Staffing for Diversity: The Business Case for an Inclusive Information Technology Workforce

Women, minorities and immigrants will make up a big part of the future information technology workforce. But as Southern Company has discovered, staffing for diversity isn't easy. Find out how the regional utility conglomerate has tried to make its workplace more welcoming.

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Why Diversity Matters

Southern's IT organization has federally mandated affirmative-action goals this year: increasing the number of minority employees in technical positions and in clerical roles. (The goals derive from a mandate by the U.S. Department of Labor based on Southern's status as a federal contractor.) But as Traynor points out, "Diversity is far more than affirmative action." Many of Southern's IT department diversity goals mirror those of its corporate parent. It strives to create an inclusive work environment, to improve minority and female employee representation and to strengthen supplier diversity and community partnerships.

Like many companies, Southern is reacting to a demographic shift that's been anticipated for some time. In 1987, the Hudson Institute released the "Workforce 2000" study, commissioned by the Department of Labor, which predicted that in the 21st century, demand for skilled workers would grow while the supply of such workers would decline. It also forecast that new entrants to the workforce would include primarily women, racial and ethnic minority population groups, and immigrants.

"Those predictions have come true," says Arlene Roane, senior vice president and leader of the Diversity and Inclusion Practice at Highbridge Associates. "Most of the new entrants in today's workforce are not white males. Women comprise more than 50 percent of college graduates and the percentage growth of the nonwhite population continues to outpace the growth of the white population."

Furthermore, says Roane, the U.S. labor pool—once dominated by one or two generations of workers—is now a mix of four. And CIOs like Blalock aren't competing for top tech talent just within their geographic region. "In today's flat world' the competition for talent is stretching across borders," says Roane, as companies compete in global markets for their products and services. As a result, she concludes, many Fortune 500 companies see a business case for diversity.

A Corporate Imperative for Diversity

Diversity at Southern wasn't always a corporate imperative. Dominating global markets, after all, wasn't on the to-do list for the regional power provider.

But the company dodged a big legal bullet in 2000, when several employees (not in IT) filed high-profile racial discrimination suits against subsidiary Georgia Power, alleging that black workers were passed over for promotions and subjected to harassment. The cases were denied class-action status and were dropped. Other companies didn't get off so easy. In 2000, Southern's Atlanta neighbor, Coca-Cola, agreed to a multipronged settlement of a 1999 racial-bias suit that included nearly $200 million in compensation for plaintiffs and the creation of an independent task force to monitor the company's employment policies.

Around the time the lawsuits against Georgia Power were filed, its CEO, David Ratcliffe—who has since become Southern's CEO—was already gathering his forces to deal with the glass-ceiling effect, according to Blalock. Ratcliffe created diversity goals at senior levels of Georgia Power. Still, observes Blalock, who at the time was working in economic development at Georgia Power alongside Ratcliffe, the lawsuits were "an attention getter."

Ratcliffe ultimately instituted 33 diversity initiatives ranging from diversity training to affinity groups—workplace support groups for communities of employees, such as working parents or Latinos. He also developed diversity metrics. By 2002, leaders across Southern began to recognize the need to address diversity. Management had started with the basics—a standard diversity training program called Valuing Differences, which had been developed in 2001—and other programs followed. In 2004, Southern signed an agreement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to resolve workplace disputes through alternative dispute resolution, so aggrieved employees wouldn't necessarily have to sue to be heard. In 2005, the $15.4 billion company appointed a chief diversity officer. Southern still faces discrimination suits; several recent ones have been settled or dismissed. In one case—in which a white lineman for Alabama Power alleged he was fired for violating company policy when black employees were not for the same or more serious conduct—the court found for Alabama Power. That case is under appeal.

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