Acceptance of Gays, Lesbians Is A Big Part of Kodak’s Diversity Picture

By Todd Henneman

Dec. 6, 2004

Laura Brooks, a former regional manager for logistics at Eastman Kodak Co., recalls her first inkling that the workplace might feel hostile for gay co-workers.

    The company was conducting a culture audit of the warehouse and distribution operation and took pains to ensure anonymity when planning a focus group of gay employees. A consultant, not someone from Kodak, would facilitate the meeting. It would be held off-site so co-workers wouldn’t see participants. And invitations would be sent through the gay employee resource group.

    “Despite all of the effort to maintain confidentiality and to do it in a way we thought would be safe for people, nobody came,” says Brooks, now operations manager for Kodak’s engineer design center. “That was our first data point.”

    To understand what gay employees might be facing, Kodak asked other focus groups–based on everything from years of service to race–whether they thought that they had any gay co-workers and whether gay jokes were part of the usual workplace banter. “It validated that there was a pretty good dose of harassment,” says Brooks, who became involved in gay diversity programs at Kodak after her best friend and co-worker came out as a lesbian, telling Brooks that keeping the secret had been a burden to her.

    “We had made some progress on gender and race in our community,” Brooks says, but harassment toward gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender employees “still was rampant.”

    Brooks worked with peers at Kodak to curb harassment and educate employees about their “GLBT” co-workers. The acronym stands for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. The last is a blanket term for transsexuals and others who cross gender lines.

    Unlike managers in some organizations, Brooks had ample resources to achieve her goals. Kodak offers a novel approach to diversity training and a wide range of programs. The company has not one but five education programs that address workplace inclusion of GLBT employees. They’re available to any work group in or near Rochester, New York–from the senior management team in Kodak’s world headquarters to the third shift in the sprawling Kodak Park manufacturing complex.

    CEO Dan Carp has declared diversity as a business imperative as the company cultivates teamwork, and the GLBT initiatives are just one part of a comprehensive effort encompassing myriad dimensions of diversity. Employees risk termination for practicing any kind of discrimination or harassment, and Kodak has fired employees who have acted counter to its GLBT policies. Managers emphasize, however, that attending the gay-awareness programs is voluntary. The training complements a workplace strategy Kodak calls its Winning and Inclusive Culture, which outlines the basis of teamwork and serves as the social foundation of the Kodak Operating System, the company’s lean-manufacturing framework.

    “If you don’t have a workplace that is free of harassment, free of mistrust and free of disrespect, the teamwork that leads to breakthrough ideas–the creativity (that fuels) the productivity solutions–isn’t going to occur,” says David Kassnoff, manager of communications and public relations.

    The result: The company has eliminated waste and improved productivity in manufacturing and finance, Kassnoff says, though he declines to provide statistics or specifics because of competitive reasons.

    Kodak’s commitment to diversity also helps it attract and retain a diverse workforce, Kassnoff says. The company’s efforts have earned it a perfect score on the Corporate Equality Index published annually by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights organization. And Kodak executives believe that providing equitable treatment toward gay employees makes Kodak products more appealing to the 14.2 million domestic gay consumers, who tend to be brand-loyal.

    “They clearly are doing a lot of things right,” says Selisse Berry, executive director of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, a nonprofit organization that supports GLBT workers and has honored Kodak for its inclusive policies. “The fact that Kodak is in Rochester, New York, also speaks volumes for the work that they’re doing, because they’re not in a huge metropolitan area where (GLBT programs at work are) ho-hum. It still is a big deal in Rochester, New York. And it is a very, very old and traditional company.”

Biases persist
    Whether in liberal metropolitan areas or more conservative communities, national attitudes about working with and for gay men and lesbians have remained relatively consistent in recent years, painting a mixed picture of workplace coexistence among gay and straight workers.

    In July, marketing firm Witeck-Combs Communications and research firm Harris Interactive surveyed 2,242 Americans, 6 percent of whom self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Forty percent of GLBT respondents said they were treated fairly and equally in their workplaces, echoing results from 2002, while 22 percent of heterosexuals–the same share as in 2003–said they would be uncomfortable working with GLBT co-workers. It’s hardly easy terrain for employers, who are trying to hire and keep the best employees, regardless of their sexual preferences.

