Smart employers want their office demographics to reflect the community. Many have implemented programs to bring more minorities, women and other groups into the workforce.

There's no question about it. Central Ohio is becoming ethnically more diverse.

According to figures compiled by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, the Franklin County populations of African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and foreign-born residents have increased steadily between 1980 and 2009-nearly doubling for African-Americans and increasing sevenfoldthe other three groups. Together they account for 37 percent of the Franklin County population. In 1980, they comprised almost half that at 19 percent.

Employers have responded to this demographic diversity by taking significant steps to hire, retain and promote people from all walks of life. "Our ultimate goal is to have a workforce that reflects the community demographics," says David Sullivan, director of diversity, inclusion and worklife planning at OhioHealth. "At the end of the day, it's a competitive advantage. Diversity is a business case. People want to see people who look like themselves." Community and corporate leaders say companies that don't pursue this goal are proceeding at their own peril.

How is Central Ohio doing in terms of supporting diversity in the workplace? The consensus: Not bad, but there's room for improvement.

Economist Bill LaFayette, owner of the Regionomicsconsulting firm, says that while Columbus compares favorably with such cities as Indianapolis and Cincinnati in employing women and minoritiesthere are some weak spots. "We could engage more African-Americans in the labor force," he says.

Suzanne Coleman-Tolbert, director of the Central Ohio Workforce Investment Corp., agrees. "We are still seeing a disproportionate number of African-American males without employment opportunities," she says. "When everything else is equal, they're still the last ones to be hired."

LaFayette cites the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported the average unemployment rate of Columbus African-Americans from 2009 through 2011 was 17 percent, versus an overall local unemployment rate of 9.2 percent.The unemployment rate of females during the same period was 8.6 percent, with rates for Hispanics at 8.2 percent and Asians5.2 percent.

Steve Schoeny, director of development for the city of Columbus, notes that the unemployment rate of minorities in Central Ohio is lower than the national average. "We're doing better than most," he says. "But we need to do more."

LaFayette says that while Columbus has a smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than many other cities, that percentage has increased significantly over the past five years. According to the Kirwan Institute, foreign-born Columbus residents more than tripled between 1980 and 2011, from 2.9 percent to 10.3 percent. LaFayette also notes that the foreign-born are "less integrated in the labor force."

Napoleon Bell, director of the Columbus Community Relations Commission, says, "There's not diversity in all areas." He says many boardrooms need "an advocate for neglected communities."

"Some companies are not as open and receptive as our neighborhoods are,"says Tim Harman, vice president of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium, a group of executives from more than two dozen local companies that aims to boost inclusion.

'Talent War'

Sullivan says in the nearly 40 years he has been active in diversity recruitment, some changes have happened: "The pool has grown for technical and service positions, but the pool hasn't moved that much for professional positions. It's a very competitive field for this small pool of qualified talent. We're all fighting for the same people."

Harman agrees. "It's a talent war out there," he says. But he adds diversity is critical to the success of business today. "Your customer base has become more globally diverse than ever before," he says. "By diversifying your employee base you become more competitive."

Achieving diversity starts with hiring, but retaining employees is perhaps even more vital. "You need to make sure that they feel included and become a stronger part of the organization," Harman says. One way to achieve that, he says, is by establishing employee resource groups for workers who share a common demographic characteristic. Typically the largest groups are women and African-Americans, followed by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community; Generation Y's or millennials Hispanic/LatinosAsians those with disabilities and veterans.

William Edmonds, associate vice president of diversity and inclusion at Nationwide, which ranked at No. 100 on the 2013 Fortune 500, says the company has 16 associate resource groups. The groups have three objectives: personal and professional development, supporting communities and growing Nationwide's business. Their activities are more professional than recreational, nds says, a way "to put tools in their hands to fashion their own destiny."

Locally, Nationwide has been a sponsor of the Asian and Latino festivals and the Columbus Pride parade, with associate resource group members participating in those events. Edmondssays an added benefit of the groups and such events is that they may boost awareness of and business for Nationwide. For example, he says, participation in Columbus Pride generated 7,000 leads.

Nationwide's goal is "to have a workforce comprising a diverse and inclusive culture and to make work meaningful, real and culturally relevant. We want to be a place where every voice is heard and valued"says Terri Forgy, senior vice president of talent, diversity and organizational effectiveness.

Harman points to corporate support of the Asian Festival, Latino Festival and Columbus Pride events as examples of local companies' community involvement. "We spend 60 to 75 percent of our time at our workplace," says. "We're trying to celebrate that."

Todd Corley, senior vice president and chief diversity officer at Abercrombie & Fitch, says corporate participation should involve more than money. "We could write a check and just be done," he says, "but we want to have deeper involvement. He says Abercrombie & Fitch continually audits events and organizations it sponsors, asking: Is it the right thing? Is it the right quality?

Corley adds that the New Albany-based retailer encourages its associates, especially those who are minorities or women, to join community boards and advisory groups. Such participation helps them develop leadership skills while promoting the company brand.

