Ask Intel employee Yvette Maldonado what her favorite thing about the company's Diversity Days celebration is, and she at first mentions the many new, spicy foods served in the cafeteria. There's a pause. On second thought, maybe it's the dances and performances of her fellow employees, who get decked out in the bright colors of their native lands. Or that she gets to chit-chat with friends staffing the dozen or so booths--something there's never time for during the average work day.

The two-day fall celebration at Intel's Chandler, Ariz., offices is just one of dozens of such gatherings held at company sites around the country. It's also reflective of the $29 billion company's approach to diversity. This is a company in which workers are encouraged to take time off for prayers (often in company conference rooms), in which a toll-free number is available for employees to voice their complaints or comments about diversity, and at which employee groups host their own diversity celebrations and post information on company intranet sites. Hiring practices, scholarships, internships, even training, support diversity.

With a stellar turnover rate of about 10 percent in the toughest job market ever, Intel officials view the company culture as a distinct competitive advantage in today's tough job market. "Our business flourishes at least in part because of the diversity of our workforce and the diversity of the thinking in our conference rooms and offices," says Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

How It Works Intel first established its diversity program in the mid- to late 1980s. Today, the company's dedication to diversity is evident in its hiring practices. Between 1989 and 1998, Intel almost doubled its hiring of women and under-represented minorities in technical fields. It recently pledged to spend at least $1 million per year over the next decade on programs such as scholarships, job training, and internships to bring more women, minorities, and the disabled into the workplace.

"We bought the argument a long time ago that a diverse work force was a business necessity to be competitive and succeed," says Ogden Reid, human resource development manager. "As we've gotten more global, that becomes an even stronger argument."

Intel's first diversity celebration was organized 14 years ago by workers who now comprise an officially sanctioned employee group, the Asian Cultural Integration Group. The group celebrated Chinese New Year, still a popular event at Intel's Folsom, Calif., headquarters.

In the mid-1990s, the company offered employee groups a sanctioning process, which involves creating charters and operating structures. Officially approved groups--there are 40 in all--receive corporate support and a budget.

Formalizing the employee groups made them more equal, says Vivian Rubenstein, Intel multicultural/ diversity programs manager. "Once the employee groups were legitimized, it gave employees impetus to tell their managers about their involvement, and it educated managers about the value of the groups. It also leveled the playing field by giving equal resources to all the groups. It showed that Intel thinks the groups are worthwhile and have business value (for networking, etc.)."

No Two Parties Are the Same While each group's celebrations are distinct, a typical gathering features ethnic food, booths staffed by employees in their native garb, and educational materials and flyers on that culture or religion. In some cases, groups bring in speakers and musical and dance performances. Often, celebrations are publicized by posters and display cases on the company campus, as well as on the company's intranet.

Managers allow employees time off to attend. Rubenstein recalls one celebration at which an Asian booth was set up next to a Muslim booth, and the people were helping each other set up. "Times like this break down barriers, which leads to increased camaraderie. And that leads to increased teamwork."

Employee groups also lend a hand at community events, including cultural and holiday celebrations outside Intel, and raise money for a variety of causes. They tutor students and volunteer at food banks and other community events. Tracy Koon, Intel's corporate affairs director, is convinced that when employee groups get involved in such things as external mentoring and community programs, "It unquestionably helps with recruitment and retention."

It has also enhanced Intel's image. The Wall Street Journal ranked the company fourth in its list of the best corporate reputations in America, and Business Ethics magazine ranked Intel third on its list of the best corporate citizens.

Still More to Learn As appealing as Intel's diversity initiatives appear, they still pose some challenges. "About five years ago, when employee groups really started to blossom here, some people expressed reservations about bringing religious issues into the workplace," says Reid. "They thought there should be a separation, and they wondered why we were doing this."

Company officials also admit that in some cases, a great deal of time and energy can be expended negotiating an employee's request for time off for prayers or holy-day observations. And they have found that some workers resent efforts celebrating a particular employee group.

"It's not easy to get to the point where everyone's morale is raised," says Martin Davidson, a business professor at Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia, who has conducted research on diversity in corporations. "People have differences in their perceptions of fairness and sense of entitlement."

Reid agrees that even his company is still on a learning curve. "Our intention is to learn as we're going from own experiences and from the best practices outside of Intel," he says. "We believe it's a very important area for Intel--and for all organizations."