    “Corporations understand the value of making sure they can attract the best and brightest workers,” says Wesley Combs, president of Witeck-Combs, which specializes in marketing to the GLBT community. “In order to have the best and brightest, they have to create an environment that respects all people, regardless of sexual orientation, race, family structure.”

    Much of Kodak’s training to create such an environment was developed after employees formed the Lambda Network, a gay employee resource group, with the encouragement of George M.C. Fisher, then-president and CEO of Kodak. In 1995, the group held the first Lambda Network Education Event, a night of skits and speakers focusing on gay workplace issues. “The president of the company asked senior leaders to attend,” says Patti McGory, president of the 100-member Lambda Network. “It ended up being an extremely favorable turnout and a great event. We have benefited from it since that day. Each president of Kodak has been extremely supportive.”

    The company’s commitment to its GLBT employees occasionally causes some consumers to stop buying its products. “Frankly, we don’t get a lot of those e-mails,” says Kassnoff, adding that such objections have not created a business issue. “When we do, it usually comes as a result of some misinformation published on someone’s Web site.”

    Activists from fundamentalist organizations such as Concerned Women for America, which denounced these diversity programs as supporting “ghastly” consequences, have criticized Kodak for offering domestic-partner benefits. But the accolades the company has received “far outweigh the occasional criticisms,” Kassnoff says.

    One of the first places any Kodak employee hears about sexual orientation is a series of presentations called the 52 Weeks: Diversity in Action Conversation Series, administered worldwide by Kodak’s global diversity and community affairs office. The series explains the company’s mission, the business case for diversity and its corporate values of respecting and valuing differences, including sexual orientation. “It’s sort of an entrée to GLBT issues,” says Antonia Bernard, director of diversity initiatives. Kodak seeks an “inclusive environment in which employees leverage diversity to achieve company business goals.”

    Departments can request a more in-depth session called “Can We Talk?” “It was the brainchild of a couple of Lambda members who thought about how they might create a safe environment for individuals to learn about GLBT issues and ask all of the questions that they may have been afraid to ask,” says Lambda’s McGory, a finance director at Kodak. “It continues to be our most powerful education tool.”

    In addition to answering questions, McGory and others share personal stories such as the extra anxiety they’ve experienced when starting new jobs, unsure how they would be treated because of their sexual orientation. “It’s made a huge difference in my life, in my being able to feel comfortable talking about my family and issues that affect me with people in the workplace,” says McGory, who joined Kodak three and a half years ago. “It is safe to be who you are, and the opportunity to grow here is equal for all.”

    Kodak also offers “advocate training,” a nine-day session that includes workshops on such topics as developing awareness of racism and sexism. One day focuses on how straight employees can become allies for their GLBT peers. Graduates are offered magnets to display which indicate that GLBT colleagues should feel safe coming out to them and turning to them for help.

Fun but informative
    One of the newest additions to the portfolio of GLBT education programs is modeled after the game show “Hollywood Squares.” Straight and gay peers sit next to, above and below one another on a portable set built out of pipes, curtains and risers to create the giant tic-tac-toe board. An emcee asks the nine “stars” questions such as “What percentage of the approximately 64,000 worldwide Kodak employees are estimated to be gay or lesbian?” and “What percentage of Fortune 500 companies offer health-care coverage to domestic partners of employees?” Managers call it fun but informative.

    All of the training was developed in-house, guided by the Lambda Network. Kodak conducts its Diversity in Action Conversation Series globally and will begin offering its advocate training to global operations in 2005. General Motors Corp. and several other companies have emulated Kodak’s approach to GLBT training, particularly the “Can We Talk?” sessions.

    Kodak logistics manager Brooks and her team tapped all of the GLBT resources available after seeing the warehouse’s culture audit. “We started at the top with our leaders,” Brooks says. “Then we developed an ally base. Then we went to the shop floor and provided a GLBT 101 in the ‘Hollywood Squares’ game-show format, and we delivered that to our shop floor across all three shifts.” The education used internal resources. All associates undergo renewal training each year.

    Informal follow-up surveys have provided what Brooks calls “a cautiously optimistic sense that things are getting better. We’ve also had three people in leadership positions come out and begin functioning as out-of-the-closet leaders in our community. They clearly are in a different place than they were before we started our GLBT education journey as an organization.” wƒm

Workforce Management, December 2004, po. 68-70Subscribe Now!

Todd Henneman is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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