Diversity Leaders Stress Efforts' Impact

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Corporate diversity leaders addressed a packed house for a panel session at Rainbow Push's 11th Annual Wall Street Project Economic Summit, held Monday in New York. The five-day event centered on issues impacting the minority community, including the continuing need for increased recruitment of a diverse workforce on Wall Street. In a session devoted to the issue, "Internal Advocates for Inclusion: A Panel Discussion of Corporate Diversity Executives," panelists offered perspectives from inside the corporate realm.

Kimberly Bankston, vice president of global diversity and inclusion for GE Commercial Finance, reminded the audience of the importance of senior management's giving diversity efforts more than lip service. Companies might have diversity councils, affinity programs, and recruitment efforts in place, she said, but without management's commitment, the efforts are sure to fall short.

Indeed, management buy-in is the key to building momentum and support for diversity programs, whose role in a firm is about more than simply workforce demographics, said Lawrence Ruisi, chief diversity officer for Credit Suisse. Diversity officers must get management to understand their efforts are an essential and critical part of doing business in a shrinking market for talent. At the same time, skeptics must be shown diversity initiatives aren't "a zero-sum game with winners and losers," but a strategy for tapping into a larger base of qualified job candidates.

Expanding Vision

Ruisi noted diversity managers throughout corporate America have gained increased acceptance of their work by expanding the definition of diversity. Not only do diversity programs address the needs of women and minority job applicants, but they no include the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities, as well as incorporating a more liberal definition of working conditions to include flex-time, family leave and more.

To succeed, diversity efforts need to be integrated through a company's departments, not regarded as stand-alone efforts, said Denise Singleton, vice president of MetLife's Office of Diversity. She and Bankston agreed diversity managers must operate without fear and approach their positions proactively. Diversity managers must be aggressive and forward thinking, as they push their firms forward - and beyond their current path.

Elizabeth Wamai, first vice president of global markets and investment banking-diversity at Merrill Lynch, added diversity managers must build a network of in-house advocates. "Tapping into those with significant P&L responsibility is key," she said. Also important are metrics, she believes: measuring recruitment, retention, and development efforts. While having the initiatives are essential, Wamai said, initiatives aren't successful if they don't increase the headcount of women and minorities.