Food Retailers Discover Strength in Diversity

Inclusion makes workforces more productive
Brookshire Grocery
Brookshire Grocery Co. has an all-in approach to diversity: Everyone from the CEO and chairman to the newest entry-level hire is on board.

The way that Jacksonville, Fla.-based Southeastern Grocers (SEG) sums up its approach to its workforce is succinct: “At SEG, we’re in the people business. We just happen to sell groceries.”

A key part of that people business is ensuring a diverse workforce. To do that, the retailer, whose grocery banners include Winn-Dixie, Harveys, and Fresco y Más, has rolled out several initiatives offering “inspiration and opportunities for all community members to break barriers and push for equity,” according to Raymond Rhee, SEG’s chief people officer.

[Read more: "Retail Buyers Seek Supplier Diversity, Wellness & Innovation for Store Shelves"]

For instance, the grocer hosts eight associate resource groups that “provide development opportunities and focus on amplifying the voices and experiences of underrepresented groups, educating others on allyship, and improving [the] diversity of the communities they represent,” explains Rhee.

The company has also implemented training sessions to educate and encourage constructive conversations among associates on belonging, inclusion and diversity, and last year hosted its first-ever “We SEG” Conference, described by Rhee as “an event featuring a diverse panel of experts offering educational and interactive insights on developing inclusive workplace environments, training for creating a culture of belonging, and other initiatives addressing pertinent and relevant equity concerns.”

Another move made by the company was to assemble the SEG Shadow Board to ensure that the voice of the customer is represented and to offer strategic, diverse perspectives that positively affect decisions made by SEG’s executive board. The board “consists of diverse leaders across the organization who review existing processes and propose new ways to ensure opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds and increase visibility for underrepresented groups at SEG,” notes Rhee.

Fresco Associate
Southeastern Grocers' diversity efforts have earned it recognition as a top employer of Latino leaders at banners such as Fresco y Mas.

Strength in Diversity

SEG’s actions in this space have earned it many accolades, including recognition from the National Diversity Council as a top employer of Latino leaders. Of course, it’s not the only supermarket company to embrace diversity wholeheartedly. Operators across the country are recognizing the value that comes from having associates with a wide range of backgrounds and viewpoints. 

“At SpartanNash, we strive to deliver the ingredients for a better life,” observes Deann Wright, senior director, diversity and inclusion at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash, a distributor that also operates 145 supermarkets under such banners as Family Fare, Martin’s Super Markets, and D&W Fresh Market. “To do that, we always prioritize investing in a strong team of associates who are well equipped to support our customers and shoppers and create an excellent culture. Diversity plays a big part in that, because having an increasingly diverse workforce ensures that our associates have a wide variety of perspectives and lived experiences. This helps us create innovative solutions to evolving customer needs.”

To that end, in support of its People First culture, SpartanNash is actively expanding its internship program “to be a more robust and comprehensive learning experience” for its participants, according to Wright. Through the program, SpartanNash teams with local universities to provide career opportunities for both college students and recent graduates. “We are hopeful this program will help us support a new generation of diverse leaders who will drive innovative and creative solutions for our customers,” says Wright.

She goes on to note that “beyond the internship program, SpartanNash has a long history of investing in inclusive workforce development initiatives, collaborating with community training and education partners, and advancing the development and promotion of associates [who are] diverse by gender, race/ethnicity, disability and veteran status.”

“At Brookshire Grocery Co., striving for diversity in our workforce goes hand in hand with our core values,” asserts Rosemary Jones, EVP – chief people officer/legal at the Tyler, Texas-based retailer. “We continue to make advancements through the objectives and initiatives of our diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) strategic plan. Our commitment to building a diverse workforce connects us in meaningful ways with our employees, whom we refer to as partners; our customers; and the 165 communities we serve through our 205 retail grocery stores. We see the positive impact DE&I has on morale, productivity and our overall culture. Our company’s focus in this area strengthens our brand and helps to attract and retain great people.”

Brookshire’s all-in approach to diversity – everyone from the CEO and chairman to the newest entry-level hire is on board – includes such resources and initiatives as a dedicated DE&I position, a diversity council, diversity champions, educational programs, and leadership training, along with leaders who “are more intentional about DE&I when hiring, recruiting and promoting those they lead,” explains Jones. “As a company, we advertise job openings, conduct job fairs, and reach out to colleges and universities in diverse markets. As a result of these and other efforts, we continue to see increases in management and overall workforce diversity trends. When filling leadership positions at every level, we involve human resources professionals whenever possible to support and guide hiring managers in prioritizing DE&I.” 

