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Steve Green

As MGM honored, economy challenges diversity efforts

30 March 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Tears emerged from the eyes of several hotel and casino employees as they listened to the horrible comments about their co-workers.

A group of women of all races and men of color listened to the comments and looked into the eyes of their white male co-workers. The white men stood shoulder-to-shoulder, facing the group. These white men, the trainer commented, were arrogant, dishonest, prejudiced, greedy, elitist, white-collar criminals, serial killers and even trailer trash.

The moderator asked the onlookers to consider whether these words accurately described the characteristics of these men -- men who are co-workers, teammates, coaches, fathers, brothers and sons. The white men were asked if these words reflected their characters.

Of course not, everyone agreed -- offering some comfort to the men who had to listen to the comments while their co-workers watched their reactions, which ranged from victimization to humiliation.

Welcome to a stereotype-breaking session during an MGM Mirage diversity training class.

This was just one of hundreds of classes for thousands of MGM Mirage workers and managers since the company broke new ground in the hotel-casino industry in 2000 by launching a comprehensive diversity program that has set the standard for the industry.

The much-honored MGM Mirage diversity program this month received another prestigious award. MGM Mirage was the only gaming company and the only company based in Nevada to be named to the 2009 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity, ranking No. 19. MGM Mirage also was on the list in 2006 and 2007, and was a "Noteworthy Company" in DiversityInc's 2008 awards.

"We have been singled out for this honor because employees at all levels of our company – from our front-line service employees to our top-ranking executives – charismatically embrace diversity principles and have integrated these standards into their everyday interactions with our guests, co-workers and the communities in which they serve," said Punam Mathur, MGM Mirage senior vice president of corporate diversity and community relations.

Front-line workers, vendors and contractors enthusiastically endorse the program and many are watching with interest as the company transitions under new corporate leadership and struggles to meet today's economic realities that have slashed revenue and earnings at MGM Mirage and -- as at other gaming companies -- have led to layoffs and other cuts.

The company owns casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, Henderson, Jean and Reno; and outside of Nevada in Detroit, Mississippi and Illinois. It's a partner in a property in Atlantic City and has a resort in the Chinese region of Macau.

With the new economic realities, Mathur and her diversity department staff have fewer resources to work with, but are trying to maintain the momentum in broadening the culture of diversity within the company.

"No one is willing to lose that competitive edge," she said.

Formal diversity training -- a cornerstone of MGM Mirage's diversity program -- is continuing. But because of its cost, the number of training sessions this year has been cut to about one per month, down from about 150 annually in recent years. Employees will continue meeting at the property level for "diversity recharging" sessions and community service projects.

Helping personal and work relationships – and shareholders

Eddie Dasis, for instance, is a mechanic on The Roller Coaster at MGM Mirage's New York-New York hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip. He and some co-workers recently got to take a roller coaster car to a school and showed it off to students.

"It makes you a better person, not only at work but in your personal life," Dasis said of the diversity training, which culminates in participants being named "diversity champions."

Dasis, 47, said the training got him to see things through the eyes of others -- and to be more accepting of not only co-workers and supervisors, but of family members.

Not only is he a better father, but he now gets along better with his supervisor.

"I had a hard time working for women," he said. "It opened my eyes to the other side of the fence.

"I've become more patient and not so critical of other people and how they do things. I am more laid back now -- I would snap before," he said.

What do the changes that Dasis has experienced have to do with "diversity," which is often thought of in defensive terms?

Managers throughout corporate America regularly receive "diversity training" with the goal of teaching them not to break the law by discriminating against job applicants and employees on the basis of their gender, race, age, religion and other protected factors.

The success achieved by Dasis illustrates that for MGM Mirage, diversity is much more than complying with the law. It's even more than "it's the right thing to do." At MGM Mirage, diversity is a culture with a clearly articulated goal: creating a more successful company that will make more money for the company and its shareholders.

Creating a more successful company in large part rests on the premise that in the ultra-competitive hotel-casino industry, every employee must be inspired to perform at 100 percent of potential and understand the cultural nuances of co-workers and customers. That way, casino customers and hotel guests will not only want to visit MGM Mirage properties, but will want to come back because they've received excellent service.

"Diversity is a culture where 100 percent (of the employees) can give 100 percent," Mathur said. The diversity training, she said, addresses "anything that impedes you from doing your best."

For Dasis and many of his co-workers who have taken the three-day diversity champion training courses, reaching 100 percent of their potential meant having to better understand their co-workers and customers. And that meant overcoming stereotypes.

Overcoming stereotypes

A recent training session at the company's Circus Circus hotel-casino in Las Vegas involved about two dozen workers from numerous MGM Mirage properties. The white men were just the first of seven sets of employees who had to stand next to each other, listening to stereotypes about themselves.

Next came the women, of all races. They were called things like easy, weak, emotional, needy and were said to talk too much.

Then came the blacks: Good athletes, pimps, receivers of welfare, poor tippers.

Then the Hispanics: Catholics, poor, cheap laborers, illegal, sexist and with big families.

Then American Indians: Alcoholics, poor, lazy, uneducated, being close to nature, being Indian givers.

Then the Asians: Poor drivers, passive, industrious, willing to work for low wages.

Then the gays and lesbians: Flashy dressers, creative, social outcasts, immoral, dirty.

Senior citizens were characterized too, though none attended this session. They were called Republicans, stubborn, cranky, opinionated, cheap.

For some of the casino employees, this amounted to shock treatment as the trainers drove home the point: Instead of thinking of these people in terms of stereotypes, MGM Mirage employees must recognize them for who they truly are.

