Taking the Temperature of Diversity in the Workplace - The Black Perspective
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Taking the Temperature of Diversity in the Workplace

By on June 23, 2011

The Temperature of DiversityYou’ve probably never heard of a company called Johnson Controls. But it’s likely that a component on the seat or instrument panel of your car was made by Johnson, or that you’ve been inside a building where the temperature is maintained by one of their systems. Now a 7.2 billion a year enterprise, Professor Warren Johnson founded his company in 1885 to manufacture his invention — the electric room thermostat.

 Headquartered in Wisconsin, John Barth, president and chief operating officer, and James Keyes, chairman and CEO, are committed toward creating and maintaining a diverse workforce and business environment. With this mission in mind, Equilla Wainwright was recently promoted to direct the diversity initiatives for the Controls Groups Organization. Formerly the director of human resources for the same group, Wainwright was already known for her positive attitude and ability to create a fair and inclusive work environment.

Wainwright’s charming personality, sincere commitment, and ability to take on challenges are qualities that add passion to her work. Additionally, she believes in the importance of mentoring other women in business, and has volunteered her time to give workshops that help others understand how to function in a corporate environment.

Because of her efforts, Wainwright was named by Black Women in Sisterhood for Action (BISA) as one in a group of Distinguished Black Women of 2001. The BISA Distinguished Black Women of 2001 award is the second major honor for Wainwright, who joined Johnson Controls in 1996. In 1999, she was named to the WLA 100’s List, Women in Corporate America category, by Women Looking Ahead News Magazine of Atlanta.

Unique Elements

Building a diverse workforce at Johnson Controls involves two unique elements, one a blessing, the other a challenge. First, top management is sincerely committed to the company’s diversity efforts, and places a high priority on taking concrete steps to meet their objectives. “The top two leaders in our organization meet with our business leaders quarterly to talk specifically about diversity progress. They want to ensure that we are moving in the right direction and our employees know exactly what steps are being taken to build and maintain diversity. Otherwise, our efforts would appear to be only lip service,” Wainwright says.

Secondly, although Johnson Controls is a global market leader in automotive systems and facilities management, the company is not as well known in the residential sector. Therefore, when top minority talent looks to the corporate realm for career opportunities, the name “Johnson Controls” may not come to mind, unless the individual is involved in the engineering or construction disciplines.

“Recruiting is not enough,” Wainwright says. “We have to work harder to identify and develop minority talent. We are developing initiatives such as working with INROADS and developing mentorship programs. We are also developing local partnerships with high schools and technical institutions in our communities so that we attract females and minorities early in their careers. Recruiting solely at the college level is almost too late—recruiting must begin earlier.”

Starting Fresh

Johnson’s diversity journey begins with another advantage—the company has never suffered from negative press related to discrimination. Turning a negative public image around, for major corporations hit by multi-million dollar discrimination lawsuits, is a slow process that takes years of dedicated effort. “We reviewed very high profile discrimination cases and we asked ourselves how we could avoid those situations,” Wainwright says.

“Our leadership has stated publicly that diversity is a good thing, not only from a position of social responsibility but from a market competitiveness standpoint as well,” She explains. “Diversity is in our company creed. It’s there in writing—we just have to continuously uphold it.”

Education Overcomes Obstacles

The first task of building any diversity program must be to raise the employee awareness and management’s understanding of diversity. Wainwright says, “There are many misunderstandings around diversity, and we have a responsibility for coaching, training and changing those attitudes.”

What kinds of misconceptions keep business people from embracing diversity? A common belief among managers in corporate America is that building a diverse workforce means they will be forced to hire women and/or people of color who are under qualified, merely to satisfy a quota. Also managers tend to resent spending valuable time at diversity training where content is lacking. “Good managers want to know how to effectively identify good talent, how to bring greater diversity to their teams, and how to create a productive work environment,” Wainwright says.

Today’s diversity means looking at hiring and business in a new way. Once managers understand the value of recruiting in diverse venues, and that having women and people of color within the company in numbers proportionate to the company’s customer base and surrounding demographics is simply good business sense, they are usually eager to cooperate.

Wainwright feels that diversity is largely about richness of thought. “Enriching our work environment and getting our managers and employees rallying around diversity is a key goal,” she says.

Rachelle Hood Philips, the director of diversity at Advantica, the parent company of Denny’s Restaurants, helped Denny’s turn the company’s reputation around after a wave of discrimination lawsuits. “Rae described the effort involved exquisitely when she said that building diversity was largely about the power of influence and persuasion. To accomplish this objective, I have to pull from those skills as well,” Wainwright says.

“You would think that because I’m African America I understand all aspects of diversity, but I found out very quickly that this is still an educational process for me as well. I’m learning as I go,” she says.

Steps on the Journey

What specific steps are needed to create a diverse business environment? Some are obvious, and some are more abstract. “Employees must understand clearly what is expected in the workplace. This is the foundation to having workplace respect,” Wainwright says. Johnson Controls requires that every employee attend Zero Tolerance Training on sexual harassment and discrimination. Additionally, the company requires an annual review of their ethics policy and has a certification program in place to ensure compliance. “Such efforts set the framework for the company’s culture,” Wainwright says.

Managers and employees must openly welcome diversity for it to be successful. “You can launch countless diversity initiatives,” Wainwright says, “But unless you create a work environment that celebrates diversity, rather than just tolerating it, employees won’t remain with the company.” Wainwright says that she is proceeding cautiously to ensure that her efforts are sound, well received and effective. “I believe we really have to walk the talk,” she says.

“Our diversity journey is composed of several steps: Awareness, Compliance, Community Involvement and Business Process Improvement. We don’t want to use threatening tactics; we want to present our efforts positively so that they can become embedded in our cultural fiber,” she says.

The company is currently engaged in a broad training initiative aimed at creating awareness. Wainwright tracks evaluation forms and looks at employee’s suggestions to determine what future training or focus is needed.

The company’s CEO Jim Keyes often uses this quote: “Diversity is a journey, not a destination, and because the world is always changing, the journey will always continue.” Wainwright says, “We embrace that mindset along each step or our diversity journey.”


Wainwright, an Atlanta resident, is responsible for the development and implementation of the diversity platform for the Controls business unit, which includes the Systems and Services North America and the Systems Products divisions of Johnson. She had previously held career posts with Ford Motor Company and MCI WorldCom.

A native of Muncie, Ind., Wainwright holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Ball State University and a master’s degree in managerial sciences from Central Michigan University. She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, National Council of Negro Women, National Society of Human Resources Management and serves on the board of Women Looking Ahead News magazine. She is a member of Cascade United Methodist Church in Atlanta.

How does she keep her commitment to excellence intact? “I believe I work really hard and I try to focus on results. It is not always easy. My spiritual foundation sustains me,” she says.

Wainwright is a divorced mother with a 20-year-old daughter, Reaghan, who is beginning her junior year at Spelman in Atlanta. Wainwright says her daughter is her pride and joy. “My daughter is very grounded and my best friend,” she says. Wainwright and her daughter have moved five times to allow her career path to expand. “I had to leave my comfort zone to attain growth and move to new levels,” she says. “It was not always easy with a young child, but we both learned from these experiences.”

Her advice to other women in business? “Be willing to leave your comfort zone. Take risks. That can make all the difference.”

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