two-day diversity-training workshops, which help participants recognize often-unspoken biases and stereotypes about race and gender. During part of the training, small groups of employees anonymously write down the characteristics they believe are associated with different racial, ethnic, or gender groups. Those stereotypes are then displayed, and each employee publicly places a mark next to those he or she agrees with--sparking sometimes-heated discussion about racial and sexual roles in the workplace.

The linchpin of the chemical unit's diversity effort is its"Consulting Pairs" program, which trains employees from throughout the company to serve as in-house consultants (working in race- or sex-matched pairs) on race and gender issues. After 13 days of intensive training, the pairs spend 10% to 20% of their work time for the next 18 months helping fellow employees cope with the challenges of life in a diverse work force. Pairs also flag company policies, references, or even work assignments that may show racial or gender bias or stereotyping. Explains David Scarr, a white operations-group leader who serves as a pair-consultant: "When you have a teachable moment, you use it."

One of the pairs' key tasks is to conduct "join-up" sessions with new hires and their managers, as well as employees who change jobs or managers. The sessions are structured to discuss the expectations that both managers and employees have about the new job--just the kind of give-and-take discussions that minorities and women who left Monsanto had complained they were not receiving.

NO SOP. But the pairs don't stop with the normal job formalities. They also push both employees and managers to talk about racial, gender, or age differences. "If they don't bring them up, then the pair is there to bring them up," explains Nancy L. Gheen, the chemical company's manager of work-force diversity. "They'll say something like, `John, isn't this the first time you've had to report to a black man? How do you feel about it?' Once people begin to talk about these things, they're not as afraid of them and can learn to handle them."

Monsanto officials readily admit that one of the key attractions of the Consulting Pairs program is that it serves the special needs of minorities and women without suffering the stigma of being a special-interest sop. Chocolate Bayou Purchasing Superintendent Rick Sharp crows that his join-up meeting with his new manager and two pairs "was a really good experience because we talked about things about my job and what we expect from each other that we just wouldn't have talked about before." Both Sharp and his manager are white men.

Using diversity programs to win the hearts and minds of people like Sharpis important--because white guilt doesn't sell the way it might have 25 years ago. Just ask William H. Slowikowski. The general manager of Monsanto Chemical's resins division admits "red flags go up in my head" whenever he hears the terms "affirmative action" or "equal opportunity." "I didn't personally do anything to get where we are today," he says. "I just happened to be born into a white family."

Yet now, Slowikowski heads the chemicals unit's Workforce Diversity Committee--a position he concedes he took with some skepticism. And after reviewing demographic forecasts, he's convinced that Monsanto must tear down racial and sexual barriers to remain competitive. "Recognizing the changing demographics shows that valuing diversity is good business sense--rather than something punitive that you've got to do for equal opportunity reasons to make up for something your predecessors did."

Diversity training is a slower approach than strict quotas to better the lot of nonwhite workers. But many Monsanto employees argue their approach is more in touch with the real world. "This isn't headquarters in St. Louis, where you can just impose solutions and then expect them to work," says Isadore, motioning toward the sprawling plant jutting above the Texas scrubland. "When it comes to managing diversity, this is where the rubber meets the road."James E. Ellis in Chocolate Bayou, Tex.

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