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Thursday May 2, 2002

Inside Verizon: How Diversity Survived the Merger

Sandra Lee

Oscar Gomez, head of the Office of Diversity at Verizon, has been with the company for 26 years and has worked in various departments throughout the organization. Although he officially became involved with the diversity effort six years ago at GTE ? which recently merged with Bell Atlantic to become Verizon - Gomez says his involvement reaches back much further. "I was one of the first Hispanics at the director level, so I became someone that people reached out to."

Today, Verizon boasts a comprehensive diversity strategy. For starters, directors are held accountable for promoting diversity, since a certain percentage of their bonuses are tied directly to the hiring of women and minorities and the procurement of minority contracts.

"But that's just what I call just the tip of the iceberg," Gomez said.

The staffing department is responsible for putting together a diverse slate of candidates for job openings at the managerial level and above, which in turn is reviewed by the Office of Diversity.

Company executives are also required to mentor two people, one of whom must be a minority or woman, and the company's 12 employee resource groups have their own mentoring programs as well. There is a manager's workshop that identifies leaders and puts them through cultural-awareness and managerial training, and Verizon has 23 diversity councils for its different lines of business.

In terms of tapping diverse feeder pools, the company relies heavily on external contacts and has relationships with groups like the Organization of Chinese Americans, the Japan- Americans Citizens League, and National Asian Legal Consortium.

"I pride our efforts on being more than the traditional diversity training," Gomez said. "We've stepped it up a notch or two."

But how does a company as vast as Verizon ? which has more than 247,000 employees nationwide - truly safeguard itself from discrimination in promotions, hiring and the treatment of its employees? Last week, two current employees and a former employee filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), that alleged the company prevented the fair advancement of Latino employees up the corporate ladder.

Verizon denies the allegations that the company engages in systemic discrimination against Hispanics.

The company said in a statement that it "abhors discrimination of any kind. It is totally unacceptable in our workplace. We take this issue very seriously. Our predecessor companies, Bell Atlantic and GTE, had long-standing practices and policies specifically directed to ensuring diversity and to providing a work environment that is free from discrimination and harassment."

So how does a company protect itself from discrimination?

Dr. Andrew Erlich, CEO and founder of Erlich Transcultural Consultants, points out a current shift in the diversity arena, where managers are focusing more on the subtler actions that truly spin the fabric of corporate culture. "You don't have to be overt to be hurtful," Erlich said.

This is not necessarily a problem that is specific to any one company, but a hurdle faced by any large, multicultural workforce where interaction between people of different backgrounds is run of the mill. The feelings of inequity experienced by the Latino employees may be the result of managers who unconsciously practiced cultural favoritism ? what Erlich calls microinequities. "It's much more subtle," he said. "But over time, drops of water made the Grand Canyon."

This strikes at the core of what employees of all stripes may be experiencing in the workplace, whether they are Asian American, African American, white or Latino.

Erlich points to an experiment by the University of Southern California that showed eight out of 10 times, interviewers gave the job to the candidate that looked most like themselves. This was despite the fact that all candidates ? who were hired actors ? had the same qualifications.

"It's not that these people were being racist, but it's human nature to stick with your own culture and to be ethnocentric," Erlich said.

"When it comes to hiring and promotion, there can be profound issues involved that may not occur to interviewers," he said. "This is why interviewers need to be trained about how not to get biases in the way."

Larry Schaefer, attorney for the Latino employees who filed the EEOC complaint against Verizon, corroborates Erlich's views. "Discrimination isn't always intentional," he said. "Oftentimes managers are allowed to indulge in subjectivity. Most of us haven't been exposed to diverse backgrounds, and our experiences shape our different comfort levels."

Schaefer said companies need to create processes where both intentional and unintentional subjectivity is eliminated, or where the decisions are at least closely monitored.

Erlich, a cross-cultural psychologist who works with companies like Chase Manhattan, points out that these unconscious actions are particularly effective in cracking the structure of corporate giants, where relationships are not as clear-cut as those in smaller companies. This becomes especially relevant with the current trend of corporate mergers. "When you're dealing with corporate cultures that are experiencing profound change from a merger, all the vulnerabilities of the structure become exposed," Erlich said.

Schaefer agrees that it is critical to keep a close eye on diversity issues during a merger, while the fallout could be disastrous. "When you merge two companies, you're doing more than holding two large workforces together. Diversity has to a priority, and hiring the right consultants and doing the legwork is part of that."

Even before GTE and Bell Atlantic merged to form Verizon two years ago, diversity was a priority at both companies, according to Gomez. Gomez says senior leadership worked to keep it a priority throughout the merger; the proof is in the representation of women and minorities, which did not dip with the layoffs that inevitably come with mergers.

Today, Gomez says Verizon is just beginning to see the company's diversity efforts bearing their fruits since the merger. Right now, 300 women and people of color at Verizon "are being groomed for bigger and better things," he said. "We're focusing on feeder pools within the company."

Meanwhile, Erlich points out overcoming the both the overt and subtle inequities faced by a multicultural workforce is an ongoing struggle. "The idea is to look at it from a human learning standpoint," Erlich said.

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