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Workplace Diversity: Inclusive Policies Help Retention

After adding a second co-op and restaurant, Seward Community Co-op made a commitment to increase all kinds of diversity in its workforce.

The barista at the coffee chain in downtown Minneapolis could have been a masculine-looking woman or feminine-looking man, even the name on the name badge didn’t offer a clue. But a handwritten line on the badge stopped the confusion: “Proper pronouns are he, him and his.” The defiant look on the transgender man’s face said it all, he was tired of clueless customers calling out, “Miss” or worse yet, asking if he was a girl or a boy. 

Restaurants, and especially kitchens, have had the reputation of being sexist places, but that's changing. 

In 2016, LGBT rights was one of the top 10 issues the Society of Human Resources Professionals said needed to be addressed in employee handbooks. More than 20 states already have expanded their anti-discrimination protections to include transgender individuals,  the group says. 

Co-ops, on the other hand, are known as open, accepting places, but they have historically been white. 

When the Seward Community Co-op expanded to a second neighborhood, it made a conscious effort to alter that perception by hiring people from the communities it serves. The co-op went from 14 percent of people of color in June 2014 to 37 percent in 2017. About 325 people are employed at the two co-op stores, its restaurant and production facility. 

“You can say ‘everyone is welcome’ but then (when) no one looks like you" in the store, the messaging rings false, says Liz Wozniak, human resources manager for the co-op.

At the same time, Seward took on addressing LBGTQ (Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay, Transgender, and Queer) concerns. And like all cultural shifts, in order to be successful they have to start at the top.

Email signatures for the office staff include not just contact information, but the proper pronouns that apply to the bearer of the email account.

“For us it’s a way to show our support for our employees who don’t identify with one or the other (sexual) identities,” Wozniak says.

As you can imagine it is a delicate balance to ask for the right information. At the start of the program, they asked new hires, “what are your preferred pronouns?” But transgender employees told them that when they are asked that question, the employer is making assumptions it shouldn’t be making. 

“Now we ask, ‘What pronouns do you use?’” Wozniak says. “We keep evolving.”

They are in the process of rolling out new name tags for store workers with a field for pronouns, similar to the coffee store employee's handmade one. Managers and shift leaders will be asked to be the first to sport the new verbiage.  

Is it really necessary? Yes, Wozniak says, because both customers and co-workers can say thoughtless things. Sometimes it's in fun, sometimes in ignorance. But if you want to offer a welcoming workplace with good retention, you have to go the extra steps to ensure everyone feel safe to express their individuality. Within reason, of course. “We’re going to start with the name tags,” Wozniak says, “but it’s not our employees' job to educate customers on this subject.”

Wozniak suggests foodservice operators who want to address all types of diversity bring in an expert, but realize it will take a long time to change the existing culture. “We had this opportunity because we expanded, so we could make this tremendous change in our numbers, she says.” 

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