Do White Men Really Need Diversity Outreach?

January 30, 2012 2:31 pm

Do White Men Really Need Diversity Outreach?By Barbara Frankel

When Harley-Davidson started its first corporate diversity efforts in the 1990s, they were modeled on compliance and affirmative action—and aimed squarely at Blacks and women. In fact, so-called “diversity training” actually told white men they were the problem.

“We did some bad things in those days,” says Tchernavia Rocker, senior director of labor and employee relations. “We basically said white guys were bad, mean people, and the organization never forgot that.”

Today, as Harley-Davidson ratchets up its diversity-management efforts, the biggest obstacle has been reaching its mostly white, male employee base. “They don’t get why we want to include them now. We had to start by apologizing,” Rocker says. “We had to overcome history.”

Many companies these days are grappling with the need to get white men to “buy in” to diversity, to understand that by using diversity to increase marketplace connections and innovation, everyone benefits. After a request from a benchmarking customer on what’s working to increase engagement of white men, we decided to research what companies at different stages of diversity-management success were doing.

Until about five years ago, diversity management in corporate America was called just that: “diversity.” But the word “diversity” had the emotional baggage of affirmative action and the incorrect perception by some that it was aimed at Blacks and women, and maybe Latinos. So the word “inclusion” started appearing as a way of saying “Everyone is part of this, including white men.” Consider this statistic based on participants in the DiversityInc Top 50 survey: Five years ago, only 2 percent of heads of diversity had the word “inclusion” in their title. Today, 18 percent do.

I interviewed more than 20 companies, and the results show companies have three basic tracks on white men:

  1. Advanced companies that have had significant progress indirect outreach to white men by aiming efforts first at senior managers and then at middle managers. This includes PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC, No. 1 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity), Sodexo (No. 2), The Coca-Cola Company (No. 46) and Comerica.
  2. Advanced companies that feel their efforts to reach all employees on the value of diversity include white men, so no special effort is needed. This includes Merck & Co. (No. 16), CSX (No. 23), Aetna (No. 24), Health Care Service Corporation (No. 19) and AXA Equitable.
  3. Beginning companies that either feel they need to make amends for not including white men or have found their efforts can’t succeed unless they reach senior leadership and the majority of their organization (white men), usually through a firm business case. This includes Harley-Davidson, Ameren (No. 5 in The DiversityInc Top 5 Regional Utilities), Choice Hotels, Staples and the Army & Air Force Exchange

Can White Men Be Diversity Leaders?

DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, who writes the popular Ask the White Guy column on, addressed this issue in his article Can a White Man Speak With Authority on Diversity?

Steve Bucherati, chief diversity officer of The Coca-Cola Company, is one of the only straight, white male chief diversity officer of a DiversityInc Top 50 or Fortune 500 company. He’s had the job for 10 years and believes it has given him a unique ability to relate to white men in the organization.

“My brand had value … I was able to first have a conversation with them and then show them data,” he says. He recalls that after the company’s huge racial-discrimination lawsuit in 2000 and again after the launch of its global women’s initiative in 2008, “there was stuff bubbling out from some white men about this not doing anything for ‘me.’ I showed them that this is not an effort to invalidate them; it’s an effort to validate everyone.”

Aggressive Efforts by Advanced Companies

The first step is not to ignore the reality that in almost any organization there are pockets of people who don’t “get” the relevance of diversity to their personal situations, and those people often are white men.

“What white men often hear is that they are the problem. That might not be what people are saying, but it is what they hear,” says Betsy Silva-Hernandez, senior director of corporate diversity and inclusion at Sodexo.

“If you think everyone’s going to sing ‘Kumbaya’ and come along, you are lying to yourself,” says Bucherati. “Human nature doesn’t see that we all win. People think, ‘Somebody has to win, somebody has to lose.’”

Chris Brassell, a director in the National Office of Diversity at PwC, who is also a straight, white man, has spearheaded the firm’s efforts to reach white male partners in the past few years. “I have had a number of discussions with companies, professional organizations and those in academia that suggest that in many diversity and inclusion strategies, the role for white individuals—particularly white men—goes unexamined or ignored. This results in a greater tendency for this group to feel that diversity is not about them and may unintentionally alienate or exclude white professionals altogether,” he says.

