Last April, Doug Tennant lost his job as a long-term contract employee for Pacific Gas & Electric Co. in Tracy, Calif. He says he was the first one in his three-person unit to be laid off. He claims the others--a black woman and a man of Indian descent--were kept on even though he was more qualified. Tennant, who is white, blames PG&E's push for a more diverse workplace. "I feel like I'm losing out," he says. PG&E says his race and sex had nothing to do with his departure.
Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a Chicago-based career counselor, recently got a plaintive letter from a white male who wanted a job hauling baggage for United Airlines Co. It seemed that all the candidates who were having any luck were women and minorities. "How am I going to get on with the airlines?" the man wrote. "Wrong pigment, wrong plumbing."
He hasn't selected any colleges yet, but Curt Harms is concerned about the impact of diversity on his chances for acceptance. "I'm worried," says Harms, a 15-year-old sophomore from Lake Bluff, Ill., who is white. "If there's a candidate who has grades and credentials exactly the same as mine, these days it's more likely they'll take that person over me, if the person is a minority or a woman. There's nothing I can do."
Peek inside any corporate boardroom, or take a look at the senior managers of most top corporations, and it's hard to see what Harms, Tennant, and others like them are complaining about: It's still a white man's world.
But in a growing minority of companies--especially those aggressively pushing diversity programs--some white males are coming to a different conclusion. They're feeling frustrated, resentful, and most of all, afraid. There's a sense that, be it on the job or at home, the rules are changing faster than they can keep up. "Race and gender have become factors for white men, much the way they have been for other groups," says Thomas Kochman, a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who consults with companies on white male issues. "The worm is turning, and they don't like it."
The phenomenon Kochman and others are talking about is far from universal in Corporate America. In fact, most white males don't feel particularly threatened or haven't noticed such changes where they work. But then, the impact of diversity programs, even in the companies that have them, is still limited. "Sadly, we find a lot of these diversity programs hang out there by themselves and don't loop back into a coherent management development program," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, director of the Center for Leadership & Career Studies at Emory University. "The programs often are window-dressing."
OPEN SEASON. But in such companies as AT&T, DuPont, and Motorola, where diversity is becoming more than just a buzzword, the emotional landscape for white males is changing. There, white men must compete against people they may not have taken all that seriously as rivals--mainly women, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. White males also say that the diversity programs often make them feel threatened or attacked. "In the diversity group I was in, there were some understandable reprisals against white males and, implicitly, the company," says John L. Mason, vice-president for recruiting and equal employment at Monsanto Co. The reprisals "discounted all the good things white males have done."
Even in companies where diversity programs are new or haven't made much impact, white males are feeling pressure. Often for the first time in their lives, they're worrying about their future opportunities because of widespread layoffs and corporate restructurings. Outside the corporation, white men are feeling threatened because of racial and gender tensions that have been intensifying in recent years. "'White male' is what I call the newest swear word in America," says Harris Sussman, president of Workways, a strategic consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. "We all know that's not a compliment."
No matter what company they're in, white males must face a sobering new reality: With a more diverse population entering the work force, white men are slowly becoming a minority. From 1983 to 1993, the percentage of white, male professionals and managers in the work force dropped from 55% to 47%, while the same group of white women jumped from 37% to 42%. The diversification of the workplace will only pick up. Through the year 2005, the Labor Dept. estimates that half of all labor force entrants will be women, and more than one-third will be Hispanics, African Americans, and those of other races.
All this is driving what some diversity experts and executives call a white, male backlash. So far, it has occurred mostly in companies experiencing the greatest flux, where some men blame their stalled careers on racial or gender differences. "When everybody is working and happy, diversity is just talk over the water cooler," says one laid-off, white, male executive who attributes his 18-month job hunt to employers who "earmark" jobs for female and minority candidates. "But when it impacts you directly, you become kind of angry."
QUANDARY. At the heart of the issue for many white males is the question of merit--that in the rush for a more diverse workplace, they will lose out to less qualified workers. Most white men claim they have no problem with promoting or hiring women and minorities if they are the best people for the job. It's another story when two candidates are of equal merit. In that case, if the company picks a woman or minority, some white men are quick to cry reverse discrimination--even though the law lets companies take race into account in employment decisions to remedy past discrimination.
The shifting dynamics of the work force have placed managers, many of whom are white males themselves, in a moral quandary. In their efforts to make their companies more diverse, they are certain to hire or promote women and minorities over other white males. That is sure to lead to anger from those who are passed over. In the extreme, productivity could suffer as white males flee to more old-line competitors. Yet if these managers fail to embrace diversity, they not only perpetuate past injustices but risk leaving their companies less globally competitive.
