Diallo Noel, who is black, was a certified computer technician with no degree and five months of fruitless interviews behind him when he arrived at Public Broadcasting Service last year to interview for a help desk job. After two technical interviews, he was surprised to be ushered into CIO Andre Mendes' office.
Mendes "did something no one ever did," Noel recalls. "He said, 'Tell me about you.' I'd been waiting five months to talk about myself. Andre felt my passion for the industry, and it was just a click."
Noel has been moving up ever since. "I've felt appreciated, and that's pushed me to work harder," he says. Noel is currently a messaging support administrator at PBS's 642-member IT department and is working toward his certification as a network engineer.
The key is looking to people's futures rather than their pasts, says Mendes, who has since become chief operating officer/chief technology officer at Pluvita Corp., a biotech start-up in Bethesda, Md.
"We focused on potential, work ethic and ability to work well with others rather than [on a] degree," he says. "The moment you do that, you are bound to find the talent. Open the door and they will come through it, because people are out there."
Diversity is about more than color and gender, although that's how it's frequently measured. It's about all the differences that make us unique in terms of lifestyles and challenges as well as skills and contributions.
It's about technical analyst Francis Head being able to get into the guts of 150 servers at Atlanta-based Georgia Pacific Corp. because somebody made sure they're all low enough for him to access from his wheelchair.
It's about Rachelle Byars, a business analyst at Alexandria, Va.-based PBS, noticing during an important IT meeting that there wasn't a single white face in the room.
It's about Joelle Paris, a new mother and IT business relationship manager at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., keeping her career on track while scaling back her workweek to spend more time with her baby.
Noel made his own success, but PBS provided the environment and structure to let it happen. While at the help desk, Noel was given access to computer-based and outside training. He was also informally mentored by Orin Love, a black man who had started at the help desk and had moved on to become an e-mail administrator.
"Not only did Orin want his friend to succeed," explains David Shomette, director of IT administration at PBS, "[Orin's] success was based on Diallo taking over Orin's day-to-day responsibilities so that Orin could go to the next level. A rising tide lifts all boats."
Teco Energy Inc. took a chance on David Gondreau in 1984, and it has paid off. A systems analyst who is quadriplegic, Gondreau came to the Tampa, Fla.-based firm as an intern and stayed. That longevity isn't unusual in the 173-person IT department, where the average tenure is 12 years.
"They have never had someone with such a high disability as mine, so it was a learning experience on both sides," Gondreau says. "But my disability is essentially a nonfactor; they just make accommodations when I need them."
Those include flexible work schedules, special parking, elevators and automatic doors in restrooms and easily accessible water fountains.
But Gondreau says Teco's employees go the extra mile. "The folks here are just fabulous," he says. "I have had health problems, and sometimes my teammates from work have even come over and stayed with me after operations if my family isn't around. It's more than just work, its family."
Learning to Listen
In many of the Best Places to Work, diversity is so much a part of life that employees take it for granted.
"I'm from Colombia," says Alma Emerson, a systems project manager at Florida Power & Light Co. (FPL) in Juno Beach. "In my group, I have folks from India, Jamaica, Cuba, Russia, Panama, and we have African-Americans and an Anglo-American," she says. "We say we are a United Nations, and there are a lot of teams here like us. We have great group dynamics. There is no majority, so there are no minorities."
"Diversity is not really a project, it's an attitude," says Dennis Klinger, vice president for information management at FPL, where the average tenure in IT is 11 years.
"We're sensitive that sometimes you have issues [with diverse workforces], so people are aware and, most important, we're receptive to listening and taking action. We try to make it an open environment so things don't get to the problem level before they get discussed," says Klinger.
But it takes more than sensitivity. There's a lot of work behind the diverse environment that FPL employees take for granted. That includes a diversity awareness program with training on various levels, including training in diversity leadership, which is a stated core competency for managers. There are also minority-targeted recruiting, scholarship and internship programs and mentoring programs, as well as human resources specialists who meet regularly with new hires to be sure their careers stay on track.
Later in their careers, Klinger's lead team takes over. "You really have to work on people in the lower/middle levels to make sure they don't get lost," he says. To that end, the management team nurtures high-potential people, including minorities, Klinger says.
"My lead team of direct reports and I get together and say the names out loud and talk about these people as a group," Klinger says. They ensure there are no barriers to their success, give them special training as needed to move them along and assign them to projects where they can make a name for themselves. "It's not science, but it works," Klinger says.
In Cuban communities, family is everything - which can cause some excessive stress on an IT worker who is in high demand at work.
"My family is what life is about," says Juan Lopez. He had been a data architect at Miami-based Royal Caribbean less than a year when he had to choose between keeping his job and resolving a family problem that required a move to Washington.
But when he sadly told his manager, Max Schmidt, about the situation Schmidt made some quick phone calls, then told Lopez, "If you want to work with us, we'll work with you."
Royal Caribbean set up Lopez to work remotely. "That was the last thing I expected. It's a happy ending," he says. "In about a year, I'll be back."
Lopez's happy ending is largely due to the leadership of Tom Murphy, CIO at Royal Caribbean. "I have a philosophy that we all have real lives, and our management team needs the maturity and wisdom to treat people as the professionals they are with great respect to personal and professional needs and great flexibility," he says. "If someone's baby is sick, you know they've got to do what they've got to do." That applies to work as well as personal challenges, he adds.
Nurturing differences is the only way to go in the cruise business. "Our whole operations, our everyday life is about this," says Bernard Gay, vice president of enterprise technology and operations and a black man who hails from the Bahamas.
"We have people from well over 50 countries, and because IT is so immersed in the business, we find ourselves immersed in a blend of nationalities," Gay says. "Our daily interaction forces diversity and understanding of how you need to be with diversity. It forces you to live the culture."
Bending to Your Workers' Needs
At Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Atlanta, diversity means being flexible when life crises demand it or beliefs require it. A senior analyst who has been coping with a sick child for two years has been working from home, attending meetings by phone and taking leaves of absence as needed.
"She adds tremendous value to the team, so we have managed her workload so that she can focus on her family first," says Sudip Gangopadhyay, manager of Unix technical services and an Indian national himself. "She continues to stay productive and be rewarded for good work but keeps her home life together."
Senior systems analyst Mohammed Mansor has no such emergency. But as a Muslim, he requires some flexibility to attend mosque on Fridays. Normally, he works from home that day because the mosque is nearby and he can make up the time easily.
"I need to put in my eight hours, but I can say, 'This hour I'm going to be gone,'" he explains. Similarly, when he's required to come into the office on a Friday, he can block out time for mosque.
At Georgia-Pacific, every member of the 1,500-person IT workforce is responsible for making his individual needs known. Everyone attends a training program promoting the concept of "edge"-the ability to talk in a nonconfrontational way about issues.
"People have permission to say, 'I'm going to use a little edge here,'" and bring up a problem, says Bob Swiggum, vice president of information resources. Then, others have a responsibility to act on it.
All managers are trained in diversity through a program called Civil Treatment, which covers diversity and equal employment opportunity issues. Other training, such as the IT edge program, takes place in the individual divisions.
Managers are held accountable for diversity through a quarterly measurement process. They are graded on demographics in their organization, diversity activities and efforts under way, and diversity climate.
Climate is analyzed through random polling of employees about issues ranging from how diversity is valued to opportunity in the organization. "It tells us if management is walking the talk," says Lucinda Smith, human resources project manager for workforce strategies and programs.