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 openness complaint still rears its head. Agarwal, the former contractor, says he has ideas about skills mapping to make better use of the talent at Southern. He brought it up to his manager. "I didn't find that conversation quite open," he says. "Here at Southern, things are more formal."

Conservative is how Blalock describes it. "It's one of biggest challenges we have. People don't feel they can share concerns openly without fear of retaliation. That's dangerous." It's not as bad as it used to be, says Traynor, who joined the company in 1984. "There were unwritten rules. If you wanted to move up, you needed to conform." Traynor was once pressured to shave off his mustache because it stood out. "If I had a new idea, it was often shut down quickly."

Today "there's a recognition that we don't want to shut down employees," he says. "You don't want to shut down the only female in a group. Or the only new employee." If you're going to spend so much time attracting and promoting a more diverse employee base, you shouldn't turn around and discourage diverse points of view, says Traynor. Blalock's team sent around a "terms of engagement" document to help Southern veterans navigate the new environment where respectful debate is encouraged.

There have been improvements. "I've been able to jump right in and get involved," says Kristy Mapps, who provides support for billing systems. "I've also been able to bring some ideas of new ways to do things." Mapps, who is black, hails from small-town Marshall, Texas. She spent six years in software development at Wal-Mart.

Kristy Mapps

Name: Kristy Mapps

Position: Software Developer, Billings Systems Support

Age: 30

Raised: Marshall, Texas

Education: BS, Computer Information Systems, University of Louisiana, Monroe

Time at Southern Company: 5 months

The 29-year-old with an easy laugh once took up the 300-meter hurdle event in high school because no one else would. Just 5 feet 3 inches tall, she won the event her first time out and "the rest is history," says Mapps, who got a track scholarship for college. In six months at Southern, she's already identified two mentors, she says. "And my manager's been real good at trying to help me develop my goals."

Does Diversity Have an ROI?

Harvell says she's seen progress on the diversity front in her time at Southern. "When I'm sitting in meetings now I do see diversity," says Harvell. Not just in race and gender. She sees colleagues "with different backgrounds and different experiences," too.

The numbers that Blalock's leadership team tracks support Harvell's observation.

Development opportunities—12- to 18-month roles to prepare employees for career advancement—are up 380 percent since 2004. Last year—the first year Southern tracked these temporary assignments by race and gender—a third went to women and a quarter to minority candidates. White males currently make up 60 percent of Southern's IT group, yet 53 percent of promotions last year went to women and 27 percent went to minorities. And that's the idea: Opportunities for women and minorities to advance should be greater than their overall percentage in the workplace as Southern tries to catch up their representation in senior roles. Total population trends for females and minorities in technical and management ranks have been nearly flat during the last four years; IT leaders say those figures at least reflect good retention of female and minority employees.

"We are on a journey," says Blalock, and we've not reached the destination. And I don't know that we ever will."

Yet pinpointing the business impact of diversity remains difficult. Blalock points to improved scores on customer satisfaction surveys as evidence that her more inclusive workforce does a better job than the homogeneous IT shop of old.

"How do you measure a better decision?" wonders Traynor. "Ten years ago we weren't thinking about giving a broader voice to employees. Would we have made a better or worse decision about selecting that tool or whether to go forward on that project? I don't know. But my sense is that [today] we're far better off."

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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