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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Nevertheless, the diverse group—such as it is—has been a boon. Erickson's small team often tackles nontraditional projects, like creating from scratch the Plant Hatch TV network, now on the air in all areas of the facility. "It's not IT work, but we designed it ourselves because we had a guy who had installed cable TV in Atlanta and another guy who was really passionate about home entertainment systems," says Erickson. As his wife, Ann, always says: "You bloom where you're planted."

"Each of us are God's creation," says Erickson, revealing his background as the son of a Presbyterian minister. "We have phenomenal breadth of experience—more than we realize," he continues. There are conflicts. But that's part of the process. "Pulling the diverse viewpoints into a discussion, we get a very valuable quality output."

What It Means to Fit In

The environment at Plant Hatch is different from the culture at Southern's headquarters. And headquarters has a different vibe than Gulf Power, another subsidiary five hours away in Pensacola, Fla.

"Other than when I'm in downtown Atlanta, I rarely see anyone from Southern Company," says Traynor, who commutes 20 miles from the western suburbs each day. "But when I was at Alabama Power, I couldn't go anywhere without seeing another Alabama Power employee—church, the mall. At Gulf Power, it's even more of a family environment. People don't just work together." Some folks like that. Others, like Rajeev Agarwal, may be more comfortable doing their jobs and going home.

Rajeev Agarwal

Name: Rajeev Agarwal

Position: Senior Planning Analyst, Infrastructure Services, Planning and Administration

Age: 50

Raised: India

Education: Undergraduate degree in Electronics and Telecommunication, India

Time at Southern Company: 1 year

Agarwal started as a contractor in Southern's infrastructure services group last May, signing on as a full-time planning analyst in November. Agarwal likes to say he belongs "to everywhere," having grown up in India, moving every few years as a result of his father's government job.

Agarwal men have been engineers for as long as Agarwal can remember, and he got his first job with CMC International (later bought by the Tata Group). He stayed for 25 years, based in New Delhi until 2000 when he began working on U.S. projects for CMC Americas. Agarwal left Tata for Master Informatics—a company willing to sponsor him for his green card so he could stay in the United States while his children completed school. Then he moved to Synergis, which placed him at Southern. With his daughter in her teens, his son attending Georgia Tech, and Agarwal turning 50, Southern seemed as good a place as any to settle.

"I was a little bit, you know, hesitant about what would be the culture and everything," says Agarwal. CMC was full of ex-IBMers in India. Agarwal had worked for IBM at Master Informatics. "The things in my knowledge, processes I do, it's all IBM. I am more IBM than anybody," Agarwal says, with a smile.

Southern Company is not IBM.

"IBM gives you a very, very free hand. They are only interested in mainly work. Here is your assignment; here is your delivery date. That kind of thing," says Agarwal. "I don't see that here."

At Southern, there's much reference to "Southern Style," a written corporate code of conduct. "It covers a lot of how you should treat each other," explains Traynor, "A lot of people around here say, it's the way you shoulda been raised." Agarwal interprets it another way. "Here, people like to meet face-to-face more often," he says. "At IBM, I was on a project three months and never saw my senior project manager or the people working with me. Never saw them." Agarwal doesn't mind face time, as long as it doesn't slow things down.

In other ways, Southern isn't so different. "When I worked for IBM, people talked to me at a professional level. But when it came to personal talk, everybody was kind of in their own groups. I don't know if that was because they were more white males. I can't explain that. People generally stay in their own groups," says Agarwal. "I feel like I don't belong to that group sometimes."

Agarwal has met only a handful of Indians at Southern. "Two of them are in IT," he says. CIO Blalock, an army brat who attended eight elementary schools, three junior highs, and four high schools, knows what it's like to be the new arrival. She was also one of only three women in business school at Mercer University in 1984. "You feel a lot more a part of a place if you're not the only one of a certain kind there," she says.

But Southern IT hasn't had the best track record retaining new hires. Turnover for younger workers and employees with less than three years in IT is higher than the corporate average. Meanwhile, given workforce demographic trends, Blalock knows she may soon need to work harder to attract talent from abroad. To ease the transition for new employees—and, hopefully, hold on to them—Blalock and her senior management team are introducing a more thorough way to integrate new hires into the company culture that goes beyond the basic on-boarding process covered by corporate HR. They're assigning new hires a buddy in the same workgroup, holding quarterly orientation meetings for new IT employees and setting up "get to know you" meetings with key customers, management team members and other individuals the new employee will interact with on a regular basis.

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