At PwC, the program to engage white male partners started two years ago in what Brassell calls a series of “candid conversation” videos that included the role of white men in an inclusive workplace.

“We have a distinctive approach to diversity that addresses both minority and majority populations,” Brassell says. “For example, when we discuss gender, we talk about the role of both men and women. In discussions about race, our leaders address both minority and majority experiences. Similarly, a major component of our GLBT strategy focuses on engaging straight allies.” He urges companies to actively and constantly include white men in their diversity efforts, saying, “Companies should consider a more expansive view of the groups that they seek to drive diversity efforts. Specifically, leaders with diversity and inclusion accountability should invite not only historically underrepresented groups but also white employees to play active roles as ‘diversity champions.’ The result will be a broader group of leaders with the necessary skills and competencies to drive effective collaboration and communication across multiple dimensions of diversity, a critical business skill in a multicultural world with a global economy.”

Jodi Davidson, director of diversity initiatives at Sodexo, recalls that around 2005, managers throughout the company started seeing diversity turning into a competitive advantage. She says, “It was a tipping point to getting and retaining business. Our sales force was comprised of a lot of white men, and they were coming along for the ride because they ‘got’ that it would help them make commissions.”

Senior Management—Mostly White Guys

Efforts to engage white men usually run on two tracks, DiversityInc research shows, one aimed at senior leaders, who usually have personal goals, and one aimed at middle managers, those who proverbially don’t get “what’s in it for me.”

For senior managers, the emphasis usually is on becoming an executive sponsor of a resource group, becoming a cross-cultural mentor and developing an action plan to increase human-capital demographics in the organization. The senior managers have these personal achievements included in their evaluations, and most of the time, these are factored into their bonuses. All of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies factor diversity goals into executive bonuses, with 14.1 percent being the average bonus. This compares with 72 percent doing this five years ago, with 11.5 percent being the average bonus, compared with 5 percent five years ago.

At Sodexo, diversity definitely starts with the top, and the effort to engage white men is no exception. The Diversity Scorecard for senior managers assesses both the organization’s overall demographic progress and unit leaders’ personal achievements. The scorecard evaluates overall company performance based on workforce, management and promotion demographics reflecting the availability of the populations in which it is located; retention percentages of women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians and American Indians; and personal behavior of leaders, including whether they are on the board or chair a nonprofit, whether they are cross-cultural mentors and whether they are executive sponsors of resource groups.

The higher up the executive is in the organization, the more rigorous the diversity goals, says Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global chief diversity officer. For heads of divisions, the goals account for 25 percent of bonuses, while for managers, it is between 10 percent and 15 percent.

Middle Managers—Making the Business Case

Convincing everyone in the organization, but especially white men in the middle, of the business case is important. Joy Errico, director of diversity at Staples, finds this is the key. “How do you get them to buy in?” she says. “The way I do it is to speak to different teams and present them with different demographic insights. They are very intrigued by data we present; it’s important for the business to have highly engaged associates.”

Linda Forte, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Comerica, says middle managers, especially white men, need to “understand the why. They need to know why is this important to Comerica, to our regions, our state, our nation.”

One company that is doing this well as its diversity initiatives mature is Ameren, the St. Louis–based utility. Sharon Harvey Davis, director of diversity at Ameren, says her company has been very intentional in its efforts to include white men: “We make sure they are members of our diversity council, ambassadors, trainers. We always assume that white men want to be involved. Early on, the assumption may have been that diversity was about everyone but white men.”

This deliberation carries through to corporate communications. The bimonthly diversity newsletter highlights diversity leaders and, Harvey Davis says, white men are frequently highlighted, including executive sponsors of employee-resource groups. In 2002, when Ameren began to focus on diversity, many of its employees outside of the St. Louis area argued that the company didn’t need diversity because the employee base was mostly white men. “‘We’re not diverse. We all look alike, we’re good. We’ve been together since high school, we’ve known our families for generations, we’re good,’” she recalls the prevalent sentiment being. The company responded by teaching all employees that there is a difference spectrum—religious, political, etc.—and that differences should be appreciated.

