Navy pilot met Navy compatriot in New Jersey in the 1980s, after the Cold War had ended. One was white and one African American, and they met when Luke Visconti, partner and cofounder of DiversityInc Media, found himself responsible for minority officer recruiting in New Jersey. When Visconti encountered the African American, Tony Cato, in his new office, he asked him the obvious question: “Why am I the minority office recruiter?” Cato, who was working for headquarters while finishing his degree, responded, “Well, I’m not a recruiter,” but he agreed to help Cato out with his recruiting work.
The two men ended up spending a lot of time together. Visconti, who had joined the Navy upon graduation from Rutgers University with a bachelor’s in biology, says of their early conversations, “He would explain things that would happen to him that were discriminatory, and I had the typical white guy response: they didn’t mean it that way.” He justifies his mindset then in part by his positive experience on the racial front while in uniform. “I think the Navy is generally in front of the civilian population in how it treats people,” he says.
It was one day in the car that the two men had what was a pivotal conversation for Visconti — one that Cato actually does not remember. They were talking about what they liked to do on long rides, and Cato mentioned that he always kept a box of Martin Luther King’s speeches in his trunk.
At first Visconti wondered whether Cato was trying to make some sort of point, but when he realized Cato had no covert motives in bringing this up, it got him thinking. “I fancied myself an amateur historian,” he says, “but I didn’t have any emotional engagement with Martin Luther King.”
After this critical conversation with Cato, Visconti read through King’s work, and it affected him profoundly. “It makes a huge difference in the way a majority person looks at life when he becomes aware of this,” he says.
Visconti started to understand that discrimination is a daily reality in the life of an African American. He finally saw what he was doing to his friend. “I would deny him his reality,” he says, “and finally it dawned on me that I was missing the real picture, and it changed my mindset.”
Visconti will speak about diversity in the workplace at a Mercer Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Tuesday, February 26, at 11:30 a.m. at the Trenton Marriott. Cost: $55. For more information, call 609-689-9960.
Visconti voraciously sought to learn more about cultural diversity in the United States. He spoke, for example, to a professor at Rutgers, in Newark, in the mid-1980s. The man gave him two books, one of which was “Black and White Styles in Conflict,” by Thomas Kochman. “When I read it as a white guy, I said, so, now I get it.”
The book helped him understand how African Americans were, in a systematic way, denied access to things white people take for granted. “The author looks at every social welfare program since FDR,” says Visconti, “and how its intention was subverted to benefit the majority white people under the rubric of states’ rights.”
It also encouraged him to be aware of cultural differences. He notes, for example, how different it is to speak to a primarily African American crowd than to a mixed one. “I do a lot of public speaking,” says Visconti. “Typically African Americans in a mixed crowd will follow the majority convention and not provide audible feedback.” But if the crowd is mostly black, he gets a lot of feedback from the audience. So if Visconti does start to hear some “a-has” in a mixed audience, then he knows he is doing an especially good job.
Visconti’s community involvement as a trustee of Bennett College for Women, a historically black college in Greensborough, North Carolina, and a board member of the New Jersey City University Foundation has also exposed him to systemic racism. “When I was a recruiter, I thought anyone black or Latino who needed money could get money,” he says, “and that is simply not true.”
Visconti pretty much likes to call things the way he sees them. “I don’t mind using words like bigot, racist, and homophobe,” he explains. “When I call someone a bigot, people have to make a decision about whether the person is a bigot or not. Then there’s no ambiguity; you have clarity.”
Visconti challenges Americans, for example, to take responsibility for fixing social ills without blaming the victim. Take the huge variability in quality between mostly black and mostly white school systems. “If you believe people are created equally, then talent is distributed equally,” he says. “If Livingston can graduate 98 percent of its students, why can’t Newark graduate 98 percent of its students?”
He brooks no excuses — lousy school systems like Newark that are failing children must be changed. “If we allow a school system like that to continue to do that to children, that is horrible racism,” he says. “So we may have to spend a few more bucks in Newark than Livingston, but if you broke it, you have to fix it, and if you fix it for a generation or two, it is now self-sustaining.” When you put money into education, you will always get a positive return. Says Visconti: “You always make an investment back when you invest in people,” says Visconti.
“It is perfectly normal that all of this discrimination happens,” notes Visconti. “It is natural for human beings to be discriminatory and xenophobic. We are predisposed to trust people who look just like us.”
But as a society and an economy this predisposition is damaging and requires a commitment to self-correction, says Visconti. “People are created equal. So if talent is distributed equally, then if your employee base doesn’t look like the population, I can guarantee that you don’t have the most talented people working for you.”
Visconti believes strongly that it is in the interest of businesses to pursue diversity. “Companies with strategic diversity management are making more money for their investors,” he claims, “and we will see that accelerate.” DiversityInc’s stock index shows that its Top 50 Companies for Diversity do better than the stock exchange as a whole. “Diversity alone isn’t affecting stock prices,” he explains. “It’s just that better run companies have this as a core principle.”
Here is the advice he offers to businesses on how to increase diversity:
Take a look at yourselves and measure things. The first step has to be assessing where you are now — how are you recruiting, retaining, and promoting? How equal is your turnover — and the flipside, your retention.?
