April 16, 1995 in Business

Pitney Bowes Puts Priority On Diversity Company Reaps Benefits From ‘Affirmative Attitude’ Program

Arlene Levinson Associated Press
 

Each month, a report lands on the desk of George Harvey, tracking progress of women and minorities at the world’s leading postage-meter maker.

But please don’t call this affirmative action.

“I hate goals. I hate affirmative action,” said Harvey, the cheerful, 63-year-old cherub in pinstripes who runs Pitney Bowes. “That’s not our intent, what we’re calling diversity.”

Don’t call it affirmative action, but Pitney Bowes follows government guidelines, flagging some job openings as “goals” - meaning a woman or minority is preferred.

And the company goes further. Senior managers earn bonuses for meeting diversity plan aims. When a manager had trouble finding qualified candidates for a job, she cultivated her own - opening training slots she hoped would draw ambitious women and minorities.

Just don’t call it affirmative action.

This is one reason affirmative action eludes definition: The term is so loaded with negative connotations that even people at Pitney Bowes - a company that crusades for diversity - disdain it.

Yet spend a few days at the company’s Connecticut headquarters and you’ll see what supporters would call affirmative action at its best. This is not a program of hard numbers and hard hearts; this is a humane, sincere effort, motivated by pragmatism.

“I’m looking for skill. I believe that women, minorities and white males all have skills,” Harvey said. “That’s what I believe.”

How George Harvey became a convert to diversity had nothing to do with government guidelines, social pressure or the threat of bias lawsuits.

Money made him do it, he says.

Long before Harvey’s tenure, Pitney Bowes had a progressive history on matters of race. “Are we carrying our quota of colored people at the plant?” Walter Wheeler, president of the company, asked one of his executives in a 1944 memo.

Wheeler said he wanted to “employ the same percentage of colored workers as there were of the population of Stamford. … (If) we do not have what appears to be our quota, take steps to bring it in line immediately.”

Nearly 40 years later, in 1983, Harvey moved into the office once held by Wheeler. He cast his sights far past Stamford and spied a new world.

The company had grown. It now has 32,000 employees bringing in $3.3 billion in sales, and ranks 141 among the Fortune 500.

Pitney Bowes’ marketplace now spanned the Earth. More kinds of people were doing business. And besides new technical skills, Harvey saw the new market required a new way of relating. In particular, he noticed women.

“Women were coming into the work force, mainly driven by the need to make more money. I really liked that!” Harvey said.

This revelation came clear when he went out to meet his sales force. The men, he noticed, seemed smug and comfortable. By contrast, the women, he said, “were excited about learning to get more business, to make more money.”

Harvey decided he needed more women in his company, and he wanted them in the leadership. Blacks and people in other racial minorities were swept along, extra beneficiaries of this insight.

“The women really kicked that off,” Harvey recalled. “We didn’t want to leave anyone out, so we got into diversity.”

His first, crucial step was organizing a group of women and minorities from across the company. He asked them to brainstorm and tell him what was needed to improve their opportunities.

Initially, employees say, Pitney Bowes fell into the numbers trap, placing people in jobs they could not perform.

Carla Chamblee remembers. Now 36, Chamblee’s been promoted about eight times since joining the company in 1983 as a parts and supply clerk and expecting to make use of her college degree in marketing.

Now a project leader in business systems planning, Chamblee, who is black, was doubtful about some of the management when she started. “I saw people moving into a position without a degree, the good old boy, or just slotting. I saw that era,” she said.

Then about the late ‘80s, Chamblee said, she noticed more selectivity, a pickiness that continues. “They basically now are trying to get the best.”

Instituted over the past four years, the diversity plan at Pitney Bowes is as much philosophy as prescription. You might call it affirmative attitude. In its concrete form, diversity starts with finding the best people from a large pool of candidates and then offering all staff support and training.

Mentors guide the ambitious, offering advice and contacts higher up. Internal training, seminars and subsidized college courses promote individual growth and cooperation.

Susan Couture, a company vice president, needed someone with a rare computer skill; for 18 months searching inside and outside the company, she saw a parade of mostly white male candidates, “My antenna went up,” she said.

When even white men turned her down, she created two entry-level spots to attract women and minorities who wished to get training and move up.

Isn’t that affirmative action?

“It’s a mentality,” said Couture, a white 40-year-old and Chamblee’s mentor. “It’s part of the philosophy of how we value employees.” All employees, she said emphatically: “We don’t want talented white males to walk out the door.”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email