Setting the Stage for Corporate Change : Diversity: Actors help Xerox Corp. develop a program to teach its managers how to lead a multicultural work force.
The scene onstage: “Charles Henderson,” a Xerox manager, is explaining to “Gloria Reed,” a young black engineer, his decision to name another employee--a white man like himself--to a project to which she had hoped to be assigned.
And, oh yes, one other thing: Gloria is going to be sharing a work space with a clerical worker, who also happens to be a black woman.
Was this art imitating life?
If so, the Xerox Corp. wants to make some changes. The company, in cooperation with Cornell University’s Theater Arts Outreach Group, is introducing an innovative approach to coach its managers in managing diversity.
The goal: A balanced work force that will use the skills and talents of men and women of different ages and ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
About 100 managers from the El Segundo facility gathered in a hotel ballroom in Manhattan Beach earlier this week for what was more or less a command performance: They were expected to attend and to participate.
Occasional laughter and a few groans from the audience indicated that the actors, who had been thoroughly schooled in “Xeroxese,” were hitting the mark with their characterizations of myopic managers of the “old boy network.”
“They’ve captured our language. They’ve captured our subtleties. They look and they sound like Xeroids,” says Deborah Smith, vice president, human resources and support services.
Managers, she says, “can talk about the actors without feeling personal guilt. They can look in the mirror, but they don’t have to deal with the mirror itself.”
According to Carole Cornall, who heads Xerox’s affirmative action program, the company is experimenting with theater because it found traditional lectures and videotaped presentations limited in their effectiveness.
Theater is a natural approach, says Janet Salmons-Rue, who directs the Cornell acting group. “These are not intellectual problems. These are problems that have a deep emotional component.”
“If we stood up and tried to lecture people, they’re just going to turn off and glaze over,” says Salmons-Rue, who takes notes during the skits, duly recording questions from the audience. As carefully as the actors had been rehearsed, the questions are the one unpredictable element.
Although the Cornell troupe has made similar presentations for academia and government, Xerox is its first corporate client.
Scene 1: “The Glass Ceiling.” “Patricia,” a 30-something dressed-for-success lower level management type, is being interviewed by “Donald” for promotion to a more responsible job.
Donald, a middle-aged man in a conservative blue suit, wonders whether “an attractive woman like yourself” might “find it uncomfortable” to supervise a group of men. He hopes she is “not too sensitive.” He calls her “Patty.” And, as his parting salvo, he asks, “What does your husband do?”
The actors, staying in character, then field questions from the real-life managers. They want to know: Why did you call her “Patty”? How did she feel about that? Actor Judy Levitt, who played the applicant, replies that she had wondered for a moment, “Does he want me to call him ‘Donny’?”
Why was Patricia asked about her husband’s job? Well, says actor Max Fury, defending his character, “That was an off-the-record question, out in the hall. . . .”
A man in the audience confronts Patricia, asking, “After that brief and rather condescending interview, would you actually want the job?” She replies: “I hate to say it, but I do.” It was a good opportunity, she adds, and maybe things would change once she was there.
The format calls for group discussions after each skit. One table of eight, pretty diverse itself, includes three Anglo men, two Anglo women, a Middle Eastern man, an Asian-American man and a black man, Roger Miller, a Xerox human resource manager.
Bill Wareing, who is British, says: “I thought she’d have been better off looking for another job, myself. . . . She didn’t have a chance (of being promoted).”
JoAnn Wagnon Parks agrees: “It wasn’t like he wanted to make it work.” But, she adds, “I thought she was a little wimpy, frankly.” What did the men think, she wondered--should she have come on a little stronger?
Middle Easterner Sami Neino suggests, “You could tick somebody off if you come on too strong.” Says Parks, “If they’re too strong, they’re called bitches. If they’re not strong enough, they’re called wimps.”
Brian Segnit wasn’t sure that was valid criticism. He points out that men get the same criticism; they tend to get classified either as “wimps” or “sons of bitches.”
During an interview, Parks says, a woman needs to say, “I’m your equal, I’m not intimidated, I’m not afraid. I’m not going to be walked on” and “you’re going to get the absolute best.”
What of Donald’s interviewing technique? Linda Kranen says she would have loved to have answered that last question about Patricia’s husband. She’d have said, “Oh, he’s a househusband and takes care of my kids.”
Quips Wareing: “Or, ‘He’s your boss.’ ”
Scene 2: “Midnight Oil.” A longtime employee, “Larry,” now in his mid-40s, gets the word from “Anne,” his boss, that he has not been selected for an up-the-ladder training seminar. Larry, who describes himself as a workhorse, is stunned to learn that he is seen by others as a plodder.
In the Q and A session that follows, members of the audience take Larry to task for being namby-pamby, a Milquetoast. But his boss is castigated for not having communicated with Larry in the past and her motives in holding him down are questioned: Is it possible she just doesn’t want to lose this workhorse?
Then comes a table discussion. Roger Miller, to get things going, asks what mistakes the group thought Anne had made. Kranen sympathized with poor Larry: “I recognize the Midwestern Puritan ethnic.”
