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Workforce Diversity -- Walgreens and the Obvious Solution

Kasia Moreno, Contributor Comment Now Follow Comments

Do you realize how you are usually alerted to the fact that the restroom in your office building is about to be cleaned? This is one of those things that you probably never stopped to think about. But if you do, you will realize that you know the restroom is about to be cleaned because you can hear the cleaning crew banging loudly on the door to see if anybody is inside. Randy Lewis, Walgreens senior vice president of Supply Chain and Logistics, had to ponder exactly that question when the company was planning the operations of its distribution centers. Thats because there was a good chance that some of the employees would be deaf and not able to hear the banging of the cleaning crew. Almost ten years ago, Walgreens began to plan a new generation of distribution centers, one in South Carolina and one in Connecticut, for which the company wanted to hire a large number of people with disabilities.

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So how did Walgreens solve the restroom cleaning problem? Once you stop to think about it, the solution is obvious. Have female crews clean womens restrooms, and male crews clean mens.

Although initially Walgreens aimed to have disabled employees constitute a third of the workers in the distribution centers, they now account for 40% of the workforce in one center, and 50% in the other. Among the disabled employees is the head of HR, who has cerebral palsy. She had earned all As in college and graduate school. Sent out 300 resumes, done 30 interviews. Not a single job offer. Shes one of our best HR people, says Lewis, whose son also has a disability. The distribution centers also employ a disabled 57-year-old man who had never had a job before. When he took his first paycheck home, his mom cried. Yet another employee is autistic. In every job that weve given him, he performs at a 150% standard, says Lewis. While these are touching stories, Lewis was very mindful of the fact that Walgreens is a business, not a charity, and had to build a sustainable model. It did. The centers employing people with disabilities are the most cost-effective centers in the companys history. In January, Walgreens is planning to launch the same initiative in 327 districts, 8,300 stores, all across America. That diversity is good business is also the topic of a Forbes Insights report, Fostering Innovation Through a Diverse Workforce. The study, based on a survey of 321 executives, found that a diverse workforce is a key driver of innovation. However, that study also found that respondents felt they had made progress in gender diversity, but had fallen short in other areas such as disability and age. This only makes Walgreens programs all that much more important.

Lewis shared his thoughts about disabled employees in a keynote speech at the 3S awards, given out by the Global Sourcing Council to companies with exceptional achievements in sustainable and socially responsible sourcing. Council President Wanda Lopuch is an entrepreneur (founder of Medical Data Management, sold to Dendrite International) with a passion for promoting sustainable capitalism.

This years winners of the Global Sourcing Councils 3S awards are:

Alter Eco, which works directly with small-scale farmers who grow quinoa, rice, sugar and chocolate to help them institute Fair Trade. VOS, an eco-friendly shoemaker that gives back to the local communities in South America. HarVa, a start-up that focuses primarily on skill development, communitybased farming and microfinance for the population of rural India. Prana, a Fair Trade apparel maker, one of the first ones in the United States. Digital Divide Data, which offers disadvantaged youth in developing countries employment in business process outsourcing (BPO)