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Firm’s Business is Ending Bias--The Columbia Flier

Columbia Flier

March 6, 1997

 

Firm’s business is ending bias
by: Greg J. Rienzi

While most area workers were sorting through their messages or toiling over their computers last week, employees of ReVisions Inc. were telling colleagues their sexual preferences, greatest fears and some of their hopes and dreams.

No. It wasn’t some kinky, New Age, self-help class or TGIF bash.

It was simply good business, according to Mauricio Velasquez, president and founder of The Diversity Training Group, a five person, Columbia-based training and mentoring firm.

The employee interaction at ReVisions, a Catonsville psychiatric rehabilitation center, was part of an "ice-breaker" exercise Velasquez uses to illustrate his point that workplaces need better communication. His workshop sessions range from a half-day to three days.

Velasquez’s role is to bring employees together and head off ill-advised or illegal workplace practices such as sexual harassment or discrimination.

"We all have biases," said the 30-year-old Velasquez. "The question I ask people is: Do your biases affect other people?"

In just one year his company, located at 7188 Cradlerock Way, has expanded nationally-contracting with such corporate players as AlliedSignal and Hewlett-Packard, as well as branches of the U.S. government.

Rather than face the risk of litigation, corporate brain drain and declining sales, businesses are looking to become proactive on issues affecting employees of different backgrounds.

Part of the concern stems from highly publicized incidents such as the one which Texaco executives were accused of using racial epithets.

In another case, a sneaker company recalled its "Incubus" brand of running shoes after it was pointed out that the term referred to a mythical demon that kills women in their sleep.

"Do you think a woman at Reebok came up with the name Incubus?" Velasquez asked. "I really don’t think so."

Velasquez, who lives in Baltimore, believes incidents like these can be prevented if employees and managers are trained to recognize warnings signs of racial and gender bias.

He boils down his role--for which he charges $1,500 a day for groups up to 30 ----to point out "intent vs. impact."

"We all think we have good intentions, but it’s time for people in the business community to take responsibility for their words and become more sensitive," he said.

 

Velasquez, the son of Colombian immigrants, has an undergraduate degree from the University of Virginia and an MBA from George Washington University. He said he became aware of the impact of diversity issues while working as a demographic researcher for the Internal Revenue Service.

"While I was there I read the Hudson Institute’s Workforce 2000 that had forecast the tremendous influx of women and minorities in the workplace," he said. "I thought there needs to be a training field here to deal with this explosion of differences."

  

To combat the differences, DTG workshops offer a forum where people can get to know one another, said Velasquez. He tries to create an environment that emphasizes the person rather than a group to which they belong.

"Our work is helping people come to grips with their own biases and prejudices," he said. "It’s like when I tell people I’m Colombian, their typical response is, ‘Do you know where I can get a good cup of coffee?’"

To break down some of the barriers, Velasquez begins his sessions with the ice breaker.

At ReVisions Inc., he handed the 22 participants large pieces of paper and markers and instructed them to write their name in the middle and draw at least five things about themselves. The sheets were taped to the walls, and one by one the individuals got up and explained their drawings.

The exercise, he said, gets people to learn things about their fellow employees that they probably didn’t know.

"It promotes interaction," he said. "People usually surround themselves with people just like them, but in the business world this practice can affect the bottom line. If people don’t feel included, they are less likely to offer their input."

He typically asks company officials whether they have had much turnover and about the characteristics of those leaving.

He adds that companies could save money in hiring and retraining by creating a friendly work environment.

"If you put a woman in a room with 50 men, there’s a comfort issue there," said Velasquez. "Even without a word being said."

Companies also could benefit by bringing a sensitivity to the selling of their product, he said, citing the success of the Saturn car company.

"When you walk into a car dealership, you typically find male salesmen," he said. "But the Saturn company realized that a higher percentage of women were buying cars, and thus their sales force should include more women. That’s a diversity issue."

Locally, DTG has worked with AlliedSignal, Ryland and smaller companies such as Chapel Valley Landscape in western Howard County. He maintains a website to advertise his services.

His clients give Velasquez a favorable review.

"Mauricio’s a good speaker and he does a real good job of mixing the facts with specific tools a company can use to implement diversity goals," said Dan High, regional vice president of human resources for Ryland of Columbia. "We here at Ryland wanted to be proactive and become sensitive to these diversity issues,"

Velasquez says that’s the way he prefers it.

"In a reactive environment, people come in kicking and screaming," he said. "They think what I’m saying is a personal attack against them, but it’s just a matter of letting them know how their actions affect others."

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