Make sure the CEO is committed to diversity. “If the CEO is not committed to change things, regardless of the subject, it won’t happen,” says Visconti. A committed CEO will assign bonuses for accomplishing diversity goals and will review metrics personally.
Establish employee resource groups. Employee resource groups, for people who share a common identity, are the fundamental building blocks of communication between the senior executives and the younger worker bees of any company, who are more diverse. For Americans 70 or older, there are five whites for every person of color, whereas for those 10 and younger, the ratio is almost one to one.
In addition to communication with the top levels, says Visconti, resource groups at progressive companies are tasked with recruitment and business ideas. Commissioned by the top leadership, they have a business plan and meet during business hours. The companies on DiversityInc’s Top 50 Companies for Diversity all have them.
Communicate diversity goals and hold people accountable for them. Training about diversity goals needs to start from the top. Can you imagine, asks Visconti, a vice president of sales apologizing to the CEO for not meeting his sales goals and then promising to improve next year? He would, of course, be fired. As with sales, bonuses need to be tied to reaching diversity goals, and mandatory surveys should be communicating this information to top management.
Visconti grew up in New Jersey, joined the Navy and went to flight school, serving in Guam for six years. After he left the service, he went into the publishing industry, starting off working for McGraw Hall on Aviation Week befor moving onto Fortune magazine. Sixteen years ago he left Fortune with his business partner to start a “rep company,” serving as sales representatives for other people’s magazines. The goal, though, was to generate enough of a revenue stream to start their own magazine.
They started DiversityInc in 1998 as a website and closed the rep side of the business a year later. “I was turning 40 and called my business partner, and said, ‘My life will not be about repping other people’s magazines,’” recalls Visconti. They decided to take the chance. Then five years ago they launched DiversityInc magazine.
Revenue grew from $2 million to $3 million in 2001, and today Diversity Inc. is a $10 million company with 40 employees, a monthly print magazine, and a website, www.diversityinc.com. The company generates revenue from advertising, subscriptions, and a career center on the site — where thousands of companies post jobs to attract people who are both diverse and interested in diversity. The job board is very active, with close to 40,000 jobs currently. “It is the fastest growing part of the business,” he says.
DiversityInc just built a video studio in its offices. “We cover news from a different perspective than mainstream news sources; we look for things others don’t get,” he says. DiversityInc’s affluent business and corporate audience is particularly interested in career advice and financial literacy. Today DiversityInc boasts a million unique users on the web and a 202,000 audited circulation in print.
DiversityInc is also starting to expand the reach of its ideas by creating regional lists of the top companies for diversity “to capture smaller companies in the same way we’ve gotten larger companies,” says Visconti.
Visconti cites an article he read recently in the Economist. Why has India suddenly seen so much growth? Because it has added more than 200 million new cell phone users since 2003. The cell phone gives them access both to information and online banking — satisfying King’s second and third points: “That’s what’s creating wealth and growth — the liberation of human beings.”
Diversity Training Is Just Not Working
by John Sarno
A major 2006 study of 31 years of data from 830 American companies found that most diversity training efforts are not only ineffective but counterproductive. They focus too much time on compliance and not enough time on organizational culture and change and as a result show little effect in increasing the number of women and minorities in managerial positions.
This study, published in the American Sociological Review, found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms — such as narratives about interpersonal conflict that are sometimes featured in “sensitivity training” and often upset people — only serve to alienate the very people companies are trying to reach. They cause workers to actively resist change and downplay the importance of organizational structure in embracing, or resisting, long-term change.
Such exercises were followed by a 7.5-percent overall drop in the number of women in management. The number of black female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians. This despite the fact that American companies spend up to $300 million annually on diversity training.
Several experts offered two reasons for this: The first is that businesses are responding rationally to the legal environment. Supreme Court rulings have held that companies with mandatory diversity training are in a stronger position if they face a discrimination lawsuit. But if companies are merely covering their bases it is obvious they do not care whether the training works. It can hardly be a surprise, then, that training could be counterproductive.
A second reason is that many companies, with the implicit cooperation of diversity trainers, find it easier to offer exercises that simply serve public relations goals, rather than to embrace real change.
I have trained thousands of supervisors at hundreds of companies since 1995 and I generally concur with the study’s findings. For the most part, companies see diversity as a legal compliance issue, not as a meaningful opportunity to create a more productive working environment. Our research indicates that because of this employers get sued regardless of training.
In response, the Employers Association of New Jersey has developed training that gets at the root causes of conflict and treats diversity as a corporate value, rather than as a legal necessity. This training is based on five widely surveyed core values — honesty, integrity, caring for others, approachability, and active listening. The focus stays on the supervisor’s role in implementing these values in practical concrete ways. Ultimately, diversity is not viewed cynically as a shield to legal liability, but as a form of leadership.
This type of value-based training is really not for everyone. By and large, it is for employers that already get it.
John Sarno is a labor lawyer and president of the Employers Association of New Jersey, the Livingston-based nonprofit association that helps employers make better employment decisions.
Raised in Elmwood Park, he graduated with a degree in psychology from Ramapo College in 1977 and earned a master’s in counseling and education, as well as a law degree, from Seton Hall.