Women, for instance, are team members, co-workers, wives, girlfriends, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and nieces. They are presidents of two MGM Mirage properties. One has been an attorney general of the United States. Blacks? One is a president of the United States. And so on.

And, driving home a point Mathur makes about the financial benefit of diversity training, the workers are reminded that seeing people for who they really are applies to customers, too. No class of people will feel welcome at an MGM Mirage property if, for instance, the workers feel they will be poor tippers just because of the color of their skin.

'Industry is moving in the right direction'

The MGM Mirage diversity initiative was launched in 2000 and grew through the early 2000s as two things happened simultaneously.

Investor Kirk Kerkorian's MGM Grand Inc., as the company was known then, was going through the regulatory process to buy resort developer Steve Wynn's Mirage Resorts Inc. when the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP publicly embarrassed MGM Grand and Terry Lanni, then its chairman and chief executive.

The NAACP said it was fearful of Mirage being taken over because Mirage had a good record of dealing with minority businesses, while it charged MGM Grand was weak in that area. Lanni, at the time, defended MGM Grand's diversity practices, but the criticisms by the NAACP succeeded in helping to bring wide attention to the issue within the industry.

Gene Collins, head of the NAACP in Las Vegas at the time, also pressed a demand Lanni felt was outrageous: That MGM Grand fund a $100 million community investment initiative in a poor part of Las Vegas, much as regulators in Detroit had required community investments by casino licensees in the form of a loan pool.

"We're not a bank. It's ridiculous to ask for that," Lanni said at the time of Collins' demand. "We're not in the kind of position to make that kind of investment."

Over time, as MGM Mirage led the gaming industry in advancing opportunities for minority employees, contractors and vendors, the $100 million investment demand was dropped and even a prominent critic, Collins, joined other minority business advocates in praising MGM Mirage for its diversity efforts. As the years passed, Lanni said he was grateful that minority business groups had pressed their cause with the company. In 2005, he told Collins: "You deserve credit for bringing this matter to our attention."

During this same period, gaming companies faced questioning about diversity practices from an unaccustomed source: The Nevada Gaming Control Board. Diversity wasn't something regulated by the Gaming Board and state Gaming Commission, but it became a more important topic with the appointment of former Las Vegas FBI chief Bobby Siller to the Control Board.

Siller, who is black, started serving on the board in 1999. He questioned gaming executives about diversity and talked publicly about what was obvious: A lack of minorities in key management positions in the industry.

"Having minorities in executive offices creates an automatic awareness," he said in 2000. "If you get to a certain level in a property, you don't see any minorities or women. This is a growing community. All of our citizens should benefit from that ... no one should be left out."

Over time, other big gaming companies, such as Harrah's Entertainment Inc., Las Vegas Sands Corp., Station Casinos Inc. and Boyd Gaming Corp., began talking more about diversity and some formalized and bolstered initiatives that had been quietly under way for years.

As he was preparing to leave the board in 2006, Siller said: "The industry is moving in the right direction, though there are some that will never get it."

Diversity training and new economic realities

As MGM Mirage's diversity program continues through the post-Lanni phase and faces new cost constraints, minority business advocates remain supportive and are monitoring MGM Mirage in hopes that the years of progress are not reversed.

Cornelius Eason, president of the Urban Chamber of Commerce, which largely represents black-owned businesses in the Las Vegas area, said he doesn't expect MGM Mirage to reduce its commitment to diversity.

"They've created a culture with an attitude of inclusion that's going to be in place for awhile," said Eason, president of Priority Staffing USA, which has been a vendor for MGM Mirage. "It's not so much a program as it is a culture shift that is going to be woven into who they are for awhile."

Eason said he thinks MGM Mirage Chairman and Chief Executive Jim Murren, who succeeded Lanni in November, believes in the program and is encouraged that two primary drivers of diversity are still on board with the company. They are Mathur and Debra Nelson, vice president of corporate diversity, communications and community affairs.

Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce, also praised MGM Mirage's diversity program.

"I think they have been very effective," he said.

But Merida is concerned because he doesn't know whether, in light of Lanni's departure and corporate cutbacks, the company will have adequate resources to continue aggressively recruiting minority business partners. Merida also wonders if MGM Mirage will continue having high-profile events for minority leaders and others announcing the results of its diversity efforts -- results like the amount it's spending with minority vendors and contractors.

MGM Mirage said that while it's not having an expensive event this year to announce its diversity results, as it has in years past, it expects to release them to its minority business partners such as the Latin Chamber in mid-May; and will have an internal company event attended by several thousand employees and led by Murren.

"Despite our current economic constraints, we expect to maintain our company's memberships in all of the local minority chambers this year," added MGM Mirage spokeswoman Yvette Monet.

And while Murren has been occupied with financial issues at MGM Mirage, he's made it clear that the diversity initiative and culture will continue under his leadership.

"I may have some cool new job titles, but the most important title I have is 'Diversity Champion in Chief,'" Murren told a group of Diversity Champions at the company's Bellagio resort in December.

In the current economy, with the company needing every possible dollar of revenue, he said, "There has never been a more important time for us to embrace the principles and lessons of diversity."

Murren also told employees that the MGM Mirage diversity program helped him overcome grief following the terrorist attacks in 2001, when he lost many colleagues where he once worked on Wall Street.

"Candidly, it took me a while to wrestle with that. It was the diversity program that ultimately got me through," he said. "I realized that there is hate in the world, but there is more love. There is anger in the world, but there is more compassion."

As MGM honored, economy challenges diversity efforts is republished from