Audrey Boone-Tillman remembers the moment vividly. It was 2001 and she had just been promoted from a legal position at Aflac to senior vice president and director of corporate services.
In a routine meeting for the first time as a member of Aflac Chief Executive Dan Amos' immediate staff, she glanced around the conference table. What she saw struck her.
"It just was amazing to me the diversity," Boone-Tillman said. "There were people of Asian descent, there were women, there were minorities."
Afterward, Boone-Tillman, who is black, approached Amos and remarked about how diverse his staff was. There was a mild-mannered reply: "Audrey, I'm not going to sit around a table full of advisers that look just like me."
"He said it very casually, but it astounded me," Boone-Tillman said. "But that type of mindset filters throughout the organization. We are looking for a diversity of opinion. We encourage a lot of free thinking and dialogue around here. So we don't want everybody to think the same or act the same or look the same."
Some might consider Aflac to be a prime example of a company that embraces diversity. In a community that is nearly split racially between black and white residents, the Columbus-based supplemental insurer's work force comes close to matching it.
In fact, data supplied voluntarily by four of the city's largest companies — employing about 13,400 collectively — indicate strides are being made in shaping a work force that mirrors demographics in Columbus.
Aside from Aflac, those employers are Synovus Financial Corp., a regional bankholding firm, and its credit-card processing subsidiary, TSYS, as well as Columbus Regional Healthcare System, which operates The Medical Center.
Aflac: Diversity 'always on our minds'
Aflac, which has garnered high national brand recognition with its humorous duck marketing campaign, said 41 percent of its 4,300-person work force is comprised of minorities. African-Americans make up 34 percent of the company. Just under 5 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and less than 1 percent American Indian.
Minorities hold 25 percent of the firm's management positions. None of those figures include women, which are the lion's share of the company — 67 percent of its work force and more than 51 percent of management.
"In 2006, minorities were 46 percent of all new hires," said Boone-Tillman. "So we've been quite successful at it, I think, because it's always on our minds and it's always something that we're cognizant of and wanting to make sure that we're doing well.
"It's not just somebody's given us a set of numbers that we have to hit. We don't approach it like that. We're looking for good talent, for people that are going to be a tremendous value to Aflac."
Synovus and TSYS
Synovus, meanwhile, has banks scattered across the Southeast — in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. It also owns 81 percent of TSYS, a publicly traded subsidiary with offices around the world.
Combined, the two companies employ 14,000 globally, with just under 6,500 of those in Columbus. The firms reported their numbers collectively, but declined to break them down into racial categories other than white and minority.
"We typically don't detail the data down to that level," said Alison Dowe, director of communications at Synovus. "Outside of our government requirements, that's just not how we communicate, not even to our local work force."
The numbers they supplied: About 72 percent of the combined Synovus and TSYS work force is white or Caucasian, with 28 percent being minority. The gender breakdown shows 54 percent are female, while 46 percent are male.
Banking nationwide is a Caucasian-dominated sector, with little more than a quarter of employees a minority. Required skill sets include finance and accounting, brokerage and trust experts, and commercial bankers, currently a critical need for a growing Synovus.
The effort to become more diverse is a work in progress, said Audrey Hollingsworth, senior director of people development at Synovus.
"As a long-term goal, any organization would say that they want their work force to mirror their community and they want their leadership to mirror their work force," she said. "But somehow you have to reconcile what the organization's needs are against the total population as well."
TSYS, on the other hand, is in the business of making sure credit card purchases at the local supermarket, gas station or department store are authorized, transacted and appear on a statement mailed to consumers. The firm relies heavily on talent with information technology skills.
"We are predominately a programming company and a call center second," said Suzanne Kump, senior director of human resources at TSYS. "So when looking for people that have technical skills of a diverse nature, we put a specific emphasis on that."
Focus on mentoring
Synovus and TSYS launched a diversity initiative in 2001, setting up a council comprised of senior leaders who serve two-year rotations. There are 15 to 18 employees on the council at any one time.
The primary focus is to educate employees, promote diverse representation and workplace practices, do business with minority suppliers, and develop diverse management and leadership throughout the companies.
Efforts include a mentoring program that was adopted in 2006 with the mission of creating a culture in which senior leaders take younger minority and female managers under their wings. The broad goal is to develop professional skills and traits that put staffers in position to become company leaders at some point in their careers.
Only 20 employees at TSYS are involved in the program so far, said Kump, who hopes to increase the numbers as the initiative matures and shows results.
"Before my time there was a mentoring program and it wasn't successful," she said. "Consequently, we wanted to start small so that we can make sure that it's good, push out any bugs that might be in it, make it better, and then we can expand upon it and grow with it."
Hollingsworth said Synovus and TSYS have overall diversity goals, but stop short of setting up some sort of quota system. She also thinks generational diversity, particularly as baby boomers age, will become a hot topic at some point.
"First of all we like to start with our industry," she said. "From there I think it's healthy to look at the makeup of your total work force. But I think you have to be realistic whether or not you can get there."
One local sector with an overall work force that takes on the image of the community is health care. Columbus Regional Healthcare System, which owns The Medical Center, has 2,630 employees. Females make up 81 percent of the payroll, while 19 percent are male.
Racial demographics show 52 percent of the work force is white, 43 percent is African-American and 5 percent is Hispanic/Asian.
On the management side: Of 53 employees, 49 percent are female and 51 percent male. But whites make up 92.5 percent of managers, while 7.5 percent are African-American.
