Diversity Rules

It's no easy task for a business owner to keep the melting pot from boiling over

Want a glimpse into the world of diversity? Try the men's bathroom in any American factory. For whatever reason, the bathroom wall remains the broadsheet of the blue-collar male. What a shock the day in March that I checked out our plant men's room at the urging of a concerned employee. Every imaginable racial and ethnic slur was scrawled across the surface of the largest stall. I asked myself, Is this what people really think? How are they ever going to work together if they feel this way?

Wandering the factory floor, though, you'd never guess the writing on the wall. Anglos bend over machines helping Spanish-speaking workers repair timing belts. Koreans mix inks for African American printing-press operators. Women and men spell one another on the packing lines. Everyone seems to be working together to get the job done at our vegetable-bag printing plant.

GRIPES AND GRUDGES. But look more closely and the picture gets more complex. At lunchtime, the ethnic and gender groups largely go their own way, then privately air their biases about the others, I hear. Older Anglo mechanics routinely complain about the work ethic of their younger Hispanic counterparts. Hispanics bicker that the company doesn't promote them--even though more than half the foremen and 60% of those making top scale are Hispanic. As for the women, one moment they're working with men, another flirting, and yet another complaining about sexual harassment, imagined and real.

How's a small business to cope? With 100 employees, we can't afford a legion of staffers to promote diversity and work out the kinks. Yet diversity is a permanent fact of life for us. At last count, I figured we had at least five different ethnic groups. Mostly, we manage diversity by insisting on rules that keep people's uglier impulses at bay. Last year, at the urging of our labor attorney, we assembled an employee handbook, the first few pages of which spell out tough harassment and equal opportunity policies. We passed out literature on sexual harassment and adopted formal investigation procedures for any bias complaint. Anybody found guilty of breaking the rules is dealt with harshly.

This seems to have improved things considerably. Employees on one shift, it turned out, felt they had been putting up with racially insensitive jokes of a foreman. With the new policy, a few men felt free to complain, which prompted an investigation in which the foreman cooperated. We suspended him without pay for two weeks, enrolled him in a class on managing a multicultural workforce, and told him if he broke the rules again, he'd be fired. It seems to have worked.

Still, rules only get you so far. We had to do more to communicate our commitment. Last year, I urged a longtime female bag packer to apply for an assistant foreman's job. The company had never promoted a woman to a supervisory position, but Evelyn, with her experience and excellent people skills, was an obvious candidate--and a successful one. And earlier this year we promoted our first Hispanic to head mechanic and elevated an African American to press-department foreman.

We're also experimenting. Later this year we'll offer Spanish classes to our managers, which we hope will improve communication with the half of our employees who are Spanish-speaking. Next year, English lessons will be available for all non-native speakers. As part of workforce training, we're also rolling out a course on teamwork. It will emphasize respect for people from different cultures and teach how cultural differences can shape perceptions. I have found, for instance, that raising my voice to our employees who hail from Latin America prompts them to tune me out quickly. By contrast, it's the only way to get some of the older Anglos to listen.

Teaching, I hope, will help our employees get along better. Maybe productivity will even improve if people don't waste time spreading gossip and nursing grudges. But when all else fails, there are always the rules. I had the men's bathroom wall recovered three months ago and then held an employee meeting where I said I expected the wall to remain epithet-free--and that anyone making ethnic slurs would be fired. Today, the men's bathroom wall, which I now routinely inspect, doesn't have so much as a pen mark on it.

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