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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The Young and the Restless

"I have an older spirit," says Zachery Byrd, who started as a software developer for Southern last year after earning his master's from Auburn University in eastern Alabama.

Zachery Byrd

Name: Zachery Byrd

Position: Software Developer

Age: 27

Raised: Tallahassee, Ala.; Auburn, Ala.

Education: Undergraduate degree in Marketing, University of Alabama; MS, Information Systems, Auburn University

Time at Southern Company: 6 months

Spirit be damned, Byrd is young and talented and eager. (He's 27.) And if Blalock had a hundred more of him, she'd probably sleep better. But she's competing for young workers with the likes of Coca-Cola and international tech powerhouses like IBM.

Byrd, who is black, didn't plan to go into IT. He got his undergraduate degree in marketing, but couldn't picture him­self doing it for the rest of his life. When he finished his graduate work, he looked for a company with a good mix of people. His master's program "wasn't very diverse," he says. "It skewed male definitely, and more white male, in the graduate program."

He also wanted to do team-driven Web development. He interviewed at companies like Capgemini and Accenture. But the travel schedules were extreme and the workforce very young; he wanted to learn from older colleagues. At the Home Depot, he saw diversity, but fewer teams. "I felt my personality and the way I operate just fit in better here," he says. Southern's aging workforce offered another selling point: opportunity for promotion as employees retire.

Byrd can see himself at Southern in another five years—if the growth potential lives up to the pitch delivered when he was hired. "The problem is, right now, you can hit a certain level and it can be hard to move up."

Next-gen workers want to move up fast, says Blalock. "We may not be able to help them move up as fast as they can somewhere else. But if they want stability, we are an ideal place to be."

Now, Management Listens

On a seasonable and sunny Thursday in March, Blalock is headed downstairs to do one of her favorite things: "brag on" her people. It's an employee lunch in the Georgia Power auditorium. She'll present awards to her standouts.

But after the 200 or so IT workers finish their box lunches from the Southeast food-court staple Chick-fil-A, Blalock's also going to tackle employee complaints. She regularly reports on IT's ranking in the quarterly employee satisfaction survey (usually higher than the company overall). But last time around, employees asked to send in their verbatim compliments and criticism, not just check something off on a scale. So Blalock invited it. Then she combed through 90 pages of comments, looking for patterns.

Blalock reviews the results from center stage. Employees appreciated efforts at more open communication, like notes from Blalock's meetings with the senior leadership team. Crisis management, customer focus and professionalism got high marks. Complaints have persisted about new-hire on-boarding, which Blalock hopes the new processes her team has put in place will address. Employees also indicated concerns about assessments of managers, workloads, recruitment and employee development processes.

Blalock opens the floor to questions. There are only a few. What's going on with green IT? (We're doing great stuff, we just need to identify it as green.) What's the deal with the Microsoft contract renewal? (Microsoft wants to raise the value of the deal by 40 percent. Southern's pushing back.) How did things go after recent downtown Atlanta tornadoes? (Blalock raves about IT's response.)

"Nobody's got any more questions? Not even Hengameh?" Blalock teases from the stage. Hengameh Pourfakhr is a project manager, originally from Iran, who's been working at Southern for 18 years. Three tables back, Pourfakhr laughs but shakes her head no. "I love Hengameh, because she will always ask a question," Blalock says. "She'll ask the tough question that's on everyone's mind." Blalock speculates the close-mouthedness is because they're taping the lunch for regional subsidiaries to view.

These days employees have many opportunities to raise concerns. Blalock conducts small focus groups of randomly selected employees. Then there's the "Voice of IT" group, chartered in 2004. Short for Valuing Openness, Innovation, Communication and Employees, Voice is a group of employees from across IT who serve two-year tours as liaisons between their peers and senior leaders. Harvell, the new manager, was on the Voice team. During her tenure, they uncovered three areas in need of improvement: openness and candor, fairness in work distribution, and consistency and accountability in performance management.

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