Diversifying away from the white, male, middle-aged manager

Computer giant Hewlett-Packard believes discrimination adds up to a waste of talent. Roger Trapp reports

Early next month, Lew Platt, president and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, will visit the California-based computer and office-equipment company's UK headquarters at Bracknell, Berkshire, to present three out of only five quality awards that he is making in the world this year.

With such a clear recognition of the British business's contribution to the continuing success of a group that last year achieved worldwide revenues of $38.4bn, it might be understandable if it just basked in the glory.

But Mr Platt will find an operation in the midst of a transformation that John Golding, UK chairman and managing director, is convinced will effect the company's "very survival". The initiative in question revolves around the quest for diversity - a concept that has increasingly preoccupied managers and consultants as a result primarily of demographic changes that are putting more women and ethnic minorities into the workforce.

Concern about discrimination by race or sex has dogged companies for the past couple of decades at least, but Alison McDermott, one of the executives leading the programme, stresses that, while earlier efforts were morally or legally motivated, the current push results from business need.

Companies are realising that by excluding certain people or barring them from promotion they risk missing opportunities and not making the best use of the talents at their disposal.

Many observers might be surprised to hear that this is seen as a problem for Hewlett-Packard - which is as well known for the management principles espoused in "The HP Way" as for the sustained performance over the half- century since it was founded in a garage in what is now California's Silicon Valley.

But a review of the organisation recently carried out by occupational psychologists Pearn Kandola as part of the first stage of the diversity programme revealed hitherto unrealised problems.

Women, in particular, felt left out by a company that, according to one respondent, held meetings at "silly times" and was inflexible about family needs. It was even felt that the culture encouraged by the HP Way subconsciously created "HP clones".

Mr Golding - one of a group of senior executives to have gone through a training programme that followed the audit - has become "evangelical" about the issue to the point of saying that he is deeply worried that every member of the European management team is like him - middle-aged, white, Anglo-Saxon and male. Consequently, when it came to gaining different points of view and opinions all bar one must be redundant.

Emphasising that the programme - which has already been under way in the United States for some time - will become as central and all-pervasive as quality has become over the years, Ms McDermott says that great efforts are being made to impress on staff that it is not a "flavour of the month" and that it will take a long time to implement fully.

But in the meantime, she and her colleagues are demonstrating that they mean business by reinforcing rules against harassment, studying improvements to recruitment and promotion processes and spreading the message through special employee publications and training events.

While she expects there to be some who will be sceptical to the end, she stresses that the moves are not about positive discrimination and that well-qualified male managers have nothing to fear.

And though the strong culture at the company might ostensibly make it difficult to embrace a wider cross-section of people, Ms McDermott is convinced that the HP Way produces an advantage over other companies.

Treating people fairly and with respect creates an effective platform, she says. Mr Golding adds that, though the refinement of the company's values amounts to a "fundamental change in the way we work, think and interact with each other", he is convinced this will make the organisation more competitive - essential if it is to continue to grow at the 20 per cent a year to which it has become accustomed.

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