August 9, 2022

Workforce Diversity Amid Adversity

The economy can pose challenges to firms' commitment to diversity. Here's how some are responding.

Mike Vogel | 12/1/2009

Employment and labor law firm Ford & Harrison in Tampa made partner Dawn Siler-Nixon a voting member of its executive committee. “We thought it was that important,” she says. [Photo: Mark Wemple]
At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida this year, several employee groups composed of African-Americans, women, gays, military veterans and Hispanics, among others, helped the Jacksonville-based insurer’s marketing by serving as focus groups.

They also helped Blue Cross to its seventh consecutive appearance on DiversityInc.’s list of the top 50 companies for diversity in the nation. More important, says Ed Gallegos, Blue Cross vice president of cultural competence and diversity systems, they advanced the insurer’s mission of providing better service to its members and healthcare providers and mirroring its Florida market. “It is the right thing to do. It’s also the right business thing to do,” Gallegos says.

With the economy in shambles, diversity advocates in Florida are having to push at some companies to keep their commitments to diversity as the recession leads to cutbacks in recruiting and fewer HR people to devote to the diversity mission. Meanwhile, layoffs impact diversity as more recently hired employees are let go.

Who’s Working

In February 2008, Florida’s civilian labor force averaged 9,214,000. Of those:

81% were white

15% were African-American

21% were Hispanic

(Percentages don’t add up to 100% because Hispanics are included in several race categories.)

Florida’s Labor Force
Age Group % of Workforce
16 to 19 years old 4%
20 to 24 years old 9
25 to 34 years old 20
35 to 44 years old 23
45 to 54 years old 24
55 to 64 years old 15
65 years and older 5
Source: Agency for Workforce Innovation
Employers look to mentoring and other ways to advance diversity without adding costs while others maintain their financial commitment, saying the case for diversity is made stronger in recession. “At Darden, we’ve got to capture every guest we can,” says Cheryl Fowlkes, director of culture and inclusion at the Orlando-based restaurant company whose chains include Olive Garden and Red Lobster. “We can’t step back from diversity and inclusion. It’s a business imperative.”

Some insights from leading companies in implementing diversity in Florida:

» Commitment from the top makes all the difference. Blue Cross Chairman and CEO Robert Lufrano co-chairs the company’s diversity council. At Miami-based transportation and logistics company Ryder, winner of numerous diversity-related awards from Black Enterprise, Hispanic Business and Fortune magazines, chairman and CEO Gregory Swienton this year sponsored the creation of a diversity and inclusion council composed of nine Ryder senior leaders chosen for their high performance and high potential for advancement within the company. Their job is to model correct behavior and see that the company’s diversity and inclusion vision is executed consistently, says Catherine Campbell, Ryder director of diversity and inclusion.

Ed Gallegos
Diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. Blue Cross Blue Shield is working on adding a faith-based resource group, says Ed Gallegos (above), the insurer’s vice president of cultural competence and diversity systems. [Photo: Kelly LaDuke]
At employment and labor law firm Ford & Harrison in Tampa, the firm wanted its diversity partner — a position created this year — to be an equity partner for stature. It made the partner, Dawn Siler-Nixon, a voting member of the firm’s eight-member executive committee. “We thought it was that important,” she says.

» Build the business case. “When we think about diversity, we think about it in terms of opportunity,” Ryder’s Campbell says. “If you leverage it correctly, it’s a tremendous business advantage.” Ryder believes diversity is a key to reaching fast-growing segments of the population and fast-growing women- and minority-owned businesses, she says.

» Make it matter. Darden’s 5,000 managers of culinary service or other areas within its restaurants take a one-day online training course in diversity and inclusion. Its 1,700 restaurant general managers take a two-day classroom course, and more senior managers and executives get three days of training. At Blue Cross, diversity goals are part of employees’ overall compensation. Ryder evaluates managers on effectively managing diversity.

It wastes time and money to recruit people to bring diversity to your workforce just to have them quit. Labor and employment lawyer Dawn Siler-Nixon of Ford & Harrison in Tampa recommends companies conduct a cultural assessment, gauging whether employees feel valued, part of a team working toward a common goal, believing there are opportunities for advancement and so on. “One of the ways companies drop the ball is they don’t have a good handle on what the culture in the company is to begin with,” Siler-Nixon says.

» Recruit in new places. Siler-Nixon at Ford & Harrison says organizations that say they can’t find qualified applicants are “looking in the wrong places.” Participate in associations and groups dedicated to minorities to help find recruits, she says.

» Inclusion is on a par with diversity. “Diversity is the who, and inclusion is the how,” says Campbell. “Inclusion is making the mix work.” Ryder requires all employees to go to “inclusion journey” training — eight hours for salaried employees, four hours for hourly workers — in which they learn what’s not acceptable and to be aware of different views people bring to the workplace and tools to overcome misunderstanding. Darden’s Fowlkes agrees, saying inclusion is taking diversity and leveraging it to affect decisions reached.

Catherine Campbell
“If you leverage it correctly, it’s a tremendous business advantage,” says Catherine Campbell, Ryder’s director of
diversity and inclusion. [Photo: Terry Townsend]
» Watch what you say. Establish ways to educate workers about micro-inequities, what Blue Cross’ Gallegos says are the unconscious “little zingers” or practices that make people of diverse backgrounds feel unvalued, such as referring to Asians as Orientals or passing over someone for promotion who seems to lack ambition but actually comes from a culture where self-promotion is akin to bragging.

» Diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. One of Blue Cross’ employee resource groups is for Generation Y. The company is working on adding a faith-based resource group, Gallegos says.

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