Toyota must keep on pushing for diversity

TOKYO — Many questions had foreign reporters in attendance squirming in their seats. Japanese journalists oozed with insinuation while asking Toyota President Akio Toyoda at last month’s press conference about his just-arrested chief communications officer, Julie Hamp.

Why did the American need the highly addictive oxycodone painkillers she was accused of having illegally mailed to Japan? What made Toyoda trust her so much? And does her stumble bode ill for the company’s gambit to diversify its executive ranks with women and non-Japanese?

Commendably, Toyoda stuck to his guns. He didn’t just discourage a rush to judgment and defend Hamp as a friend and valued executive. He insisted it was essential to mold a new Toyota Motor Corp. leadership more representative of the global market it serves.

But now comes the real test. Amid a swirl of tabloid attention, Hamp resigned last week even though she had yet to be formally charged with a crime.

Toyota accepted her resignation after “considering the concerns and inconvenience that recent events have caused our stakeholders.” Despite the setback to the company’s diversity drive, Toyoda and Toyota must not waver from that path.

Toyota derives three-quarters of its sales from overseas. About 80 percent of its 338,875 employees are outside Japan.

Yet only two non-Japanese are board members. Toyota got its first non-Japanese executive vice president last month, Frenchman Didier Leroy. Aside from a few new officers, Toyota’s top is still decidedly Japanese and male.

Compare that with Nissan Motor Co., where half the top executives come from outside Japan. Despite trailing Nissan in that measure, Toyota is far ahead of Japan’s other automakers. In announcing the promotions of Hamp and Leroy, Toyota also appointed Christopher Reynolds, an African-American, to the new global position of chief legal officer.

“We want to become a truly global company,” Toyoda told reporters.

Unfortunately, reaction to the Hamp case underscores the challenges.

Rather than cast her arrest as an individual digression, some Japanese media made it a cautionary tale about the risks of opening up to foreigners.

Ahead of her resignation, information from “investigative sources” was happily reported without comment from Toyota or Hamp and painted an incriminating picture.

Shukan Bunshun made Hamp its July 2 cover story, alleging that she had a $3 million mansion in Los Angeles and gave her daughter an $8,000 Rolex as a graduation gift. The magazine asked former Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda about the downside of diversity.

“Values have changed from 10 years ago,” he said. “There is a trend to promote foreigners and women all over the world, so it couldn’t have been helped.”

Akio Toyoda must now lead by example to show that diversity is more than a trend that can’t be helped. Diversity can and will help the automaker succeed in an era of ever-greater globalization.

Toyota’s reaction after Hamp’s resignation was reassuring.

“We remain firmly committed to putting the right people in the right places,” the company said, “regardless of nationality, gender, age and other factors.”

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