An affirmative-action audit set off big changes at BRW, a $38-million architecture and engineering firm with 400 employees. Four years ago the city of Minneapolis conducted the audit of BRW, and, says CEO Don Hunt, "they told us that our rates of promotion and attrition for minorities and women were not good."

A few simple compliance efforts -- such as advertising in minority publications -- might have satisfied the city. But, says Hunt, "the incident caused us to take a much broader look at ourselves and to think about how our company would be better or worse if we didn't look at diversity." Hunt and his partners realized that there was, in fact, a stark contrast between BRW's managers (96% were white males) and the clients they were pitching their services to (a much more diverse crowd). "There was a feeling that we would be less competitive if we continued to be a white-male-dominated firm," says Hunt.

And so began BRW's transformation. A 35-employee diversity committee evaluated BRW's personnel systems. Based on its recommendations --

· All employees -- there were 350 at the time -- attended "diversity training" sessions led by a local consulting firm. "I'm sure lots of people thought it would be an incredible waste of time," admits Hunt. But the off-site discussions and exercises showed managers how and why their preconceived notions about race, sex, and national origin were affecting hiring and retention.

· The company started to advertise its employment opportunities in more minority and women's publications.

· Personnel rewrote the company handbook to reflect BRW's more aggressive commitment to affirmative action and a diverse workforce.

· BRW enhanced its benefits package to include flexible scheduling and health benefits for all part-time workers. According to Hunt, that helped attract and retain more women.

· Each year, during "Respect Week," employees participate in exercises designed to foster mutual respect. Several of the events are loosely modeled on actual incidents of disrespect or discrimination at the company.

The effect? White males occupy 81% of BRW's management positions -- a 15% drop from 1991.

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In 1993, 785 companies surveyed by the Society of Human Resources Management reported that over the previous decade their employment of women and members of minorities had increased.

% of companies

Group reporting increases

Women 69.1

African Americans 59.1

Hispanics 49.4

Asians 44.4

Older workers 43.0

Employees with disabilities 33.2

Gay men/lesbians 16.1

White males 10.4