"Over the last few years we've seen more males enter health care in some of the non-traditional areas like nursing. But health care has always been a predominately female work force, about 80 to 85 percent female," said Wayne Joiner, vice president of human resources at Columbus Regional.
Columbus Regional really has no formal diversity program, Joiner said, although it does monitor the racial makeup of its applicant flow to keep a balance in the company that is representative of the community.
The system's current applicant flow is 55 percent African-American, 41 percent white, and 4 percent Hispanic/Asian.
Jobs available during any given time are diverse in themselves, apart from the traditional nursing and radiology technician positions. There are information technology, marketing, accounting, payroll and clerical jobs at Columbus Regional, along with a large blue-collar support staff that includes food services, housekeeping and laundry.
"I think our work force is a reflection of the community," Joiner said. "Our work force is very active in helping us recruit. A lot of our employees are hired through referrals from our employees and I think, as you might imagine, everybody kind of knows who Columbus Regional is and what we do."
About 20 percent of Columbus Regional's new hires come through an employee referral program, it said. Job fairs, advertisements in minority-targeted publications, and connections to minority-focused community agencies also are part of the process.
The employer said it also requires its external search firm to offer up at least one qualified candidate of color for each management-level position that opens up.
"I think the greatest challenge always is finding people with the right skill set, the right fit, both the technical skills and the behavioral competencies," Joiner said. "I think all employers face that."
Recruiting, obviously, is a major part of the diversity equation for the other major employers.
TSYS typically attends local job fairs, Kump said. It recently participated in an NAACP job fair in Atlanta, as well as events focusing on people with disabilities. The firm also tries to bring in interns from universities such as Columbus State, Morehouse, Tuskegee and Albany State.
Synovus also hits the job fair and university circuits, Hollingsworth said, visiting career centers at Albany State, Alabama A&M and Florida A&M.
Aflac ventures all over the nation, said Boone-Tillman, including Ivy League schools, alumni associations and networking organizations. The company, which has an "active stream" of job applicants through its own Internet site, also isn't shy about using its brand-name awareness.
"Our brand has really allowed other people to reach out to us," said Boone-Tillman. "People who are pretty serious about a job search will look at things like some of the accolades and distinctions that we've won, and say, 'OK, this is the kind of company that must get it.’ ”
Aflac is probably the most prolific in that category, routinely garnering mentions on diversity-oriented and workplace magazine lists. Fortune, Black Enterprise, Essence, Hispanic Magazine, Latina Style and Hispanic Trends all have lauded the firm for its diversity efforts.
Synovus and TSYS also have had their share of accolades, including a Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Award and a 2006 listing on Atlanta Magazine's "Best Places for Minorities to Work." That's on top of Fortune's annual list of best companies to work for in the nation, which also includes Aflac.
Work to do on boards
But the progress already achieved comes with acknowledgement that plenty of work remains on the diversity front, particularly on boards of directors, which remain largely white and male.
"Our board would be more likely to mirror global business or the nation, because it's just on a different playing field," said Aflac spokeswoman Laura Kane. The firm, which does 70 percent of its business in Japan, has a board of directors that includes two Asian males.
Joiner and Columbus Regional spokeswoman Marion Scott declined to comment in-depth on the health-care system's two boards, which includes one for its medical foundation.
They did supply data showing 45 members on the boards, with 78 percent male and 22 percent female. Breaking down race, 80 percent is white, 13 percent African-American and 7 percent Hispanic/Asian.
"Our boards are voluntary, community-based boards," Scott said.
Improving the mix on their boards is one of the reasons for the training and mentoring programs at Synovus and TSYS, Hollingsworth said. The thought is that by employing more minorities and helping them work their way up the companies' management and leadership ranks, the boards will naturally evolve in coming years.
Synovus, for one, has more than three dozen boards. The company's flagship bank is Columbus Bank and Trust Co., but it also has 38 other banking offices — each with their own 20- to 30-person boards of directors — scattered across the South. All of those fall under Synovus' main corporate board.
Of the collective 44 seats on the primary boards at Synovus and TSYS, 39 are occupied by white males. It's a smorgasbord of experience, however, with executives, legal and political types alike — experience that can be priceless in today's cutthroat business world.
"I wouldn't say there's a lot of turnover on the board," said TSYS spokesman Cyle Mims. "In some ways that's a very good thing to have a very stable board of directors . . . a steady hand or a stable force to guide your company over the years."
Dowe said there is no timeframe for making any major changes to the boards.
"Obviously, as our board members age there will be opportunities for those people to rotate out," she said. "We're making progress. But you don't walk in and move your whole board and change them all out just for the sake of diversity. It's got to make sense."
One development that could alter the boards somewhat is the pending decision on whether or not Synovus should spin off TSYS into its own stand-alone company. A decision is expected by October.
Dowe also cautioned against anyone thinking that Synovus only has a black-and-white viewpoint when it comes to diversity.
"When we look at the makeup of our boards, yes, racial composition is important," she said. "But we're as concerned if we look at an all-male board and there are no women on it as we are if we look at an all-white board. We want to make sure that we have varied perspectives and age and gender and ethnicities, race . . . everything is up for discussion when we look at our board and our work force."
Dowe stressed that Synovus, TSYS and its affiliates are actively engaged in the minority community here. Philanthropic arms connected to the companies' founders, former leadership and board members contribute routinely to a variety of good causes in Columbus.
"I'm hoping that we would never be painted as a company that's not interested in the growth and development and success of minorities in this community," she said.