News - Daft’s diversity drive

Coke adds life ... to its woes

How much diversity training does it take to sell caramel-colored fizzy water? Quite a lot, it appears, if you’re Coca-Cola and you’re desperate to stanch a public relations bloodletting loosed by a pair of multi-plaintiff racial discrimination suits.
Coke President Douglas Daft announced plans this month to require all employees to undergo two full days of diversity training every year for the next four years. That’s right: eight long days of stale Honey Buns, freezing conference rooms and know-it-all diversity experts.
Multiply eight days by 8,800 U.S. workers and you figure Coke plans to spend 70,400 workdays — or more than half-a-million hours — pursuing diversity. Divide 70,400 by 250 workdays per year and you put Coke’s diversity training investment at 280 total man-years — err, person-years.
Eighteen months after the initial lawsuit was filed and four months after it was settled, Coke continues to search for the secret formula that will end its PR woes. But the company is looking for solutions in all the wrong places.
In March, Daft said he would link managers’ pay to the achievement of diversity “goals, objectives and targets.” The message: Don’t treat people equally, focus on race and give minorities special breaks in hiring and promotion. Not the best way, perhaps, to build team spirit and cohesion.
In May, Daft announced a billion-dollar “empowerment and entrepreneurship program,” a five-year effort to put more cash in the pockets of minority suppliers, retailers, banks and community programs. It looked like a payoff.
And now Daft has prescribed eight days of diversity training for every Tom, Dick, Harry, Pam, Sue and Cathy at Coke. In an e-mail announcement, Daft wrote, “It is not an overstatement to say that diversity is the keystone to our future success.” And you thought the key was selling oceans of soft drinks.
Coke is beginning to look like Bill Clinton’s Pentagon, an organization focused more on social engineering than its primary mission.
In a June moment of candor, Daft told an Irish newspaper that some “bad supervisors” — and not systemic discrimination — were to blame for Coke’s troubles. Yet his new diversity-training plan treats everyone like part of the problem. This is a big mistake, one that will cost Coke dearly in lost morale.
For all its efforts, Coke is discovering that peace at any price tends to get expensive in a hurry. On the very day Coke settled the first lawsuit, it was hit with another. Now four new plaintiffs and their lawyers — among them O.J.-defender Johnny Cochran — are demanding $1.5 billion in damages.
It didn’t have to be this way. Instead of trying to buy its way out, maintaining its innocence in word and declaring its guilt in deed, Coke could have admitted the mistakes of rogue managers and treated individual cases as aberrations not indicative of any widespread corporate sickness.
As a proud minority employer and a faithful supporter of African-American causes, Coke had the history, reputation and connections to make such an approach work.
Internally, Daft could have done what was needed doing in about 45 seconds. “Attention all,” he could have said, “while I realize this is ancient news to most of you, I want to announce, for the record, that there is no room here for racial bigotry or discrimination. Nada. Cross me on this and you’ll be out the door faster than you can say, ‘Coke is it.’ That is all. Thank you.”
But Coke’s leaders didn’t go that route. Instead, they took the predictable route, the politically-correct route, the shortest route off the front page: they caved. If they haven’t already, they will soon rue the day they stopped fighting, reached for their checkbook and inspired a fresh new crop of attorneys and plaintiffs.
As for diversity itself, Coke is headed down a dangerous path. Pursuing diversity today doesn’t mean building a diverse workforce, it means celebrating group identities over individual ones. Taken to the extreme — as it has been on many college campuses in recent years — diversity leads to group-think and division, rancor and re-segregation.
And Coke’s new diversity training regime? Employees interested in keeping their jobs won’t come right out and say eight days is gross overkill, but they’ll be thinking it. And they’ll be right.

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