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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Meanwhile, Blalock became corporate CIO in 2002. Eager to employ the diversity tactics Ratcliffe had first put in place at Georgia Power, she created diversity goals for her senior leadership team to increase the representation of women and minorities within IT, and she developed a communication plan around IT's new diversity goals. "Historically we'd not had many females or minorities in senior-level jobs," explains Blalock.

Southern IT wasn't—and isn't—unique. Today, less than 3 percent of senior IT managers in the United States are black, according to the Information Technology Senior Management Forum, an organization formed to foster executive talent among African-American IT professionals. And women held just 12 percent of senior technology positions in 2007, according to recruiter Sheila Greco Associates. "Research shows that there are now more IT jobs in the United States than there were at the height of the dotcom boom," says Heather Foust-Cummings, research director for Catalyst, a nonprofit research and advisory organization. "Despite the increased opportunities, the numbers of women in certain high-tech occupations have remained flat or declined."

Then there's an issue that's reached the point of obsession for Blalock: bringing young people in before her highly tenured workforce walks out. Of 13 senior IT leaders, eight will be eligible to retire within five years. "Sometimes I walk into a room and I'm the youngest one there," says Blalock, 52. In 2002, Southern IT had 64 job openings. Last year, it had more than 200.

Her plan to fill them includes new university recruitment programs—some targeting minority-centric institutions—as well as internships and leadership development programs that she promotes to women and minorities. She's tracking the results of these efforts, most important, how many advancement opportunities are going to minorities and females. "Ideally we would like to see the percentage of opportunities greater than or equal to the percentage of the population for minorities and females," explains Traynor.

Yet Blalock's not a fan of the word diversity; it reminds her too much of another d-word—divisive. She prefers inclusion; it sounds less controversial. (For the record, Southern's corporate literature refers to both, defining diversity as "the full range of human and/or organizational differences and similarities," and inclusion as "the process of leveraging the power of diversity to achieve a common goal or objective.")

The problem is, trying to include one type of employee can make another feel excluded. "We don't want our white male employees upset by any of this. That's the largest talent pool we have," says Blalock. Same with employees who are over 40. "Our older workers are the most productive we have," she says. Blalock wants everyone "to feel valued and appreciated."

Traynor is quick to reiterate that diversity covers more than race, gender or age. "There are many more components—where you grew up, where you went to school—that make up who we are, how we deal with each other, how we process information." Even birth order, says Traynor, the youngest of four.

Traynor is not just whistling Dixie. His brother Dan works at Southern. In IT. And coworkers will tell you, David and Dan are pretty different.

Proving the Best Candidate Gets the Job

Southern employees learn the qualifications of every new hire

The 15-year-old process works like this: First the job is posted internally and externally. When applications come in, the hiring manager, with help from human resources, screens the applications based on criteria established for the position. Then a selection committee (usually five or six people) brings the final candidates in for interviews. They rank the candidates and decide as a group who gets the gig.

"I talk to people who say that we are nuts to be going through all of that. But I will tell you the best candidate surfaces," says Southern Company CIO Becky Blalock.

If Blalock made the decision herself, she says she might be inclined to choose someone like herself. Instead, she says, "I've had one person I was convinced should get the job and gotten overruled."

In the past few years, as Southern ratcheted up its efforts to hire and promote more women and minorities, some IT professionals weren't so sure the best candidate always got the job. To help set the record straight, senior IT leaders opened up the process two years ago. Now they not only post job openings, they also send an announcement when they fill a position, explaining who was on the selection committee, what the selection criteria were, and how the chosen candidate met those criteria. "Employees love that we're doing that," says Blalock. "It creates more visibility." -S.O.

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