Campus & Community

Conference: Maintaining a diverse work force

5 min read

They identified difficulties in communication, a shifting corporate culture, and the lack of an understanding that the establishment of a diverse work force should be a stated goal for managers throughout the organization.

Later, someone remarked that Millennium and Harvard may have some things in common. Which was the point, of course.

Harvard’s Fifth Work Force Management Conference, held last Friday, Nov. 3, at the Charles Hotel, tackled the issue of employee retention and maintaining a diverse work force by using a classroom-style approach.

James Honan, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, led a discussion of Millennium’s situation that started slowly, but soon got the roomful of managers from across the University engaged and pondering the company’s problems.

The case was intended to get people to look at their own offices through new eyes, by seeing both similarities and differences between the situation at Millennium and the situation in their own workplace.

“We’ve had four conferences, and in the past, we focused on such topics as ‘best practices’ or ‘why diversity.’ Some of the feedback we received is that now is the time for action,” said Jackie Benson Jones, senior consultant in the Office of the Assistant to the President, which co-sponsored the conference with the Office of Human Resources. “Retention is a real issue. People leave for all sorts of reasons. With the tight (labor) market everyone has to be concerned about retention.”

Progress toward creating a more diverse work force at Harvard is slow, however, and largely due to problems keeping the most talented and promising people, according to James Hoyte, associate vice president and assistant to the president.

“Our biggest challenges are in the managerial and professional areas,” Hoyte said. “We make some modest progress, but given our problems with retention, we often see that progress lost.”

Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine kicked off the conference by saying that Harvard is indeed concerned about keeping a diverse work force.

“Happily, there are already some signs that things are beginning to shift, but there’s a long, long way to go,” Rudenstine said. “We need to think about how to develop people. We need to think about how to mentor people.”

And that thinking has to happen now, according to Martha Fields, president and chief executive officer of Fields Associates Inc. and the conference’s luncheon speaker. Fields said even organizations that don’t have a commitment to recruit and retain minorities will be forced to deal with an increasingly diverse work force in the future.

The nation’s work force is expected to grow by just 1 percent between 1996 and 2005, Fields said. That slow growth is occurring at a time of low unemployment and high economic activity levels that have made qualified employees of all kinds more and more precious.

At the same time, there is an ongoing shift in the makeup of America’s work force that reflects the changing makeup of the nation’s population. Whites, who make up 73 percent of today’s employees, will make up just 53 percent in 2050. African-American percentages will remain roughly the same, while the proportion of Latinos in the population will more than double, from 11 percent to 24 percent. The proportion of Asians will nearly triple, from 3 percent to 8 percent.

The country is also starting to think about race and ethnicity in broader terms. Many people used to think that diversity was a black-white issue. Today they envisage a more multi-ethnic America, encompassing whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, West Indians, and Native Americans, among others.

Participants said they enjoyed this year’s format, particularly the case study session, which was adopted after feedback from last spring’s conference.

“The case study was excellent. It really gave us a good basis for discussion,” said Linda Olsen, manager of faculty office support services at Harvard Business School.

Steven Sandblom, vice president of administration for Harvard Dining Services, said he was impressed that the discussion took place at all. Sandblom said he came to Harvard about nine months ago from a company that didn’t discuss these issues.

“I’ve always worked for smaller companies whose attitude is, ‘You’re lucky to be working here.’ Here the attitude is, ‘We’re lucky to have you.’” Sandblom said.

The discussion came full circle as Fields said retention is critical if Harvard is to continue to recruit qualified minority candidates. That is because the way many people find jobs is by networking with those that have them and who know about openings in their companies.

“I think the best form of recruitment is what you’re doing on retention,” Fields said.

Harvard Provost Harvey V. Fineberg closed the event, saying it provided attendees a chance to learn from each other and to talk about things that sometimes go unspoken.

“These are the ways we can all learn from one another and talk about the real issues that can remain hidden,” Fineberg said. “This is not an easy thing to accomplish. … I do believe we share a common commitment to the importance of what we’re doing.”