Diversity in production home building. Up until now, it's meant little more than having both flat- and Phillips-head screws in a tool box. Amid slurs, biases, and off-color humor that seemed to be part of the on- and off-site fabric of home building culture, managing diversity existed as a topic regarded as, at best, nonessential to the rough-and-tumble business of residential construction. Even as many builders have evolved from pickup truck operations into sophisticated enterprises, few could be called progressive on this subject. Often the corporate ladder remains a man's world—and a white man's world at that.

But between major demographic shifts and an increasingly litigious society, those existing structures seem bound to topple. Realizing that communities, and therefore customers, are increasingly diverse, industry leaders view cultivating internal diversity as a path to a better business. What's more, even as momentum in the new-home market appears to have stalled, high volume builders still very much need to attract, deploy, and retain the best talent, irrespective of race, gender, age, or creed. BIG BUILDER visited John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods during a recent intensive two-day management training program to get a first-hand glimpse at what the Atlanta-based builder is beginning to do to ensure that differences are leveraged for the success and survival of the company.

7:57 a.m. In the lower level of Wieland's corporate headquarters, a standing-room-only group of new employees packs a conference room. Recent hires from all ends of the Wieland kingdom down their first doses of caffeine, fueling up for a full day of activities. This is “day two” of accelerated corporate training, a program intended to give newbies a crash course in the Wieland way. The topic du jour is enhancing work relationships, and specifically the role diversity plays in the development of those connections.

Wieland's diversity initiative emerged roughly two years ago, as management tasked employees Karissa George and Robin Renschen to develop a program from scratch. George, then director of community relations, assumed a second title of director of diversity. Working with Renschen, director of Wieland University and leadership development, the dynamic duo cobbled a plan in a matter of months.

Local executives familiar with Wieland operations suggest that management's original motive traced to a discrimination lawsuit that threatened to cloud the company's clear conscience. The company vehemently denied allegations of any inappropriate hiring practices, and the case was dismissed nearly a year later, with the details of the lawsuit resolution kept under wraps.

Myrna Marofsky, president of ProGroup, a diversity training organization, says that it's common for companies to invest in diversity programs once a lawsuit starts kicking up mud. She uses the Denny's restaurant franchise as a prime example, which she says has “put a fortune into diversity training,” including hiring a chief diversity officer, following a $54 million discrimination lawsuit in 2002.

Lindy Korn, an attorney who heads the consultancy Diversity Training Workplace Solutions, agrees. She says, “Most of the good steps forward come from a problem.”

Whatever caused the program's genesis at Wieland, the company's top brass has used it to buttress its corporate ethos. And on this morning, as George and Renschen kickoff the four-hour training session, the company's eye is fixed on the horizon. As immigration and assimilation quickly evolve into flashpoint national issues for the decades ahead, Wieland is preparing to harness the power of the one-two combination.

8:11 a.m. George begins by telling the class about how one time she administered the course in Nashville, Tenn. Every participant was a white male. She asks: “Was there diversity in the room?” The audience is silent, hesitant. Finally from a table near the back someone murmurs “yes” loud enough for her to hear. She nods. “Diversity is variety within a group,” she explains. “It's not just race and gender.”

Members of the audience respond to her by naming other facets of diversity—religion, marital status, age, disabilities, education levels, sexual orientation, among others.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.