Avon Calling On Its Troops

At many companies, affirmative-action programs are top-down projects, sparked by the chief executive officer's interest. Some companies, however, respond better to a bottom-up approach. At the New York headquarters of Avon Products Inc., for example, all minority employees belong to in-house race-based networks--advocacy groups that have become a crucial part of minority relations at the company. "They constantly provide a barometer for us on how we're doing," says Yvonne Jackson, vice-president for human resources.

The Black Professionals Assn. (BPA), Avon Hispanic Network (AHN), and Avon Asian Network (AAN) developed independently of one another in the mid-1980s. At first, they were just social groups. But they soon evolved into self-help organizations devoted to encouraging minority recruiting and career development. Currently, Avon's 1,525-person work force is 13% black, 6% Hispanic, and 4% Asian.

The three networks, whose officers are elected annually by employee members, meet separately each quarter. Although they provide a source of support for staffers, they deliberately stay away from matters of discrimination or harassment. "We try not to use this as a complaint department," says Jose Agosto, president of AHN and manager of telemarketing services. Instead, they discuss such topics as flextime and maternity leave.

GOOD RELATIONS. The network heads then take their agendas directly to CEO James E. Preston, President Rick Goings, and Ron Wolf. As chairman of Avon's Diversity Task Force, Wolf handles minority-related issues. One recent network victory: getting Avon to fund three-day seminars, outside the office, where minority employees discuss how to acclimate to Avon's predominantly white corporate culture.

"Sometimes, we challenge management--that's what we're here for," says Agosto. But usually, the Diversity Task Force is receptive to ideas, says Shirley Dong, president of AAN and product counselor. It's this basic cooperation that allows Avon's networks to flourish, while similar groups at other companies have languished.

It isn't all business for Avon's networks. During Black History Month this year, the BPA hosted a trip to see the play Mule Bone by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Despite their advocacy role, says Sharon Hall, BPA president and director of new business development, the groups still like to get people together in a "nonconfrontational way."

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