McDonald's Makes Diversity Part of the Business

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After almost 36 years, she’s still loving it.

Patricia Sowell Harris, chief global diversity officer for McDonald’s Corp., started working at the global foodservice retailer’s headquarters as an administrative assistant in the legal department. After stints as an assistant to the president of the company, as a compensation analyst and as an HR generalist, she was asked to join the company’s affirmative action department.

“I wasn’t sure,” she told attendees of the Society for Human Resource Management 2011 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition, held Oct. 24-26 in Washington, D.C. “I told [the vice president], ‘I don’t think people like what you do.’ ”

But, encouraged by her colleagues in the company’s legal department and by other management leaders, Harris took the job. She eventually convinced her boss to change the name of the department to “diversity management,” became assistant vice president of diversity, and, suddenly, “My work had become my passion.”

McDonald’s is committed to fostering diversity among its three “legs”—employees, franchisees and suppliers, Harris said. The company has earned recognition for diversity successes from groups representing Asians, Latinos, blacks, people with disabilities and women. But while receiving an award from Catalyst for its efforts to promote women’s interests in business, CEO Jim Skinner said, “Our work is just beginning,” a statement that Harris appreciated; it means that McDonald’s isn’t going to rest on its laurels but will continue to foster even broader diversity programs, she said.

Most recently the company launched its Global Women’s Initiative to help women excel around the world. Supported by development plans created within each of five regions of the globe, new female managing directors have risen in markets where Harris said she’d never imagined such a thing possible—including India, Turkey and Malaysia.

The goal of the diversity efforts at McDonald’s, Harris said, is to “move from awareness to action, see our differences as strengths, respecting and valuing all cultures on both sides of the counter around the globe.” The diversity vision and mission focus on cultivating relationship accountability, respect and the opportunity to succeed.

There are three factors that have led to success for McDonald’s diversity efforts, Harris said:

  1. Leadership suppoer and accountability. McDonald’s business leaders “get” diversity, according to Harris, who quoted Skinner as saying, “If everyone in the room with you looks like you and thinks like you, you’re not getting good advice.” Diversity and inclusion team members work shoulder to shoulder with other business managers and leaders to accomplish business goals. Everything the diversity department does must support the business, she said. “If it doesn’t, don’t do it,” she said Skinner has told her. Diversity is part of the agenda for each segment of the business, to the point where she said she doesn’t have to sit in on meetings to make sure that managers are including diversity objectives. “Each department owns it and does it,” she said.
  2. Diversity education. Internally, her department provides coaching, mentoring and education; collects demographics; and provides analysis. McDonald's leaders say they can connect their success directly to lessons learned through the company’s black and Latino career development programs, Harris said. “We teach them things they can’t learn from an operations manual.” Externally, diversity team members make sure that the company’s community outreach efforts align with diversity and business goals. “We're not just writing checks; we’re supporting the brand, too,” Harris said.
  3. Employee business networks. McDonald’s supports more than 120 employee networks in the United States and around the world for ethnic groups, gay and lesbian employees, working mothers, young professionals and many more. The concept for such groups has been around for a long time, Harris said, and some business professionals ask why the company still supports the groups. “We’re still doing it because they have value” to the employees, she said.

In the end, Harris said, the “secret sauce” to McDonald’s diversity success is persistence: “We never let go of what we think is right for our employees. You can’t start and stop [diversity initiatives] when the economy is bad. We’ve been consistent with this since 1979.”

Harris has written a book documenting McDonald’s journey toward diversity—including successes, setbacks and challenges—called None of Us Is as Good as All of Us (Wiley 2009). All proceeds go to Ronald McDonald House charities.

Beth Mirza is senior editor for HR News. She can be reached at Beth.Mirza@shrm.org.