American Express incorporates diversity into its corporate culture
At American Express, diversity is a matter of culture. The $19.1 billion financial services company has developed a system of surveys, discussion groups and incentives that provides valuable feedback on whether diversity in hiring is being practiced within all areas of the organization. As the proper assessments are made, remedies can be put into place to ensure that a corporate culture of fairness is preserved.
"The company's view is, by having a diverse slate of candidates you increase the likelihood of getting the best people for the job," says Ronald Gray, one of seven managing counsel in the American Express legal department. "If you don't have a diverse state of candidates that will get you the best people – particularly for a company that is customer service oriented and is global in its reach – you're not advancing the best interests of the company and the shareholders."
The mantra for diversity is aggressively trumpeted from the most senior executives, and then it is dissen inated down through the ranks via vigorously supported diversity programs. For the legal department, the push for diversity practice begins in the general counsel's office, where the message is communicated to the managers and then to their direct-reports. The standard practice whenever a position becomes available is to take steps to make sure there is a diverse group of candidates set to interview for the job.
"People are told that there are ways to get a diverse slate, and we have a Diversity Team within the general counsel's office that has researched this and has found headhunters who focus on diversity," says Gray. There are Diversity Teams in every business unit that consist of volunteers from all races and each gender. Their goal is to focus on issues and concerns that will help educate people about diversity, to coordinate with other Diversity Teams in order to share resources and to plan events. Some of the more popular events are the diversity luncheons, where ethnic foods are served while the audience watches a powerful film or listens to a moving invited speaker that deals with some important aspect of diversity in the workplace.
At American Express, diversity is also a matter of accountability. A manager's ability to adhere to the diversity goals of the organization is part of their performance appraisal. "Will someone get a top rating simply based on their diversity efforts?" Gray asks. "No. But it is taken into account."
What is also taken into account are the results of several informal surveys that the company conducts. An annual employee satisfaction survey is given and entire sections of it are devoted to questions about diversity issues at American Express. For instance, one question might ask for a response ranging from "I strongly agree" to "I strongly disagree" to the statement, "I feel there are opportunities to succeed within the organization regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation." If 50 percent of the respondents answer "I don't agree" or "I strongly disagree," then the company views this as a problem that needs intervention. Other more specialized employee surveys are also conducted during the year to monitor satisfaction of specific groups, such as paralegals or secretaries.
"The surveys are driven by the principle that if you have satisfied employees, they work harder and smarter and you tend to create more satisfied customers, which creates satisfied shareholders:' says Gray. In the legal department, each practice group gets feedback from the surveys and is evaluated. If a group does not achieve a 75 percent or higher favorable rating, it signals a red flag. How a manager's direct reports respond to the surveys has a direct affect on his or her year-end performance evaluation. Those performance evaluations are then tied to merit increases and bonuses. If a particular business unit is not doing well when it comes to the employees surveys, that unit may receive less bonus money io be divided among its managers. Keeping employee satisfaction high is seen as an issue of leadership.
Overall, open discussion is the key to keeping the culture of fairness working at American Express. Through discussion groups set up by the Diversity Teams, important information concerning worker grievances is gathered and top managers can actually be taken to task if their actions are not viewed as honest or fair. People are encouraged to speak up about problems and don't just rely on surveys to get the job done.
"It does still take awhile because of fear of retribution or people not believing we will accept what they have to say, so its a long term process," Gray concedes. But he insists that the atmosphere is open enough for people to genuinely speak their minds. "We recognize that there can be style issues, and people are encouraged to share what their perceptions are and not assign value judgments to those perceptions," he says. "Having this type of culture encourages open discussions about diversity, and open discussions about employee satisfaction makes for a better organization."
From the November 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®