What's worse than bias from corporate execs?

What's worse than bias from corporate execs?

I suppose this is going to get me tagged as even more of a Jeff Papows butt kisser, but I just can't let this stuff go unchallenged.

Papows, the CEO of Lotus Development, was the subject of a late April Wall Street Journal report which alleged that he has engaged in quite a bit of shameless self-promotion over the years by deliberately falsifying his background information, including his US military record. I subsequently expressed the view that, based on my own experiences in meeting Papows both formally and informally over the years, the article might have been a tad unbalanced.

Now we find that the same Journal reporter last month followed up that first piece with a story about gender bias complaints at Lotus, including a case which alleged that Papows and his executive assistant Sharon Ricci, with whom the report said he has had a long-term affair, singled out female employees for ill treatment.

Obviously I don't have a clue what the whole story is, so I have absolutely no desire or inclination to concern myself with mounting any kind of defence. Nor do I want to appear to be diminishing the seriousness of the charges in any way - obviously, it's essential that the matter be thoroughly investigated and that legitimate claims be fairly addressed. It's just that these particular charges are at such variance with the widely acknowledged track record that Papows and Lotus have established in this area, that a sense of balance once again seems to have eluded the particular reporter.

It so happens that having covered Lotus for some time, it struck me from early on that there appeared to be a substantial number of women in senior management positions at the company - noticeable because of the rarity of such a circumstance among IT vendor companies - so I brought up the topic during an interview I had with Papows in Singapore a couple of years ago.

I could tell from Papows' animated response that I had struck a chord by touching on a topic that really meant something to him. He launched into a lengthy explanation of how Lotus had succeeded in tackling gender bias and other diversity-related issues where others had failed.

For starters, Papows said, Lotus from the very beginning had the good fortune of having people at the top who were committed to doing it right. Former CEO Jim Manzi and June Rokoff, Lotus' senior vice president of worldwide services and support, both of whom left Lotus shortly after the acquisition by IBM, "personally thought very deeply about this stuff and really instituted a lot of very deep-rooted programs across the management structure of the company going back years", Papows said. "That the company got excited about it is a consequence of the fact that there was real leadership from the top. [Manzi and Rokoff] had a chance to get a lot of that thinking instilled in the management systems of the company. Today it's so deeply woven into the fabric of the culture that people can't not think in those terms."

Papows went on to explain that in order to sustain that corporate mindset, he put specific policies in place to ensure that the appreciation for diversity remained high. While there was no quota system, he did institute incentives to ensure that gender bias didn't creep in.

"There is a deliberate and very conscious effort that people are measured and paid against, from the perspective of management bonuses, on improving the level of diversity in the workforce," he said. "It's more of a moving snapshot in time than a hard number. But it's very conscious - that kind of stuff doesn't happen accidentally, and it's very easy to get lazy about it."

It was a matter, he explained, of constantly evaluating the system: "How much upward mobility do we have with our female populace? Are we promoting without gender biases? Are we valuing integrity and fairness and other 'soft' business values as much as we are just financial performance and people's ability to manage a budget or release a software product?"

Perhaps most important, Papows said, was that the message had to come from the top. Of the 11 executives who reported directly to him, four were women.

"It starts at that level, obviously - you can't ask the directors and the vice presidents to act one way and then have the typical old boys' club at the operating committee level," Papows said. "We've been very lucky in that we've attracted a lot of very talented women that have ended up being highly promotable. Then again, we worked at it."

Papows further explained that in addition to the inherent mind-expanding benefit of maintaining a diverse workforce - one that is able to make a more wide-ranging set of contributions to the company - there are other more tangible rewards.

"I'll tell you, it's been an asset to the company - not just in terms of creating a different working environment, and one that I think we all are a lot prouder of, but in very practical business terms," he said. "We're running at about 6 per cent turnover, which is about half the industry norm. And part of it is because people really value a lot of the subjective values that the company ascribes to that aren't as well expressed in other places."

Remember, all of this is what Papows was saying two years before the Journal article was written. So what is Papows saying now that the article has come out? I e-mailed him last week to find out, and he responded within a couple of hours.

"It's incredible. The number of these [gender bias] filings outstanding in large companies at any time is significant. Lotus has never lost a case," he said. "The woman who filed this doesn't work for me and I've had no direct contact with her for many years."

And does he still have women in the top spots like he did two years ago? It turns out there are still four: "My senior vice president and chief financial officer; my senior vice president and R&D executive for communications; my vice president and general counsel; my CIO. All women - all direct reports," Papows said. "Think there is a bias here?"

What I think on that score really isn't the issue. I will say that the Journal article bothered me, because as disturbed as I am by bias on the part of corporate executives, I find bias on the part of journalists even more disturbing.

Although I find it difficult to imagine under the circumstances, if Papows did screw up on the gender bias thing and deserves to be nailed, I say nail him. But at least have the professionalism and the decency to tell the whole story in the process.

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