Being “caring human beings” was not considered necessary in the old school of management, Segnit says. Parks observes that a busy manager is apt to overlook the worker bees: “It’s much easier to see the hard chargers.”
Yes, says Segnit, but companies also need the plodders, people who entrust their careers to good managers. That may be out of step with today’s society, he adds, “but is it a bad value?” He questions an attitude seemingly widespread in the young generation of workers that dictates, “If I can’t make $100,000 a year in eight years, I’m out of here.”
Scene 3: “The Invisible Barrier.” Gloria, the black engineer, played by actor Chiffonye Cobb, confronts corporate reality.
Questioned by the audience about his treatment of Gloria, Charles, her manager, explains, “Gloria’s someone I want to handle with kid gloves” so as to avoid “setting her up to fail.”
Gloria, asked how she felt, says, “My morale is in the gutter.” She adds: “What he doesn’t see is I’m part of that changing work force, and he’s got to deal with it. . . . I’m not coming. I’m here .”
Well, she concludes, “I don’t have to stay here. . . . I’m black and I’m a woman. IBM and Kodak would pay me good money to find out what’s going on behind Xerox’s closed doors.”
Charles, also played by Fury, defends himself. “I think it’s obvious my company has problems retaining black women,” he says, and he fears the “backlash” if Gloria is given added responsibility and fails. He adds: “It’s hard to get them and, once you get them, it’s hard to keep them.”
A woman in the audience expresses her indignation that Gloria was to share a cubicle with a clerical worker. Explains Charles: “I wanted to make her feel comfortable. . . . I thought it would be advantageous to her to be with someone her own color, another woman. . . .”
But didn’t he recognize that Gloria is an honors graduate of an engineering school? Yes, says Charles, but “I’ve got to say, she came from a Southern agricultural school.”
How was Charles planning to deal with Gloria’s being upset? Well, he says, “A hungry fish is a happy fish, that’s the way I look at it. . . .”
During table discussion, racism is a central theme. Segnit says of Charles, “I don’t think he is a bad man, a racist. I think he has good intentions gone radically awry.” Wareing has the impression Charles was a “passive racist.”
Kranen suggests that “the protection thing” is a management weapon that’s used against women in general, not just blacks, and it protects them not only from failure but from chances for advancement.
Let’s face it, Parks says, in American society racism is transmitted “by osmosis. . . . It’s not like this guy has it and we don’t. This guy is, like, Mr. Typical.”
“You just read my mind,” says Neino, who is married to a Latina.
Kranen says she sees a widespread attitude among managers: “My God, she’s black. If she has any complaints, No. 1, I’ll never get rid of her and, No. 2, she’ll make my life miserable.”
What of “reverse discrimination,” Segnit wonders. “I have had white males come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m being discriminated against!’ ”
Gloria will stay a short while on the treadmill, Wareing predicts, “and then she’ll step off.” Segnit nods, adding, “and then this guy’s going to have a self-fulfilling prophecy on his hands.”
Miller confirms: “We’ve had a high exodus of black female engineers” from the company. “The IBMs and the Kodaks come along and pick them up.” Typically, he says, these women run across a manager like Charles and “they balk.”
By the way, he adds, “They’re not coming from agricultural colleges. They’re coming from the best schools in the country.”
Scene 4: “The Outsider.” “Carlos,” a longtime employee, has just been promoted to management. The work group he is joining is not convinced he will fit in nor that he was best qualified.
As the scene opens, Carlos, played by Ruben Castro Ilizaliturri, is on the telephone, talking animatedly in Spanish. As the group awaits his arrival, the senior manager, Richard, prepares them: “I think it’s what they call affirmative action.”
The only woman in the work group observes that people who speak a foreign language in the workplace make her nervous: “I can’t help but wonder if they’re saying something they don’t want me to hear.” Her colleague adds, “Well, when they’re speaking English, you can’t understand them. . . .”
During the audience Q and A, Richard acknowledges that having an employee speak Spanish “grates on me.” Why, he asks, doesn’t he improve his English?
Furthermore, Carlos had come to his first group meeting with a request, an action Richard thought just a bit “bold.”
Later, the discussion group analyzes Carlos’ situation. Neino speaks of the general expectation that Latinos are meant “to be janitors or busboys. I see myself looking at them (this way). . . . There’s so many of them doing these kinds of jobs,” especially in Los Angeles.
Wareing, who has an English accent, laughs and says, “If (Richard) were my manager, I’d probably have a little bit of a problem.” No, Parks says, “Americans think anybody with that accent is more intelligent and they’re honest.”
Miller says: “I wonder when we’re going to start hearing rappers. I can’t understand rappers.”
These real-life managers talk about stereotypes. “The only six Hispanic men I’ve ever seen together were clearing my dishes. . . . We’re so myopic,” Parks says.
What should Carlos do to help his own cause? Segnit says wryly: “If I were Carlos, I’d learn to play racquetball.”