When workers at Chase Manhattan Corp. talk about diversity, they mean something broader than quotas for hiring women and minorities.

In the last two years-since Chase merged with Chemical Banking Corp.-35 diversity councils have been formed throughout the bank, involving more than 700 people. The councils address melting-pot issues for people from different ethnic backgrounds-and for working parents, gay men and lesbians, older workers, people who care for elderly parents, even people with "alternative work styles."

"Our goal is creating an environment where everyone can be successful and where everyone has the opportunity to do their best work," said Joy Bunson, the vice president in charge of Chase's diversity curriculum.

Chase's attention to the nuances of diversity is not unique in the financial services industry, but it does illustrate the near-heroic measures some institutions are taking to change their images as white male bastions. "Diversity," according to the modern corporate definition, is a broad-brush effort to foster a more heterogeneous work force.

"In earlier years, it was called 'affirmative action' and 'equal opportunity,' and quotas were mandatory," said J. Gregory Coleman, a managing director in the financial services division of Korn/Ferry International. "Today you find enlightened corporations embracing diversity because it is a reality of the demographics of the work force. Companies are dealing with it as a business need."

For minority employees, this trend means more opportunity to explore career paths that might have previously seemed closed, or to aspire to management levels that might have once seemed unthinkable. Another benefit is the subtle shift in ambience that has taken place at many institutions: Minority and female workers do not have to fear they are viewed as tokens who owe their jobs to affirmative action, and, as their ranks swell, they do not have to feel so isolated.

The progress has been marked but gradual. Not all companies view the world through a lens of diversity, and many are making minimal efforts to recruit minorities. Several managers interviewed for this article looked puzzled when asked about diversity initiatives, then named their most senior black woman.

Some executives said diversity meant welcoming all applicants, then hiring only the most qualified. Few organizations were as steeped in the New Age language of diversity as Chase, with its "interactive theater workshops" and cash rewards for people who excel at advancing diversity goals.

Headhunters and consultants who deal with hiring issues said that banks, on the whole, do seem to be reaching for a wider variety of talent. Insurance companies also got high marks.

"We are under constant pressure by all our clients to introduce a slate of diverse candidates on every one of our searches," said John D. Platte, a managing director at the New York executive recruitment firm of Russell Reynolds Associates.

William G. Smith, president of the 3,000-member National Association of Urban Bankers, said he had noticed the trend not just in hiring, but in "putting African-Americans and minorities in responsible positions.

"It's been an ongoing process, but it's been heightened in the last few years," said Mr. Smith, a senior vice president at First Union Corp.

At First Union, Mr. Smith said, vice chairman John Georgius heads a diversity task force, and a full-time manager has been named to address work-and-life issues. Other banks Mr. Smith cited as making good efforts were NationsBank Corp., BankAmerica Corp., and Wells Fargo & Co.

Companies named often by consultants as promoters of diversity include: American Express Co.; Brown Brothers Harriman & Co.; CoreStates Financial Corp. (being bought by First Union); Equitable Cos.; Fleet Financial Group; Mellon Bank Corp.; Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.; and Prudential Insurance. Citicorp is also known for cultivating a work force that reflects its global outlook.

As a group, the financial services companies that have undergone the smallest diversity makeover are brokerage houses, experts say. Few, if any, articulate it as a high priority. At the brokerage firms, job performance and proven track records far outweigh other factors in hiring and promotion, according to consultants and company executives.

But some firms that haven't explicitly put diversity at the top of the agenda are showing interest. They may send recruiters to minority job fairs, hold diversity workshops for employees, or require that managers be briefed in the implications of multiculturalism.

At Fidelity Investments, recruiting and retaining women and minorities is an "ongoing" effort, according to a spokesman.

"We seek to broaden Fidelity's exposure among all people," said the spokesman, John Stevens. "We're interested in educating people out there in the work force who are looking for opportunities but who have not historically looked at careers in investment management."

Unlike their brokerage and insurance cousins, banks have a statutory obligation to broaden their outreach and range of complexions. Most bankers read the terms of the Community Reinvestment Act as a mandate to cater to an increasingly diverse customer base, and to reflect that diversity internally.

However, reciting the diversity mantra seldom translates into a rainbow coalition in the boardroom. The more senior the job, the harder it is to identify minority candidates, executives say. For this reason, headhunters urge clients to recruit minorities more aggressively at junior levels, so they loom larger in the internal pipeline.

American Express is an example of a company that adopted this strategy early, and now has one of the industry's oldest and most extensive diversity agendas. American Express formed its first "diversity team" in 1990 and today has 28 in the United States.

On top of the diversity teams, American Express maintains distinct "employee networks" for homosexuals, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.

"We hope and fully expect that the work we do leads to having more employed women and people of color, and all other kinds of people, too," said Richard T. Schack, director of diversity integration at American Express.

At Chase, chairman Walter Shipley and president Thomas Labrecque have lent a similar imprimatur to diversity. A month before their banks merged, they announced that Mr. Shipley would lead a new companywide council on the topic.

"The tone is set at the top," said Michael E. Roemer, a Chase vice president who sits on a diversity council. "It will make the best people want to work here, stay here, and contribute."

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