January 17, 2012

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Article

Embracing Diversity

Local Companies Support Differences in the Workplace

Peri Kinder

January 17, 2012

When Bart LeFan moved from Nashville to Salt Lake City more than two years ago, he wasn’t quite sure what to expect. He’d heard all the stereotypes about Utah regarding polygamy, incomprehensible liquor laws, the dominant religion and the conservative nature of the state—and he’d heard there might be some good skiing. But with the great opportunity for growth in the health care industry in the state, LeFan took a leap and relocated anyway. LeFan is currently working as a clinical business manager at the University of Utah and has no plans to leave the state anytime soon. “I hadn’t planned on staying,” LeFan says. “I thought I’d be here two years, get my degree and move on. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised.” Recruiting diverse, college-educated professionals from out of state is a constant struggle for Utah employers. Fighting stereotypical misconceptions about the state, big companies like Zions Bank, Rio Tinto and American Express are bringing in talented and diverse young people, and encouraging them to share new ideas with the business community. Roger Tsai is another recent transplant to Salt Lake, working as an attorney at Parsons, Behle and Latimer. With his Taiwanese heritage and dedication to the Asian community, Tsai served as president of the Utah Asian Chamber of Commerce, helping promote social, economic and business interaction. He has lived in other “interesting and difficult places” but believes residents need to accept that Utah has a rapidly growing diverse population, making the state a more interesting place to live. “I think Utah is strangely insular,” Tsai says. “People who live here have lived here most of their lives. I think it’s a positive thing that creates strong communities and strong families, but what it also creates is a place where there’s not really constant movement of new ideas and breaking traditions.” Supporting Differences Diversity isn’t just about ethnicity or national origin; its characteristics include religion, sex, age, disability, veteran status and sexual orientation. Embracing diversity in the workplace is about appreciating the uniqueness that each individual brings to the company. Successful employers understand that new ideas create better business concepts and people with different life experiences can bring a lot to the table. To encourage and support Utah companies to increase diversity in the workplace, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. partnered with Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon to create the Utah Diversity Connections (UDC) group. The organization consists of some of Utah’s largest employers along with the University of Utah, business chambers and multiple government agencies. Convincing companies of the value of diversity is a major obstacle the group encounters. But with more businesses operating at national and global levels, an employee pool with a mixture of educational experiences, environmental situations, personal history and training is a must. Bryan Eldredge, associate director at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah, explains, “You need to have employees from a variety of different backgrounds. It just makes for a better workplace that’s more connected to the consumer.” Tsai volunteers with UDC and recently sent out a survey to employers in the city asking for best practices and policies for recruiting and retaining diverse employees. The response was sparse, making Tsai wonder if Utah companies understand the importance of diversity. “If we want Salt Lake to be a world-class city, we have to attract top talent to the state—and that includes diverse talent,” says Tsai. In June, the UDC teamed up with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to host a diversity seminar. More than 200 participants, mostly human resource professionals, attended the seminar and learned about topics like how to reach out to ethnic communities, how to help recruits adjust to the state’s culture and environment, and how increasing diversity can also help increase a company’s bottom line. “We hope to train human resource employees and talk to HR people about creating a more welcoming environment for people who are diverse,” Tsai says. “Obviously we’re not going to change it overnight but we have to be honest with the challenges in trying to change what we’ve got right now.” At the conference, the UDC awarded the first Utah Diversity Awards to O.C. Tanner and Marriott’s Summit Watch for their efforts to recognize and encourage diversity—particularly for the way the two companies have embraced Utah’s refugee community by hiring many refugees. “I think there are a lot of employers who are perhaps tired of the 1990 mentality of an affirmative action-type program,” Tsai says. “[The awards] are more of a carrot to say there can be diverse employers in Utah. We know it’s difficult to find folks who are diverse, but here’s how these folks went about doing it and we just want to recognize those individuals.” Working Together Although the state is becoming more diverse, several big companies in Utah still need to go out-of-state to hire professional employees with diverse backgrounds. The challenge is breaking down stereotypes to sell Salt Lake, and other Utah cities, as a place that’s different from other cities in the country—and as a place that would be fun to live in. “It’s different from New York City, it’s different from L.A., it’s different from Atlanta,” Tsai says. “It’s a place where you can find yourself, where your true character can shine. Where, if you’re hard-working and industrious, you can make a difference.” Emphasizing the strong points about Utah, including the state’s high volunteer rate, helps alleviate uneasiness young people might have about moving to the area. Focusing on the many ethnic festivals, arts programs, outdoor activities, quality of life and the variety of religious opportunities lets recruits see Utah’s highlights. Zions Bank is a leader in hiring and fostering relationships with ethnic communities. Margarita Angelo, an HR recruiter for Zions and member of UDC, creates programs to help their ethnic customers feel more comfortable when dealing with financial issues. With ESL classes, job fairs, ethnic festivals, tuition reimbursement and job skills seminars, Angelo says Zions’ interaction with the Hispanic community has increased by leaps and bounds. Zions will soon introduce an Asian initiative intended to create a similar connection with the Asian community in Utah. “I think having diversified employees brings a community together,” Angelo says. “It brings new ideas and everyone needs new ideas and different ways of thinking. Just imagine if we bring all this diversity into one place.” Zions’ employee training workshops help people from other countries understand the interview process in the United States, including how to fill out resumes, how to handle a face-to-face interview, and helps them brush up on their English skills. A special ESL class aids employees who might have a degree from another country, but can’t speak the language here. And an intense four-month course helps people learn conversational English to land them a job. Building Community UDC recently launched a new Web resource through the Salt Lake Chamber’s website that provides new recruits with information about the state. The site addresses issues related to the challenges of moving to Utah including information about schools, neighborhoods, demographics, religious groups and perspectives from people who have relocated to Utah—and survived. “It’s funny how out-of-staters will gravitate toward each other in common suffering,” Tsai says. “Moving to Utah or Salt Lake has been like going back in time—for both better and for worse—to a place where people are nice to each other, to a place where the biggest controversy is whether we’re going to build a sky bridge.” Tsai and Eldredge agree that, like it or not, the global community is coming to Utah. Companies that embrace diversity will thrive while those who don’t could become stagnant in their industries. With a focus on Utah’s strengths, UDC hopes to attract people to the state who will infuse the economy with diverse thoughts, programs, attitudes and policies. “Salt Lake City is really a hidden gem,” LeFan says. “It has all of the great things of a great city without all of the hassles that comes with it.”
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