A Vision on Managing Diversity

The multinational IT company IBM is convinced that it can only keep its current competitive edge by reflecting marketplace diversity in the workforce and by offering a safe work environment for all employees. The company considers workforce diversity as “the bridge between the workplace and the marketplace.”

Ambition: An Inclusive Work Environment

In 1953, the CEO at that time published IBM’s first equal opportunity policy letter. This letter stated simply that IBM will hire people based on their ability “regardless of race, color or creed.” IBM’s subsequent CEOs reinforced that policy throughout the years. Since then, equal opportunity at IBM has been an evolutionary journey that underscores the company’s commitment to an inclusive work environment where people’s ideas and contributions are welcome—regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or what personal beliefs they hold.

Diversity in Leadership

To stress the importance of workforce diversity, IBM has a vice president of Global Workforce Diversity who formulates global policies on managing diversity. At regional headquarters, diversity managers translate the global policies on managing diversity into regional initiatives. Next, the executive management teams of every branch office formulate local actions in order to increase and to make full use of workforce diversity in that specific IBM establishment. An example of a local action is the adjustment of human resources policies and processes in each country’s offices. Due to the differences in national legislation on employment and discrimination, IBM thinks it’s best to do this at a country level.

Active Input From Managers and Employees

IBM’s leadership underscores its commitment to an inclusive work environment through eight executive task forces, established in 1995:

•    Asian

•    Black

•    Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender

•    Hispanic

•    Men

•    Native American

•    People with disabilities

•    Women

The mission of each task force is to increase the success of IBM in the marketplace by focusing on the various constituencies as customers. The task forces are chaired and staffed by executives and employees from that particular constituency. Each was formed to look at IBM through the lens of their group and answer these questions:

•    What is required for your group to feel welcomed and valued at IBM?

•    What can IBM, in partnership with your group, do to maximize your productivity?

•    What courses of action can IBM take to influence the buying decisions of your group?

There are also global diversity networks where people from various underrepresented groups can meet each other and colleagues from other backgrounds. Many subsidiaries have local chapters of these networks. IBM Netherlands has local chapters of the global diversity network groups for women (called Women in Blue) and for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders (called EAGLE). In both cases, the initiative for the foundation of a local chapter was taken by employees.

The networks organize meetings, lectures, workshops, and social events for employees belonging to the specific underrepresented group or for those interested in managing diversity and learning more about the other. All network activities are aimed at enhancing people’s personal strength. Another employee collects and distributes information via the intranet about people with disabilities. The company stimulates initiatives like this by allocating time, resources, and budget. The human resources department plays a supportive role: It organizes meetings for the initiators to exchange knowledge and ideas. It also gives them advice on how to use the intranet to draw attention for their subject and gives them information about (international) conferences on managing diversity.

Toward Inclusive Leadership

Throughout the years, global and local diversity network groups were founded for almost any of the traditionally underrepresented groups at IBM. Lately, a turn of opinion has evolved. The company now believes that the key to managing diversity is inclusive leadership. Inclusive leadership implies creating a corporate culture where people feel respected and rewarded, with all their differences and similarities. International training has been developed that focuses on this broad concept of managing diversity. Several senior managers and their advisers have already participated in the training program. Among them were some executives from the Dutch subsidiary and their local diversity coordinator. According to these participants, the training made them aware of the fact that you must focus on diversity management by including all employees.

One exercise showed that everybody sometimes feels excluded from a group and that almost everybody experiences exclusion negatively. Because of the training, they now understand that diversity concerns all employees and not just the ones belonging to a minority. IBM strongly believes that this greater understanding is the basis for realizing inclusive leadership.

Discussion Questions

1.   What are the 2 most important aspects of IBM Netherland’s vision for diversity? Why did you select these?

2.   This case study is set in the Netherlands. Do you think that the diversity initiatives could work anywhere? Why or why not?

3.   The executive task forces for diverse groups focus on three questions: (1) What is required for your group to feel valued? (2) What is required to maximize productivity? (3) How do you influence the buying decisions of the group? Given your understanding of management, list 2 other questions that should be asked and why.

4. According to the case, what is “inclusive leadership” at IBM? How can diversity training increase this type of leadership?