EAST BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- Shaw's Supermarkets here has found that an "English as a Second Language" program for distribution center personnel has helped reduce turnover and improve productivity.
Moreover, a companywide effort to make employees more sensitive to diversity issues is also helping.
Ruth Bramson, senior vice president, human resources, revealed the new employee training approach during a recent interview with SN.
After being tried in one warehouse, the program was rolled out to all of the retailer's distribution centers, she said.
Shaw's operates 185 stores and last year did $4.2 billion in sales.
"We find that by making the environment much more diverse and getting our supervisors to understand how to work with the different generations, and how to work with the different minority groups, we are better able to retain them," Bramson said.
At the retailer's Methuen, Mass., distribution center, where about 95% of the work force is Hispanic and Asian, the company saw an "enormous change" in retention after an "English as a Second Language" program was started.
In partnership with local colleges, the language training is offered free of charge to employees who are willing to commit their time to it.
Part of the benefit came from the workers' ability to understand their supervisors.
But there was more to it. "Where they were leaving in the first two or three weeks because of the language difficulties, suddenly they felt as if the company was ready to invest in them," Bramson said.
"We find that it creates an atmosphere where the associate who does not have English as a first language becomes much more confident, has much more self-esteem, learns his new job skills better and is much more productive," she said during a recent distribution conference.
This does not eliminate the need for bilingual communications in signage and some training materials, she said.
"It is a combination of those things that creates an environment that makes people feel more welcome, let's them learn their job quicker, and become part of the team more easily," Bramson said.
Reducing turnover can have a direct impact on the bottom line.
"In the distribution center, the effect of turnover is especially painful. We spend a lot of time training our people and that training gets lost when we lose them. Turnover is contagious. Major operating problems are a direct result of turnover," she said.
Such problems, notably in productivity and customer service, are especially acute on weekends, which have become the most important shipping days, she added.
Shaw's has been addressing diversity throughout its organization.
"Our goal is to weave diversity so into the fabric of Shaw's that it is no longer a program, that it is no longer an initiative, but it is a way we run our business day-in and day-out and it becomes invisible as part of the values of Shaw's," she said.
For example, the retailer has seen triple-digit increases in the number of female and minority executives since instituting a diversity policy five years ago.
"We have had great success in improving the diversity of our senior management teams. While the numbers themselves are not as large as we had hoped they would be, we did find that there was a tremendous increase in percentages. We believe we have made great strides and that the numbers support that," Bramson said.
"We began by trying to create the right environment. We address misinformation and stereotypes quickly. We eliminated behavior that made people feel uncomfortable. We do not tolerate racially biased language or behavior, and we act quickly if any of that should occur.
"We interrupt inappropriate jokes or other kinds of material the minute it surfaces. But we did not believe that we could change people's basic feelings. We only could change their behaviors," she said.
Among other work force diversity initiatives at Shaw's: * A Diversity Advisory Council: "The council has people on it from every level of the organization and every division of the organization," Bramson said.
A Building Bridges training program that helps employees understand what it takes to motivate culturally diverse employees, identify and work through personal stereotypes and prejudices, and learn how to intervene in potentially discriminating situations.
Networks for women, single parents, gays and others organized for various racial or ethnic groups.
There is also a Teen Harmony program that reaches out to high school students and a Side-By-Side program that enables the retailer's employees to do volunteer work in the community while being paid by the company.
Additionally, Shaw's is serving as the prototype for the Anti-Defamation League's "No Place for Hate" program.
"We are under no illusions that we are going to change people's ingrained attitudes, or the way they are, or create a population that is totally free of prejudice. What we do hope is that with an awareness and understanding of others, the result will be a climate of trust and respect, and an ability for our people to work cooperatively in spite of their individual backgrounds," Bramson said.
"The associate mix must reflect the customer mix and the product mix must be correct to attract and retain the diverse customer base," Bramson said.
"We are making such tremendous efforts to welcome everyone that having those correct products available is critical," she said.
"There is a shrinking labor pool and there's no question that all of us are suffering from that," Bramson said.
"For that reason, we must reach out to all people to join our companies and make them feel welcome, and make them feel that they want to be part of our companies," Bramson said.
U.S. demographics are shifting rapidly. For example, she noted:
Only 15% of the new work force are American-born white males.
By 2050, there will no longer be a white majority in the United States.
In the next five years, the work force will be 65% women and only 20% white males.
The first baby-boomers celebrate their 65th birthday in 2011.
By 2025, 63 million workers will be over 65.
She noted that there is a tension between older and younger workers in the work force.
"We need to redesign our corporate ladders to make sure that we have room for the brighter younger workers to move up. We need to give older workers an opportunity to mentor the new people in the work force, to teach them about the corporate environment and about politics, to give them a role as the population changes," she said.