When a group of Michelin’s South Carolina employees wanted to march in the S.C. Pride Festival parade in Columbia last month, they received more than permission from their corporate executives.
They got encouragement.
Dave Stafford, the chief human resources officer for Michelin North America, marched in the parade with the workers, along with chief diversity officer Herb Johnson and other officials from the company’s corporate headquarters in Greenville. The company officials marched behind a Michelin banner, and the company also put up a tent with a rainbow prize wheel, games and quizzes, all centered around a display about Michelin tires and the company’s merits.
Doesn’t the company fear alienating customers who might not embrace the gay and lesbian movement?
“No,” Stafford said. “We engage far more customers than we disengage.”
Michelin seeks to embrace diversity through eight different networks, from military veterans to Hispanics. The company’s diversity focus matches a growing trend among major corporations trying to keep employees happy and engaged, attract talented workers and broaden the companies’ customer bases.
Johnson noted the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community alone has buying power to the tune of $830 billion in the United States. The Oct. 24 Pride Festival “was an opportunity to get in front of 30,000 potential new customers,” he said, referring to festival participants.
Since 1999, the French tire maker, like 80 percent of Fortune 500 corporations, has structured diversity councils, encouraged grassroots employee resource groups in various networks, and hired diversity officers to preach and practice inclusion.
Employees in networks, such as women, new hires and employees approaching retirement, are urged to meet, plan activities, give feedback to executives, encourage personal growth and keep the company from making dumb mistakes that could alienate customers, shareholders, employees or potential employees.
Neyhilez Rivera, a scrap management technician at the Lexington plant who participates in both a women’s network and a Hispanic network, said feedback that Michelin receives from the groups “reduces blind spots in the company.”
No closed clubs
Most companies started their diversity efforts in the 1990s, although some go back farther, said Sherry Thatcher, a management professor at the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business.
“It started out very much based on race and gender, but now it has expanded,” she said. “Having diversity creates diverse ideas and promotes diverse ways of viewing the world. But there is a growing sense that it’s the right thing to do – to hear people’s voices and let them have a say in how things are run.”
Michelin now has eight networks at its South Carolina plants and facilties: African-Americans, women, Hispanics, LGBT, military veterans, new hires, road to retirement and LIFT – leaders inspiring fun together.
Employees are not required to participate in any of the discussions or activities. Nor are the groups limited to those who fall into those specific networks. You don’t have to be black to be in the African-American group, or female to be in the women’s group.
“You can’t create closed clubs,” Stafford said. “And if we made those mandatory, we would kill the spirit of them.”
About 250 of the 1,700 employees at the Lexington plant participate in one or more of the eight networks. The groups generally meet every month or two.
He noted that one of the ideas that popped up from the African-American group was promoting the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math – called STEM. The result was the Upstate STEM Collaborative, which promotes STEM learning among all students, not just African-American students, Stafford said.
The efforts are also essential in recruiting, Stafford said, as millennials are not only more open to diversity in the workplace, they expect it to be a part of the company structure.
“Right now the unemployment rate is low and you have to be on your game,” he said. “It’s all about programs like this. We have to make sure that everyone is part of the company and part of the solution.”
On Wednesday of last week, Rivera and fellow scrap reduction specialist Kate Revitsky were participating in a “Lean-In Circle.”
The group is studying the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, which deals with women taking more assertive leadership roles in companies. One of the book’s basic points is that women should lean into the negotiating table to participate rather than sitting back and listening.
The group of about 10 included two men, one of them the plant’s personnel officer, Mike Williams, who said the group meets on company time.
“This is not just about diversity; it’s about inclusion,” he said. “And we support it financially with time and with a budget.”
Johnson, the Michelin North America diversity officer, has an analogy.
“You don’t just invite them to the dance,” he said. “You invite them to dance when they get there.”
Revitsky leads the group, which is studying a chapter on negotiating and persuasion skills. Women, studies show, are less likely to offer opinions in group discussions, and are less likely to step forward to take on more responsibility.
Revitsky said the book taught her “you need to manage yourself, then manage your manager. And at a place like Michelin, they are going to work with you.”
But while Michelin has eight different diversity networks in its South Carolina operations, which employ about 9,000 people statewide, those groups could be different in other parts of the country or around the world.
For instance, in west Texas and southern California, Hispanic issues tend to be more pronounced, Stafford said. In Mexico, assimilating women into a production line is a challenge because of cultural traditions.
In the end, Michelin is a business, and business requires growth and profits. Embracing and encouraging diversity improves the bottom line.
“A lot of companies are doing what we’re doing because it’s so critical for success,” Williams said.
Jeff March, president of S.C. Pride, agreed. And, he said, Michelin’s participation in Pride Day did not go unnoticed.
“Obviously it’s a good thing, and it’s really a good thing in South Carolina,” he said. “We are trying to move forward, and the way to do that is through our companies.
“We are very conscious of companies that support us,” he added. “We know who supports us and who doesn’t. We know who to give our money to and who not to. Money talks.”
Michelin diversity categories
▪ African-American Network
▪ Michelin Upstate Women’s Network
▪ LIFT, a team that builds events to encourage fun in the Michelin community
▪ LGBT&A – Lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and allies
▪ Road to Retirement
▪ Hispanic network
▪ Veterans network
▪ New hire network