Chipotle’s secret sauce for retention? Data, development and DE&I

In an industry rife with turnover, restaurant chain Chipotle is tackling retention with a multi-pronged strategy that leverages data-driven insights and increased investment in learning and development—both of which are tied to DE&I, says Tawanda Starms, vice president of restaurant support center people experience and chief DE&I officer.

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“As an organization, I’m really proud of our journey,” Starms says about the company’s efforts to center DE&I in its business strategy. “I know we still have work to do, but thinking about how we approach DE&I and development for our employees is very important to us as an organization—to ensure everyone has equitable opportunities.”

That work has involved utilizing BetterUp to equip managers with human-centered skills and in recent years rolling out enhanced parental leave and free tuition benefits, for instance. HRE recently spoke with Starms—who previously held HR leadership roles at organizations including Thales Avionics, Best Buy and Yum! Brands, Inc.—about how the company is embedding DE&I throughout its business strategy to drive results.

HRE: The restaurant industry is notorious for high turnover. As you confront that, particularly in a market like today, what role can DE&I play in retaining employees?

Chipotle Chief DE&I Officer Tawanda Starms
Chipotle Chief DE&I Officer Tawanda Starms

Starms: DE&I is a very big part of how I think about retention. We are a very diverse organization—all throughout the organization. Probably 60%-70% of our people see themselves as diverse. And the more you see yourself represented, the greater the retention within the organization.

HRE: How about manager training?

Starms: The greater the employee experience, the more likely someone will stay within an organization—and employee experience starts squarely with who you report to. It’s really important to make sure you upskill your leaders and give them the skills they need to be great people leaders. In turn, they will not only give that great experience to employees, but employees will then give great treatment to guests and be more likely to recommend you as a brand to work for when they have great leadership.

And the feedback has been overwhelming. Employees are telling us that the time we have spent to develop them has been so valuable and that coaching has made them more successful in their jobs. And in turn, we do see greater results when it comes to promotion rates and performance ratings.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: What do you think sets Chipotle’s DE&I strategy apart from that of other companies?

Starms: We don’t necessarily follow trends, we follow the data—what our employees are telling us. And we have the great advantage of being a purpose-driven organization with great values. When we think about DE&I, it’s squarely within our purpose—to cultivate a better world—and our values, like “authenticity lives here” and “the movement is real.” We give people the opportunity to bring their full selves to work … and we do what’s right even when it’s hard. So, we’re looking to make sure we can make the changes in our system and in the communities we serve to give everyone equitable opportunities.

HRE: How do you continue to challenge yourself as a DE&I leader?

Starms: Really using data. When you think about retention in our industry, generally speaking, one of the things that’s going to be important to us as an organization is understanding the trends as they relate to Census data, birth rates, rates of growth within the country so we really understand where our labor is coming from—because we know in 22, 23 years, the minority in this country is going to become the majority. Because of that, it’s important for organizations like Chipotle to double down on ensuring that we’re giving equitable opportunities when we’re thinking about compensation, benefits, development, who we’re attracting, how we’re attracting them, what’s most important to them, how we’re retaining them. That challenges me as a DE&I leader to not just think about today but also 22 years from now when the landscape of the labor market is going to change.

HRE: As more organizations bring on chief DE&I officers, what is key to finding sustainable success in this role?

Starms: You have to get the whole organization involved. Lots of times, an organization will identify a DE&I office and maybe five or so people to put around the individual. But the organizations that are going to be most successful in both the near term and the future are those that figure out how to engage the entire organization to think about their work from a DE&I lens. If you really embed DE&I—whether that’s across marketing, the supply chain, operations—and not just in the HR function, that’s when organizations will be most successful and when DE&I will be able to truly make a competitive advantage.

HRE: What life experiences have been most influential in how you approach your work at Chipotle?

Starms: Along the way, I’ve had some really good mentors. I had people who didn’t have to invest the time in me but they did—and I think that’s paid dividends because I approach my work from the vantage point that I want to invest in other people in the same way. I was given opportunities early in my career to experience a lot of different parts of HR, not in the most traditional ways, I would say. I was able to understand, as an HR and DE&I professional, the value of approaching business from the business lens first, and then putting the people lens on as well to solve problems, and how that can give you advantages for the longer term.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].