Building Relationships

Cristina Villacinda-Farr and Nathan Farr, owners of Empleos and Employment, an employment agency that specializes in jobs for Latinos and bilingual workers, say that an employer needs to sell more than the job. They also need to sell the community that they are part of. "Latinos are very family-oriented," Villacinda-Farr says. "The real challenge," Farr adds, "is retaining Latinos. They go places where the culture is more familiar to them.

"The companies that are most successful in achieving diversity," Farr says, "are those that are able to leverage informal networks," tapping into community events and church activities. "People won't respond to a posting on a job board," he says.

The same thinking applies in Honda of America Manufacturing Inc.'s approach to job fairs. Stephen Francis, manager of diversity relations, says Honda representatives arrive the day before job fair "to talk about the needs of that school or organization and how they fit with our opportunities. We want to build relationships."

A pioneer in bringing more minorities and women into the workforce is Turner Construction Co. Its School of Construction Management, established in 1969, provides a free 13-week program in construction business practices for minority, women and disadvantaged contractors. Kyle Rooney, vice president and general manager 's Columbus office, says the program is an effort "to give our knowledge and experience to those who can use it."

More than 32,000 people have completed the program. In 2012, 104 Ohio business owners or employees graduated. "It's good for our business," Rooney says. "We rely on subcontractors."A significant portion of Turnerbusiness now goes to minority and female subcontractors. "We endeavor to award 20 percent of our revenue to them," Rooney says. "What's most satisfying is to see startups that have come to our school 10 or 20 years ago that have become significant firms."

The Columbus Partnership recently launched an initiative aimed at bringing more women into leadership positions. Steve Lyons, the Partnership's vice president of member services and community engagement, says Columbus ranks among the top three cities for women in leadership positions when compared to 15 peers. "But," he adds, "sometimes good isn't good enough."

While Widen the Circleis still in its formative stage, JPMorgan Chase & Co. has already instituted Women on the Move. Alea Bradley, vice president and operations staff manager, says the program is intended"to promote dialogue between female executives and other women throughout the company in order to identify what more we need to do to support the recruitment, development, promotion and retention of women throughout the firm."


Another economic opportunity for women and minorities, especially immigrants, is starting a business. "Taking on an entrepreneurial personality is part of the American economic DNA," says Columbus's Schoeny. He says the recent influx of immigrants from Somalia and West Africa has brought many with fresh ideas. "These people have traveled halfway across the world to get to Columbus," Schoeny says. "They're natural entrepreneurs."

The nonprofit Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI)provides loans of $500 to $150,000 to startups in food, transportation, day care, home health care and retail. Inna Kinney, ECDI's founder and CEO, says the organization has been instrumental in creating more than 2,000 businesses and 4,000 jobs since its inception in 2004. Minorities and women comprise 67 percent of that workforce, Kinney says. "The economic climate of Columbus is superb," she adds. "Columbus is at the top of the game. Most cities do not have the same resources."

That's the main reason Black Enterprise magazine held its Entrepreneurs Conference + Expo in Columbus. More than 1,200 attendees attend the annual event, which was held in May at the Greater Columbus Convention Center and hosted by Nationwide.

Alfred Edmond Jr., senior vice president of Black Enterprise, says Columbus offers much opportunity. "I believe in looking at cities like stocks," he says. "You want to catch them on the way up-not on the way down." ities need to beckon new enterprise. "New York is a great city," he s, "but not for a small business. So much of the pie has already been taken."

Columbus's Assets

It's an unfortunate reality that even in 2013, some employees still face discrimination. Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus, says Columbus fares better than a lot of other areas. "I'm sure we're leading the state" she says, in providing workplace equality and protections for the LGBT population. "We've made great strides in the human rights campaign

Franklin County has sanctions it can invoke for companies that dismiss an employee because of her or his sexual orientation. But Rothan says surrounding counties have no protections in place. "When someone finds out that one of their employees is gay or lesbian," she says, "they can fire him or her with impunity. It happens every day."

Rothan wants to see state legislation introduced to prevent such actions. "The worst part about Columbus," she says, "is that it's in the state of Ohio. Ohio ranks close to the bottom of all states for gays and lesbians."

In addition to its better-than-average acceptance of diversity, Corley says the region is welcoming to professionals of all ages. "Columbus is one of those cities where you can meet both people who are starting out and people who are well-established. It's so easy to become well-connected and to build issues across groups," he says.

Bradley of Chase adds that the city is attractive to job candidates. "Columbus is one of the easiest markets we recruit for," she says. "It truly is an easy sell."

Bell, of the Columbus Community Relations Commission, says the region's ability to weather the recent recession and to recover more quickly from it is "because we have embraced diversity. It is really the strength of our workforce."

"There's definitely a business case for diversity in the workplace. The more diverse your workforce, the better able you can be when things change. If everyone thinks and acts the same, there's no true diversity," Farr says.

Corley agrees."A company has to stay fresh and innovative and collaborative," he says.

Francis says Honda encourages its associates "to challenge the status quo by coming up with a better idea. Diversity of thought leads to innovation. If you always do what you've always done, you'll always be what you've always been."

Dennis Read is a freelance writer.