The Extra Mile: How to achieve diversity in your IT shop.

Unlike the wild hiring of the '90s, the slow rebuilding of bare-bones IT shops over the next few years will provide an opportunity to staff up thoughtfully. It's another chance to get diversity right. Lots of IT organizations talk about diversity, but some are better at achieving it than others. We spoke with representatives of five IT groups that have been repeatedly cited as diversity leaders by the Black Data Processing Association to discover how companies can find, recruit and retain top minority talent in IT.

They all agreed on two things: Achieving diversity isn't quick or easy, and it requires an ongoing, comprehensive commitment. "Diversity is not a one-time event; it is a way of doing business, a part of our culture," says George Hall, senior vice president of information resources human resources at Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott International Inc.

"Diversity is a business strategy," says Andy Baker, senior manager of human resources recruitment and selection at The Allstate in Northbrook, Ill. "Our company focuses on diversity across the board, in our succession management, recruitment and leadership development."

With that overall approach as the context, here are some of the innovative tactics diversity leaders use:

Dedicated Staff

Nothing says commitment like having human resources staff dedicated to achieving diversity in your workforce. At Bank of America, Melissa Thompson is vice president of staffing diversity. "I was hired by BOA in October of last year to focus on diversity staffing," she says. "It's a new role. My job is to focus on finding and hiring top diversity talent across the technology space."

Pipeline Recruiting

It's hard to be concerned with diversity if you're scrambling to fill holes in your organization. Knowing that, committed companies have learned to look ahead. "We try to anticipate resource needs and recruit skills in a proactive way rather than with such urgency that we can't pay attention to the demographic mix of our population," says Greg Tahvonen, vice president for human resources at Delta Technology. Looking ahead gives the Delta Air Lines subsidiary the luxury of grooming a pipeline of talented minority people. "We look to our future skill needs, and we look at developmental programs such as student intern programs to be sure we have the right mix of folks in the queue to select from," he explains. Delta also makes sure it's training interns for the jobs it will need to fill when they're ready to enter the workforce.

Relationship Recruiting

Commitment to diversity doesn't stop when hiring slows down. "When the supply side outstrips the demand side, it's extremely important to continue to maintain relationships" with talented minority workers, says Hall. To do that, Marriott relies on "relationship recruiting" he explains. "When we don't have the demands, our associates, including our management team, maintain relationships with those people we would otherwise want to attract."

Relationship recruiting addresses the passive job seekers Hall is trying to connect with. "We're going after the top 5% of the market, and many of those aren't actively seeking opportunities, so the normal channels don't reach them," he says. But relationship recruiting does.

For example, for the past two years, Hall has maintained a relationship with "a very senior individual whom we would love to have" but for whom no suitable opportunity has been available. Hall phones the person, exchanges e-mails, meets for coffee, reports on how things are going -- stays in touch. "So if an opportunity does open up, we don't have to re-establish the relationship," he says. "It continues to keep our name out in front of people's minds."

Exploratory Interviews

Thompson uses what she calls exploratory interviews to recruit top minority talent, even during a hiring slowdown. "We talk to candidates, even though there is no position open," she explains.

The exploratory cycle begins with a quarterly resume roundtable, where managers go over the resumes of candidates Thompson hopes to recruit, even though no specific positions may be open. They tell her which applicants look most promising, and she calls them in and explains the situation. "I do some coaching so they understand that there is no opening, but if they sell themselves, anything could happen," she says.

It frequently does. "The managers often say, 'Well I was going to hire in Q3, but since you're sitting here, I'll hire you now,'" Thompson says. "We've found it gets managers thinking outside the box. The more exploratory interviews we've done, the more successes we've seen."

Targeted Recruiting

Companies committed to diversity get to know minority advocacy groups. Merck and Co. participates in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Data Processing Association, says Michele T. Ralph, director of information services human resources in Merck's Rahway, N.J., office. "We attend conferences and do a lot of recruiting there," she says. She also maintains relationships with historically black colleges and universities and uses Web sites that cater to minorities for recruiting. Successful companies also tailor their messages to their markets. "We try to coordinate our approach with the target audience," says Baker. That includes using specialized ads and collateral materials that are culturally relevant to the segments to which he is appealing, he explains.

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