For CIOs, An Uphill Climb to Diversity

Outsourcing a health-plan service center to India provided the expected business benefits to the CIO of one Fortune 500 company. But it also brought some unexpected problems back at headquarters in the southeastern United States.

“We’ve heard jokes–more than jokes–about not being able to understand the accents of people at the call center,” says the CIO, who asked not to be identified for this article. “Our team decided that we had to make it clear that we won’t accept that kind of behavior. Our business case is that in today’s environment, you have to be able to accommodate different cultures and lifestyles.”

The matter was discussed in leadership team meetings, with managers expected to communicate the company line to their own staffers. Surveys, interviews and call tracking were used to determine the extent to which real language barriers existed. In a small number of cases, where the mockery was “severe and pervasive with an individual,” the CIO says, the behavior became an issue for human resources.

Diversity has become a byword of good management in corporate America, with information technology organizations intoning the mantra as often as anyone. “Diversity is a characteristic of a good group,” says Ken Harris, CIO of Shaklee Corp. “Part of an IT manager’s job is understanding diversity and allowing it to flourish.”

Yet diversity is proving to be a moving target, and, in some cases, an elusive one. The IT workplace is a less diverse place by some measures than it was at the beginning of this decade, with many of the gains made by women, blacks and Hispanics reversed in recent years, even as IT employment among Americans of Asian descent soared.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the understanding of diversity itself is dynamic: workers and companies cross borders freely in a global economy, bringing their own habits and expectations with them, increasing the complexity of the diversity equation in the process. A changing culture has pushed the issue of sexual orientation from taboo to workplace reality, while familiar themes such as age and generational differences have come to be understood as diversity problems. “The targets shift all the time,” says Alice Leong, head of global diversity for SAP.

Sexual orientation, once unmentioned in the enterprise, is now part of the mainstream of corporate culture. “We’ve seen great changes,” says Samir Luther, senior manager for the Workplace Project for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies now include sexual orientation in their diversity and nondiscrimination policies, as do many smaller companies and nonprofits.

American companies also have been successful in extending protections for gay workers around the world, although there are still countries that are hostile to the concept. Luther points out that the broadening of diversity is not over. About 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies now have policies that include gender identity and transgendered people.

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