Many white, male managers say that those pressures become even harder to bear when they, rather than senior executives, are blamed for a litany of past wrongs committed by white men. "I'm certainly not part of the power structure," says James Gault, a systems engineer with American Telephone & Telegraph Co. in New Jersey. "But compared to blacks and women, I am."
Complicating such issues is the split between what many white men say they believe and what they actually feel: They recognize intellectually that they're still calling the shots and getting most of the promotions. But that does little to assuage fears that the pendulum will swing too far. "White males are like the firstborn in the family, the ones who have had the best love of both parents and never quite forgave the second child for being born," says Kochman, the University of Illinois professor. "We're dealing here with a sense of entitlements."
For companies committed to a corporate culture that embraces groups besides white males, all this raises two dilemmas: First, how to ensure a diverse work force without antagonizing either white males, whose support is critical for change, or women and minorities, who may resent efforts to win over white males; and second, how to reverse historical discrimination without creating new forms of it.
The experience at Rochester Telephone Corp. shows how tough those tasks can be. Until recently, white males criticized the company's diversity efforts as affirmative action under a different name--something they say doesn't affect them. The predominately white unions refused to support the initiative. "It was very divisive," says Robert Flavin, president of Local 11709 of the Communications Workers of America. "The minorities had an open door to the president."
Now, Michael O. Thomas, who is black, is trying to change all that. Hired last summer as Rochester's corporate director of staffing and diversity, Thomas expanded the definition of diversity to cover job sharing, career planning, and other employee concerns as well as race and gender. To oversee those efforts, he and members of an internal Diversity Council, already comprising a cross section of the company, hired a diversity manager--who happened to be a white female--and eliminated the minority-run diversity department. He also refocused the council's mission to make it more inclusive and help set an agenda. Thomas says his efforts have drawn mixed reactions from minorities, some of whom worry he's ignoring their problems. Thomas is determined to prove them wrong. His approach is already winning over labor. "The old program didn't have anything to do with our members. Now it does," says Flavin.
TOKENISM CHARGES. While Rochester's diversity program isn't focusing on white males, some of the most aggressive employers on the diversity front are realizing that winning over white male employees requires special efforts--and is crucial to their programs' success. AT&T and Motorola Inc. are hiring consultants to lead seminars that help white males handle anxieties over their changing status. CoreStates Financial Corp. is forming a white men's support group similar to those in place for people of color as well as gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. For all male employees, DuPont Co. is creating a "Men's Forum." "White males are feeling left out," says Bernard Scales, DuPont's manager of diversity, who is black. "They are questioning from the sidelines: `What is going on? What is the company doing? What is it that women and people of color are trying to tell them?'"
Managers who ignore such issues risk inflaming dissension and hurting morale and productivity. At some companies, white middle managers are filing internal complaints about unfair treatment. At NutraSweet Co., CEO Robert E. Flynn says evidence of white, male resistance surfaced in two similar incidents in recent months: White men picked white males for key positions--without posting the jobs for females, minorities, and others. Both jobs were reopened so that a broad range of candidates could apply. In one case, the initial candidate got the job, but some of the women and minorities who were interviewed got promoted as well. The other case is pending. "There is a backlash," Flynn says. "There is some uneasiness about how aggressive we are in terms of diversity."
All too often, say many women and minorities, that uneasiness is expressed in the kind of behavior they have long had to put up with from white men. Women complain that some white, male managers try to undermine their credibility by doing such things as attributing their rise to tokenism. "When a female or minority or some combination is appointed to a particularly prestigious job, there's always the comment that the reason they were selected is that they were a woman or minority. That's one of the statements white males still aren't afraid to make in public," says Sara Kelsey, vice-president and assistant general counsel at Chemical Bank in New York. "I find those remarks very irritating because the men make it sound like that's the only reason."
ORGY OF BLAME. Rather than address such behavior, white males say too many diversity programs just encourage women and minorities to vent their anger. Ken E. Richardson, a white male, attended a weeklong diversity program in the spring of 1992. An administrator with the Licking County (Ohio) Sheriff's office, he was one of five white males in a racially and sexually diverse group of 30. Having lived in a mixed neighborhood and abroad, Richardson says he has always respected cultural and racial differences. But in the training session, he says he was blamed "for everything from slavery to the glass ceiling." The instructors--a white female and two black males--seemed to "feed into the white-male-bashing," he says. "I became bitter and remain so."