Southeastern Grocers Associate
Southeastern Grocers hosts eight associate resource groups across its banners that enable diverse employees to share their unique experiences and advance in their careers.

Learning to Thrive

For retailers looking to streamline their workforce management efforts, Axonify offers solutions. For Carol Leaman, president and CEO of Waterloo, Ontario-based Axonify, diversity in hiring is a no-brainer.

[Watch video: "Closing the Skills Gap in Grocery"]

“With all that we’ve experienced over the last three years, from the pandemic to civil and racial unrest and ongoing economic hardships, now more than ever, our employees are encouraged to bring their whole selves to work and lean into what makes them unique,” notes Leaman. “Fostering a diverse workforce is important because it’s more reflective of how our society looks, and it allows talented and qualified people to see a place for themselves, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, race, religion or age. To me, the best ideas emerge when people feel safe, supported and valued, so it’s no surprise that more diverse workforces are also more productive, creative and innovative. There’s really no downside.”

Asked what retailers should be doing to attract more diverse employees, she insists: “Inclusivity must be a foundational part of every retailer’s work culture. If you’re not living your values, even a plan that looks great on paper won’t make a difference.” Noting some of the inclusivity practices that her own workplace has initiated, such as offering a safe, easy way for employees to share their preferred pronouns, and a flexible public-holiday program enabling staff to substitute their own significant spiritual, religious and cultural days, she observes, “As leaders, we need to be active listeners, and while we don’t have all the answers yet, retailers should be striving to make their business a place where everyone can thrive.”

Retailers should also adopt “inclusive hiring practices that aim to remove any barriers, invisible or otherwise, that might exist while someone is considering working for your organization,” advises Leaman. “That includes where and how you’re seeding applicants, and how they’re supported throughout the hiring process. Are accommodations baked into all levels of employment, from applying for a position to accessible onboarding and continued support like education and career-pathing opportunities? It’s our job to make the employment journey not only engaging, but equitable and easy, which takes into account details like language, technology, access and taking a close look at who the gatekeepers are. If an employee feels supported, heard and valued from day one, it creates a sense of loyalty and encourages them to stay and grow with your business, instead of looking for more inclusive opportunities elsewhere.”

Winn Dixie Associates
Just as Southeastern Grocers' Winn-Dixie banner is doing, many supermarket operators across the country are implementing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging programs so that associates feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.

The Future of Diversity

What obstacles will retailers need to overcome as they continue their diversity hiring and retention efforts?

“Acknowledging that work needs to be done is the easy part,” says Leaman. “Investing the necessary time to look at and break down the systemic hurdles, microaggressions, prejudices and stereotypes that exist within the business is where the real challenge lies. Education, training and clear communication are especially crucial so that every employee understands that diversity is a company priority, and why. As Boomers reach retirement age and Gen Z — the most racially diverse generation in history — becomes the dominant working generation, their expectations of how diversity and inclusion are treated will shape ongoing strategy and work culture. The effects of the pandemic will continue to shape labor trends, so retailers would be wise to stay nimble and strive for measurable change before the next disruption.”

“Accessibility and flexibility in the hiring process are factors that we, as a retailer, continue to improve to continue growing our diverse workforce,” notes SpartanNash’s Wright. “Our team has developed a more streamlined hiring process, investing in text-to-apply technology and other recruiting resources that help clearly communicate opportunities to potential candidates.”

She also points to “evolving recruitment efforts [as] an important part of continuing to grow a strong family of diverse associates,” such as new employment branding that features real employees.

“We cannot underestimate the importance of retailers mirroring their communities,” emphasizes Jones. “Statistics tell us the U.S. population is diversifying and changing, and as retailers, we must embrace and adapt to those changes. This will involve dedicated resources and initiatives, including educational programs and tracking statistics. Retailers must also recognize the value diverse employees bring to the table. When you talk about ‘diversity,’ you have to be clear that it is about so much more than one component. It’s about race, age, gender, religion, abilities, sexual orientation, ethnicity, marital status, language, culture, experiences, preferences and even the diversity of thought. It is realizing this, and respecting and appreciating the differences, that make a workplace truly great for everyone. In a world that is constantly evolving, retailers must be willing to adapt and evolve with it to be sustainable for the long term.” 

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