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The McDonald's Diversity Story

The enduring myths about diversity in the corporate world is that it's the right thing to do and the nice thing to do, but only if you can afford it. Having taken part in the evolution of diversity at McDonald's over the past three decades, I can attest that diversity is a strategy that's been the smart thing to do in driving our business forward.

Like a majority of companies in the 1950s, McDonald's started out as a predominantly white male organization. In fact, women were not allowed to work in a McDonald's restaurant as a matter of policy until the 1960s. We began to diversify our operations when it became clear to us it was the best way to sell more hamburgers in minority communities. This wasn't in response to a government mandate for "Affirmative Action," as it was called at the time, but a strategic business decision.

We originally recruited African-American franchisees to serve African-American neighborhoods, and we did the same with Hispanic, Asian, and female franchisees as well. We also brought minority employees into the company and developed minority supplier partners for our restaurants. We felt it was important to mirror the communities we wished to serve, and that strategy has proven itself many times over.

But it was not a simple or easy process. In the early days, we found ourselves losing minority employees almost as fast as we were hiring them. It became clear that we had to do things differently to learn how to manage our business to accommodate diversity, and that involved three key elements that can help any business aiming to diversify and improve the bottom line:

The first requirement is a commitment from senior leadership to diversity as a core value of the organization. Top management must be determined that diversity is a cornerstone of how you do business.

Next is training and education, not only for minorities who are learning how to be successful in a corporate setting, but also for managers who need to understand how to lead a diverse team of people.

And the third key element is creating networks, bringing together people with common goals and challenges so they can learn from each other and support their development within the organization. At McDonald's, we have strong networks for employees, franchisees, and suppliers.

The secret sauce that holds these three elements together is persistence, not treating them as temporary programs, but sticking with them throughout every business cycle. Indeed, every McDonald's business unit includes diversity and inclusion as part of its annual planning process.

Today at McDonald's we tap our diverse internal resources in designing products, marketing and promotional programs, restaurant designs, and every other aspect of our business. We have learned through the years that the more voices we hear in developing our strategies, the more sound our decisions are.

The true strength of a diverse organization becomes clear when the leadership pipeline is filled with more and more strong candidates,and my own career path at McDonald's is a good illustration of this. I grew up the youngest of eleven children on a small farm in McBee, South Carolina, and my career goal was to be a secretary. I held that position when I joined McDonald's in 1976. Over the more than three decades I've worked at McDonald's, my bosses presented me with opportunities I had never dreamed of and gave me the resources to take advantage of them. My goals grew from "making a living" to "building a life."

No single race or gender has a monopoly on managerial ability. That's why the wider you open your doors, and the more support you give your people as they advance in the organization, the more talent you have to choose from. This is a clear competitive advantage to those companies who have provided opportunities to a broad array of people through the years.

These are all tangible benefits that accrue to organizations that embrace inclusion and diversity as a way of doing business. Giving people opportunities to achieve their potential is the right thing to do, and it has the added benefit of contributing to the bottom line.

To me, the question is not "How can you afford to become a diverse organization?" but how can you afford not to?

This article first appeared in the Washington Post. To view the article, please click here.

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