Despite the risk that some programs will alienate men like Richardson, even such white, male bastions as the oil industry are pushing diversity initiatives. For Amoco CEO H. Laurance Fuller, managing diversity is a "business imperative." He says women and minorities account for 40% of his work force, though they remain disproportionately in lower-ranked jobs; one of every six employees is not a U.S. citizen. Last fall, Fuller established a Diversity Advisory Council, which he chairs. Its mission is to create an environment in which Amoco Corp.'s increasingly diverse work force can reach its full potential.
The council is finalizing a long-term action plan, but some white, male middle managers are already worried. From time to time, they've questioned Fuller--himself white--about the consequences of diversity on their careers. "I reply that they have nothing to fear but more and better competition, which can only enhance Amoco's prosperity and their own," Fuller says.
For now, such reassurance is all the attention some white males at Amoco seem to want. Last summer, the company accepted a consultant's suggestion to hold a focus group solely for white, male middle managers. It was intended to get them to express their concerns, says Jim Fair, Amoco's director of media relations who attended the workshop. But some men didn't think they needed the seminar. "Are you trying to get me to be upset?" Fair reports ene manager asked the moderator. Others objected to being singled out. Fair said the men agreed that a more valuable experience would be sessions with different people together.
SURPRISING CONCLUSIONS. AT&T has embraced just such an approach, partly through a course called "White Males: The Label, the Dilemma." Led by consultant Sussman, the course presents the future work force, then asks white men how they feel about being labeled a minority. The women and minorities in the class react to the white males' views or challenge their conclusions. Beate Sykes, an AT&T diversity counselor, sought out the course in response to requests by white men "to do something for them."
The intensity of the one-day seminar surprised some of the white men who attended. "I didn't realize how much other white men felt attacked and how oblivious" they were to the benefits that their race and gender bestowed, says James Gault, the systems engineer. "They felt everything was equal now." Other attendees say the seminar changed their self-image. "I never thought of myself as a white male," says Lee Arpin, a development manager. "In a lot of cases, we have privileges we don't appreciate."
Minorities left the seminar with insights into white men. David Clanton, a software designer who is black, says the class made him "more empathetic" to white males because it showed how deeply felt their concerns were, just like other groups. He learned that white men don't like being lumped together or blamed for "something their fathers and grandfathers might have done." The class also helped him feel more comfortable with white male colleagues who seemed to be "more to my way of thinking than I would have expected."
Not all AT&T employees view the company's attention to white men favorably. On Nov. 5, Sussman was the key speaker at a mandatory, all-day conference sponsored by an affirmative action committee at an AT&T division in northern New Jersey. The occasion drew some complaints from women and minorities, who wanted to know why an affirmative action workshop should devote any time at all to white men. One minority employee was so incensed that the worker didn't attend.
Other companies with diversity programs are reaching out to white males. Corning Inc. has made a big diversity push since 1987 and, among other things, now requires all employees to attend race and gender sensitivity training. The result, says Gail O. Baity, manager of strategic corporate education, is that "white males are asking questions like, 'The demographics show there will be fewer white males entering the work force. Will we be in the minority?' Or they're asking about parity. 'You have all these programs focused on women and color. What about me?'"
CORE REQUIREMENTS. In response, Corning has made a special effort to share employment statistics to correct a misperception of trends. "White males still predominate within the company and still hold the predominant positions of authority," Baity says. Corning also is trying to make the advancement process more objective by identifying core competencies for various jobs. When an employee gets a certain post, Corning can then point to the fulfillment of the core competencies as a valid reason why he or she deserved it. Ultimately, Corning expects managers to assemble a diverse talent pool for any opening, then select the best person.
That's an approach more companies are likely to take as women and minorities continue to make strides. Companies will also find that diversity programs to encourage those trends are in their interest. The programs are in their customers' interests as well: They help to promote employees who, given their rich backgrounds, are not only qualified but more sensitive to the diverse cultures of the markets they serve. "There's not too many white faces in Indonesia," says NutraSweet's Flynn, who is pushing to raise the company's foreign revenues.
But companies must walk a fine line: If they pay only lip service to diversity, they risk losing or alienating women and minorities, an increasingly important sector of the talent pool. If they push diversity too hard without taking stock of the fears of their white, male employees, they risk losing white males or their backing. To be sure, the transition from a corporate culture dominated by white males to one that embraces all employees equally will not take place without a degree of tension. But if companies are to compete in the changing marketplace, and if they are to treat all employees with equal respect, diversity is essential. And so, too, is the proper training for all involved.