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While many independents recognize the significance and value of staffing a diverse work force, others sometimes wait until they're facing a discrimination lawsuit before the thought of developing a diversity management policy even occurs to them.

Granted, today's independents are struggling every day just to survive a relentless onslaught of rising costs related to health insurance, workers' compensation, and energy. Need we even mention their battles against Bentonville and other retail channels emerging as competitors for the food dollar? Add to all that the tremendous frustration of seeing their ongoing efforts to please associates and longtime customers falter in the face of waning loyalties.

By now you're no doubt asking yourself, how can anyone possibly suggest that independents spend their hard-earned money on developing some fancy diversity management program? Where will they find space for that in this year's, or next year's, budget?

Those are the wrong questions. Based on changing demographics that are causing enormous shifts in both the U.S. employment landscape and the purchasing power of consumers, we should be asking, how can independents not afford to implement diversity initiatives?

Fortunately a highly regarded organization in our industry is not only asking this question, but also proposing the answer. This organization, the Network of Executive Women (NEW), is already helping supermarket operators such as Hy-Vee, Ahold, Giant Eagle, and Wal-Mart; consumer packaged goods companies; and others to advance their diversity practices.

Incorporated in 2001, NEW is a Chicago-based 501(c)(3) not-for-profit educational organization led by executive director Joan M. Toth, a former industry publishing executive. It has brought the diversity issue to the forefront of the food industry, as well as to the podiums of key industry conferences. NEW says diversity management, which should embrace not only women but also all growing segments of the population, can be used as a competitive advantage, by increasing company morale, improving recruitment and retention efforts, promoting better communications internally and externally, providing a better understanding of customers, and minimizing sources of internal conflict.

No 'chick's club'

Its name doesn't limit the scope of this organization's influence. "First, let's clear up a misconception about NEW -- membership is not limited just to women," says Toth. "We're definitely not a 'chick's club,' and we're not divisive in any way."

Toth says that NEW has managed to attract a variety of high-potential execs, both male and female, to the food business, thanks to education, leadership, and business development programs that "help prove that we're worth our salt." Chief among those programs is the group's upcoming annual NEW Leadership Summit. Additionally, throughout each calendar year, NEW organizes regional leadership development seminars, publishes industry white papers, and manages the Job Bank, a Web site that allows members to reach the most qualified and diverse talent pool in the industry.

Also earning high marks from key industry executives and trade organizations is NEW's mentor program, which pairs trained mentors and protegees for one-year partnerships.

Toth commends Target for "doing a great job fostering [inclusiveness]," and Wal-Mart for "making great strides" in diversity management. However, this isn't an issue for big retailers only. "There's no reason for independents to be the lone rangers out there when it comes to diversity," she says. "Demographic changes are a real issue today, and store personnel should mirror the population base in each community. NEW can help willing independents to grow human capital, and ultimately their bottom lines, by providing leadership training and access to the best practices.

"While they may be small, independents are still employers," Toth aptly notes, "and by embracing diversity, they can become in their communities the employer of choice."

Independent Retailing Editor Jane Olszeski Tortola can be reached at [email protected].
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