More firms adding diversity coordinators: Law practices, others see benefit to encouraging diverse workplace

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Brita Horvath celebrated her first year on the job late last month as Baker & Daniels LLP’s diversity and pro bono coordinator.

Even in a part-time capacity, paying someone to tackle diversity issues within the workplace would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, recalls Greg Utken, a firm partner who co-chairs its diversity committee.

“When I got out [of law school] in 1974, the firm I was with had no women and no people of color; it was white male,” he said. “Diversity was not even a word we would have thought of.”

Today, of course, the climate is much different. An increasingly global economy and the changing face of America are just a couple of factors prompting the corporate community, and particularly law firms, to hire diversity directors.

More than half the country’s largest law practices now employ one, according to the latest annual study conducted by Altman Weil Inc. The suburban Philadelphia-based consultancy reported that 58 percent of the country’s 200 highest-revenue-grossing firms have created such a position, an increase of 8 percent from last year.

A flurry of universities and big companies also have added diversity directors in recent years. Wellpoint Inc. and Clarian are among local firms with such a position.

While diversity has crept into the corporate vernacular the past few decades, more companies began to take a longer look in the mirror after the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, which left Indianapolis in 2004, published “Workforce 2020” in 1997. The think tank’s report predicted that, between 2004 and 2015, more than half the net work-force growth in the United States would be from Hispanics and Asians.

As companies compete for talent and customers, they realize that hiring women and minorities is more of a strategy than a matter of fairness, said Jesse Moore, Purdue University’s manager of supplier diversity development. He is a former executive director of the Indianapolis Black Chamber of Commerce as well.

“The best way to hold onto our market share, or position ourselves to gain market share, is to make our staff look like our customers,” he said. “So what is happening over the years is, more and more companies have come to realize that diversity is more than just a social program.”

More than race, religion

On top of that, experts say diversity encompasses much more than basic race, religion and gender issues. In fact, David Lewis, a diversity coach and consultant in Bloomington, Ill., who does work in Indiana, lists at least 14 tenets, ranging from age and education to demographics and socio-economic status.

Yet, when the topic of diversity is broached, most employees “want to shoot themselves in the head” rather than attend mandatory training sessions, Lewis said. That’s why it is particularly important to have a diversity coordinator who has the skills to get everyone within the organization to buy into the program, he said.

Horvath, at Baker & Daniels, so far has coordinated 16 such sessions with Bostonbased Novations Group Inc. at the two local offices as well as at the firm’s locations in Fort Wayne, South Bend and Washington, D.C. With 232 lawyers and 497 employees in Indianapolis alone, she makes a strong case for the need.

“It’s not a matter that belongs to just the lawyers, but everyone,” said Horvath, 35, who leads a litany of diversity initiatives.

She earned a law degree in 2002 from the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis and was the Indiana State Bar Association’s director of sessions before coming to Baker & Daniels.

On-the-job training

Any education Horvath’s received relating to diversity has come on the job, which, for positions like these, seems to be a normal route, judging from the experiences of others in similar jobs.

Steve Jones has been director of recruitment, staffing and diversity at Clarian Health, the state’s largest hospital system, for more than two years. Yet, the system that operates Riley Hospital for Children, as well as Indiana University and Methodist hospitals, has employed a diversity coordinator since the early 1990s.

Jones, 42, spent four years as director of affirmative action and minority affairs for the state of Indiana before joining Methodist in 1993. He spent 12 years as human resources director of Indianapolisbased M-Plan before returning to Clarian in February 2006. He concurred with Horvath, noting his experience has come from on-the-job training.

With minority employment at the three locations nearing 30 percent, Jones’ focus is to create a pipeline of candidates to ensure the system’s work force continues to reflect the populations it treats. The aim is to interview candidates while they’re still students, so when vacancies occur, they’ll already be in the pipeline.

Combined, the three downtown hospitals field 2,000 requests a month for interpreters, Jones said.

“We want staff that is culturally sensitive to the patients we serve,” he said. “To do that, it starts with the employment piece, but it also entails weaving diversity into everything we do.”

Clarian is one of five sponsors of the Diversity Leadership Academy of Greater Indianapolis, a project done in conjunction with Atlanta, Ga.-based American Institute for Managing Diversity.

‘Smart business’

WellPoint launched the program here in 2003 and, as one would expect, has a diversity director. She is Linda Jimenez, 54, who assumed the role about a year ago from David L. Casey. He helped launch the position in 2005.

The insurer received former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson’s Diversity Award in 2007 and has garnered national recognition from online magazine DiversityInc by being selected to its list of the Top 50 companies for diversity.

Jimenez spent 20 years as a labor and employment law attorney and previously was chief diversity officer for Dallas-based Accor North America, a chain of hotels that include Studio 6 and Motel 6.

WellPoint’s diverse membership, as well as its presence in 14 states, makes diversity training a critical part of the company’s message, Jimenez said. One of its efforts is known as the Ambassadors program, in which a select number of employees in each location is chosen from an application process to create diversity initiatives, programs or events specific to the location.

“Making [employees] feel respected and valued really creates a multitude of innovative and creative thinking,” Jimenez said, “which ultimately drives your success in the marketplace.”

Indeed, a study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia estimated the national buying power of Latinos at $860 billion, blacks at $840 billion, Asians at $459 billion, gays and lesbians at $280 billion, and American Indians at $49 billion.

Figures like those are enough to convince Lewis, the Bloomington, Ill., consultant, that more companies will find value in hiring a diversity director.

“The bottom line is, you would like to think they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said, “but they’re doing it because it’s smart business.”

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