Firms lend a hand to minorities climbing the corporate ladder

When Colin Watson started working at the NYNEX Corporation in 1973, a colleague took him aside to suggest that the frames on his glasses were not appropriate for the corporate world. Mr. Watson took the advice and bought new glasses. Today, Watson, who is black, is the corporate director of market assessment and strategy development at NYNEX. He remembers and appreciates that advice on corporate culture. It was an informal predecessor to a new approach that many corporations are using to help minorities reach management levels.

At Chemical Bank where 11 percent of all new employees are from minority groups, black vice-presidents serve as mentors to help new black trainees fit into the corporate world. Avon Products Inc. uses a system of employee networks to help blacks, Asians, and Hispanics polish their business images and learn how the company works.

United States Department of Labor projections estimate that by the 1990s over three-quarters of all new entrants to the US work force will be minorities or women. These estimates are influencing corporate decisions on how to best incorporate minorities into their companies.

In the early 1980s, Avon's management noticed that many of its black, Asian, and Hispanic employees were coming in, doing well, but not moving up, says Marcia Worthing, vice-president of human resources for the US Beauty Division. So the company changed its outlook on minorities, rejecting the ``blending in'' approach in favor of multicultural acceptance.

Avon's philosophy is that establishing ways to accommodate cultural differences among employees will give the company a competitive edge. In every business, Ms. Worthing says, ``there is competition for talent, and the best people cut across all groups.''

Avon has a Muticultural Planning and Design Department that serves as the catalyst for change, Worthing says. The department has a series of awareness-training sessions that have been attended by 80 percent of the management. The day-and-a-half sessions encourage minorities ``to look at negative assumptions and stereotypes,'' such as an unfavorable view of a Hispanic accent, Worthing says.

Avon also sends its middle managers for three weeks of training at the Avon-Morehouse Management Development Program in Atlanta.

The program's seminars help employees learn to communicate better across the barriers of diverse backgrounds. About 20 percent of those who attend have been promoted within a year of the seminars, Worthing says.

Most new employees at Chemical Bank excelled in college. But the transition from academic success to success in the ``real world'' is not always easy, says Claude Weir, a Chemical Bank vice-president in employee relations.

``About three years ago, we noticed incoming trainees [of minority backgrounds] at Chemical Bank were flunking out of the training program,'' he says. Weir and other black managers arranged an informal mentor program to combat the dropout rate.

``It's a way of creating an old-boy network,'' says Gaston Jean-Louis, a vice-president in Chemical Bank's Human Resources Division.

Often, Weir says, minority trainees have not been exposed to social mores such as accepted business dress or handshakes. The mentor program addresses these and other steps to corporate success.

``There is someone to bounce problems off, and it doesn't stop when they get off the training floor,'' Weir says.

NYNEX also uses three-day training programs run by Mountaintop Ventures to address cultural differences among its employees, Watson says. Participation in the sessions is voluntary and is available to managers throughout NYNEX. Watson says he has seen results in the form of ``an increased effectiveness in the work force,'' and the ability to ``take specific actions to improve our own personal environments.''

Like the other companies, NYNEX has formed a group, the Minority Managers' Association, to help provide counseling so the minorities can understand the company better.

Though Watson says minority representation at the top levels of NYNEX is still very small, he sees the Minority Managers' Association as reason for hope.

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