Increasing Engagement

Sodexo conducts an employee-engagement survey every two years. In 2010, 83 percent of white men surveyed said they agreed with this statement: “At Sodexo, diverse employees are valued for the differences they bring to the workplace.” This compares with only 72 percent of white men who agreed with the same statement in 2006, an 11 percent increase.

Making the connection personal is very valuable. Maria D’Ambrosio, senior director of inclusion and diversity at Choice Hotels International, says her organization started with the basics. “We needed to engage the folks here who made decisions and show how we made it meaningful to them … Conversations with white men were about what their understanding of diversity is and what it means to them. Most of our department heads are white men, and we wanted them to have action plans,” she says. Those plans could include becoming a cross-cultural mentor, speaking to an employee-resource group, encouraging team members to join an employee-resource group and making presentations to local minority-owned business enterprises (potential and current suppliers) on such issues as marketing. These factors were then included in their performance evaluations, and engagement-survey results, including those of white men, are reported to the board of directors.

Enhancing the engagement of white men with diversity initiatives is the goal, says Forte. “The way we engage white men from a behavioral standpoint is to deputize them. A large proportion of white men are leading our company, and we make sure we engage them around the work of strategically leading our efforts. They are our diversity champions and we have constant conversations with them about why that is,” she says.

Herbertina Johnson, chief diversity officer at the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, has found mandatory awareness and cultural-competency training valuable in engaging white men. She says initial diversity efforts focusing on celebrations, such as Black History Month or Cinco de Mayo, made some white men feel left out.

White Male Resource Groups?

Only a handful of companies (less than 2 percent of entrants to the DiversityInc Top 50) actually have employee-resource groups aimed specifically at white men.

“I have resisted starting a white male group. I think it separates people,” says Susan Hamilton, retired assistant vice president of diversity and HR at CSX.

Davidson recalls that when Sodexo began to ramp up its diversity efforts in 2002, there was joking discussion of starting a group for “white, fat, bald guys.” “I remember there was some resentment of white men at the time,” she recalls.

Bucherati notes that “we’ve tried this a number of times and there’s just no interest.” One year, he recalls, starting a white male ERG was even part of his performance objectives.

At Merck & Co., a men’s global constituency group was formed early in 2008 as part of enhanced global business groups, but the group was not aimed at white men in particular, and no white male group has emerged domestically. The company has focused on men, emphasizing the price men pay for not bringing their whole selves to work, says Deborah Dagit, retired vice president and chief diversity officer at Merck & Co., such as the impact on family relationships and the statistical probability of dying younger because of a lack of focus on health. But the men were more interested in being part of other employee groups (for traditionally underrepresented groups) than in starting their own groups.

“When I floated it by the men at Merck, they did not feel they had an interest in this,” she says.

Using Existing Resource Groups

All companies in the DiversityInc Top 50 tell us their employee-resource groups are open to everyone, and virtually all of them encourage people to join groups where they are not members of the targeted demographic group. The emphasis on getting white men to join groups is particularly strong at certain companies as a critical way of getting them engaged and giving them strong cross-cultural education.

At Sodexo, 35 percent of members of employee groups are white men. “The level of enthusiasm of white males has been amazing,” says Davidson. She feels strongly that white men benefit more from being part of groups aimed at traditionally underrepresented groups than in their own type of group.

Hamilton says she picks white male leaders and asks them to be sponsors of employee-resource groups as well as coaches and mentors of people from traditionally underrepresented groups. “Our senior leaders do it first, and believe me, it cascades down the organization. I knew we turned the corner when I started getting calls from people at the division-manager level wanting to mentor,” she says.

Comerica actively encourages white men, especially middle managers, to join its employee groups, as does the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. Johnson points out that several of her organization’s groups, such as resource groups for veterans or those based on generational issues, already include white men. The trick is getting white men to join other groups and to “feel more included than excluded,” she says.

So should you start a targeted effort to include white men? It really depends on the stage of diversity management of your company, your demographics, your client/customer base, and your history. For an analysis of your own situation or for more information on this research, please contact