WASHINGTON - Recent employment discrimination statistics show that banks are doing a better job of promoting equality in the workplace than other types of companies.

The number of discrimination complaints against banks has fallend by more than 10% in the last five years, according to the latest statistics from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

This is in stark contrast to the number of complaints for all other industries, which have increased by 50% since 1990.

"Overall banks are starting to realize that the work force is becoming more diverse and, maybe before many other industries, they are responding to this diversity," said Gerald Wright, vice president and equal employment opportunity manager at First of America Bank Corp., Kalamazoo, Mich.

Mr. Wright has lectured to business groups around the country on diversity issues, and he recently developed a comprehensive sensitivity training program at First of America.

He believes banks have gone far beyond legal requirements in addressing racial, sexual, and disability discrimination. By training employees through discussion groups, classes, and workshops, banks are better able to serve a diverse public, he said.

Mr. Wright acknowledged that banks may face fewer complaints because they are better regulated. Unlike other industries, banks must comply not only with the Equal Employment Opportunity Act but also fair-lending and community reinvestment laws.

In 1994, there were 651 discrimination charges filed against commercial banks. That's down 9.3% from 718 in 1990. Total complaints for all industries, however, soared 46% to 91,189 last year from 1990.

Three years ago, First of America developed an eight-hour training program for all employees who work directly with the public. It includes test questions on sexual harassment and a workbook on the needs of people with disabilities. The session is accompanied by a 16-minute video the bank produced to acquaint managers and employees with diversity issues.

While First of America's program focuses more on working with the customer, First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles is concerned about equality issues among employees.

It holds employee forums in each of its four regions around the country. Employees air their concerns in a corporate magazine in which management responds. The bank has a central management advisory council that evaluates antidiscrimination policies.

"We've realized that if we don't support our employees, our employees are going to have a hard time supporting customers," said June Jones, First Interstate's senior vice president for corporate employee relations. She added that requirements of the federal Community Reinvestment Act have played a large role in bank's awareness of diversity.

"I definitely see that the understanding of traditional discrimination against protected groups has increased because of things like CRA," Ms. Jones said.

First Interstate handles equality issues through its employee relations division, but many banks are setting up a separate office to do the job. The Consumer Bankers Association estimates that nearly 50% of banks now have separate offices dedicated to making sure discrimination does not occur.

BankAmerica Corp., based in San Francisco, established a 12-person task force to coordinate diversity training and discrimination concerns. Russ Yarrow, a BankAmerica spokesman, said sensitivity toward different groups has been an essential business strategy.

"Fundamentally it's a response to markets, and it's been tremendously profitable for us," he said. "Especially in California, we have to respond to pluralistic markets."

Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, said diversity is not only a human resources concern. Top bank executives also are making it a priority.

"I know a number of senior-level retail banking executives interested in breaking the glass ceiling," Mr. Belew said. "They've realized that the banking industry has not been as diverse as it could be, and they want to change that."

Mr. Lumetta writes for Medill News Service.

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