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Former Denny’s CEO discusses importance of diversity training

Adamson, who led Denny's through a series of issues related to discrimination, shared the methods he used to make the company a model for diversity training.

When James B. Adamson first joined Advantica, the parent company of Denny’s, as president and CEO in 1990s, the restaurant chain was facing a major identity crisis. Reports of racial discrimination at Denny’s locations across the country had grown frequent, resulting in $54 million in settlements to slighted customers.

As a result, Adamson set out to completely transform Denny’s at every level of operation, with the goal of reforming the company as one whose employees were more attuned to the needs of their customers and more racially sensitive. His book, The Denny’s Story: How a Company in Crisis Resurrected its Good Name, chronicles this journey and identifies key ways companies can reform themselves in the same way. Adamson shared his knowledge on the subject during a lecture last week in Lewis Lab.

“Changing the culture of a company is one of the hardest, most challenging things you can do,” said Adamson. “There is no roadmap for changing a company that’s discriminatory.”

Adamson was tasked with reforming a company that had confirmed several stories of both covert and overt racism in their restaurants. The more he learned, he says, the more apparent it became that changes would require a deliberate approach that had an impact on all levels of the business.

Although he had no clear path to follow, Adamson embarked on a journey to reform Denny’s that began with meeting every restaurant manager and franchisee about racial discrimination. In addition, he installed mandatory diversity and sensitivity training for all employees, in order to improve racial sensitivity in the restaurants.

“We made a point to say that discrimination would lead to termination,” said Adamson. “We also made it clear that franchisees who discriminated against people would lose their franchise.”

Diversity training was a continued component of employee training at Denny’s for years. Adamson says that additional reforms at the company included a focus on hiring minorities and the use of more minority-owned businesses as suppliers.

“We couldn’t stop at diversity training; we had to require that our managers and franchisees were hiring minorities,” he said. “As a result of our work, Denny’s was ranked the number one company for minorities and women two years in a row by Fortune.”

An experienced retail executive, Adamson has also served as the CEO of Burger King and Kmart. His lecture was sponsored by Academic Diversity and Inclusion, the ADVANCE Grant, BALANCE, the Council of Equity and Community, the MLK Celebration Planning Committee, the offices of the president and provost and social justice faculty scholars. 
 
Photos by Christa Neu 

Story by Karl Brisseaux '11

Posted on Friday, September 27, 2013

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