Diversifying the IT department

Businesses strive to incorporate minorities into the workforce.

IT departments seek ways to diversify and include more members of minority groups and women.

During the holiday season, a big Christmas tree is displayed at the Prospect Heights, Ill., headquarters of HSBC North America. But the tree isn't the only symbol of celebration featured in the atrium of the financial services company's main office; a Hanukkah candle and a presentation honoring the celebration of Kwanzaa also are on view. This is one of the many ways that HSBC reinforces its culturally diverse workforce, where 17.4% of managers at its 3,400-employee IT department are ethnic minorities.

It appears that HSBC is bucking the trend. According to a study released in June by the Information Technology Association of America, women and most racial minorities are significantly under represented in today's U.S. IT workforce. The percentage of women in the IT workforce has declined by 18.5% since 1996 to 32.4% in 2004. (At HSBC, 27% of IT management are female.)

The report also says that the percentage of African-Americans in the IT workplace has declined to 8.3% in 2004 from 9.1% in 1996, while the percentage of Hispanics in the IT workforce rose from 6.4% in 1996 to 12.9% in 2004.

Despite these figures, HSBC is one of many companies that are actively encouraging a diverse workforce. "Major banks and retailers know that their customer base is diverse and they want their workforce to look like their customers and to be able to relate to them," says Bev Lieberman, president at IT search firm Halbrecht Lieberman Associates.

Linda Reed

This is being played out at Scripps Networks, which produces television networks, including HGTV, Food Network and DIY Network. Under an initiative formalized last year, 5% of the bonus of senior managers, including Ron Johnson, Scripps Networks vice president of IT, is tied to their success in hiring and attracting viable job candidates who are ethnic minorities and/or are women.

Of Scripps' 57 IT employees, 25 are women and six are ethnic minorities. Of its 13 IT workers who are managers, five are female and one is an ethnic minority. Johnson says the company wants to improve on those figures as positions open up, but "it has been a challenge because we are located in Knoxville [Tenn.]; more so than if we were located in New York or Los Angeles where there is a naturally broader profile" of diverse potential candidates.

To improve its potential to attract a diverse workforce, Scripps hired Lenore Washington-Graham, an African-American woman, as vice president of strategic resourcing, a unit of human resources spearheading the diversity drive. She flies the Scripps flag at conventions aimed at Hispanics and African-Americans with a master's of business administration (MBA), while HR places job advertisements on minority Web sites.

"There are certain types of IT jobs where it is easier than others to hire minorities, such as in desktop support and help desk, but as you go up the skills ladder, it gets more difficult," Johnson says.

To help widen the candidate pool, Scripps will relocate minority candidates for below-director-level jobs.

Unlike Scripps, HSBC does not relocate new recruits, and so at its 28 remote IT units in less ethnically diverse areas, such as in Buffalo, N.Y., the IT teams reflect their surrounding areas, says Mike Woodward, vice president of HR in HSBC's IT services department. "But we do proactive things like fund the HSBC Chicago chapter of the Black Data Processing Associates , and employees attend local meetings," he says. HSBC hiring managers also are actively involved with the National Black MBA Association, National Society of Hispanic MBAs and Inroads, a non-profit that trains and develops minority youths.

Hiring more women in the IT team is a top priority for Linda Reed, vice president and CIO at Atlantic Health System, which operates three hospitals in New Jersey. During her 19 years in healthcare, Reed, a registered nurse, moved up the ranks from the hospital bedside to the CIO office.

Since joining Atlantic as CIO a year ago, Reed has been encouraging clinicians - most of whom are women - to transfer to IT as business analysts. Of Atlantic's 140-employee IT department, 30% are business analysts, the majority of whom are women. This compares to just a handful of women in the department when Reed joined, she says. But there is still a dearth of women candidates for the more technical IT jobs, such as networking and telecom, Reed says.

"Healthcare is traditionally a female-dominated profession, because many are nurses," Reed says. "If you look at my IT department, we do have more women because they came out of the hospitals. The most important thing is to be able to tie together business and IT."

Reed acknowledges that for some clinicians, moving into IT was scary. "We encouraged them to look at the growth opportunity. It's taking nursing and enhancing it in different ways. You need clinical people to understand how [patient care] works. It's the next-generation of clinical services - healthcare information will become electronic," she says.

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