What Food Lion is doing to build a culture of inclusion for frontline workers

As millions of desk workers acclimated to new remote environments at the start of 2020, just as many workers had to keep reporting in person to deliver needed services. One sector that saw particular spiking demand in the early days of COVID-19 was food retail, whose workers had to navigate the shared stressors the pandemic brought to most Americans while adjusting to the new reality of being a frontline worker in a global health crisis.

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At Food Lion, which employs more than 82,000 people, leadership leaned heavily on its culture of inclusion to help workers—and the organization—through those challenges, says Linda Johnson, senior vice president, CHRO and Communications, at the supermarket chain with more than 1,000 stores throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southern U.S. The launch of new business resource groups and companywide conversations around topics relating to belonging and inclusion have been integral to supporting employees while also elevating the employee experience.

Johnson, formerly an HR leader at companies including Delhaize America, SuperValu and Farm Fresh Supermarkets, spoke with HRE about how Food Lion’s culture of belonging has evolved in recent years.

HRE: How is Food Lion making strides in recruiting and retaining women, especially women of color, who have been so disproportionately impacted by the pandemic?

Linda Johnson, Food Lion
Linda Johnson, Food Lion

Johnson: We’re being very deliberate about recruiting women, and people of color in general, within our organization. We have 50/50 balanced interviewing slates and we’re very intentional about making sure we hire from those slates. We also meet frequently, especially with our women director-plus populations; our EVP of retail operations, for example, has monthly connects and check-ins with women with high potential. We’re trying to be very deliberate about touching base, connecting and making sure they feel that sense of belonging.

HRE: How did the pandemic impact company culture—did Food Lion double-down on its culture or was it reinvented in certain areas?

Johnson: We had to do things in a different way. We had to look at new ways to connect people, to foster that sense of belonging. We added the caregiver business resource group, we had “courageous conversations”—they had kicked off before the pandemic but they really impacted the organization in a different way because they were being held virtually, and we looked at topics that really mattered to people: privilege, mental health, wellbeing. We’ve had these open forums where people can be vulnerable and honest, and I think that helped a lot with culture.

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HRE: Why did you decide to focus on growing Food Lion’s business resource groups?

Johnson: Our business resource groups aren’t new—we’ve had them for almost 30 years. We have 10 and our newest is for caregivers, which started during the pandemic. It comes down to listening to what our associates are saying. We heard loud and clear, even from people on my own team, that they were struggling—whether it was taking care of their children, their parents, their dog. And we have a culture where people want to be engaged, they want to impact the business and they can do that by being a part of our business resource groups. We call them that because they really do impact our business. And it’s a natural tendency to want to be a part of a group like this in an organization you love.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: How do you think your own experience as a woman of color has influenced how you approach DE&I work?

Johnson: Who I am definitely shows up in literally everything I do. I may not come into this work thinking about being a woman of color, but it isn’t lost on me that my opinion does matter and that, for many of our associates and internal and external partners, they don’t see people who look like me a whole lot. So, they do seek me out for advice and I’m always there for that. I do feel like I have a sense of responsibility for being open to engaging and helping influence careers in that way.

HRE: What elements are you focusing on to support retention in the current climate?

Johnson: Our biggest asset at Food Lion is our people. Our culture is called “Count on me,” and it really is more than words on a wall; we really do care about people feeling included, about making sure we have a diverse workforce that looks like the communities we serve. We try to keep it simple: We talk about having the “next conversation”—whatever our business strategy is for the year—and when we roll it out, we have a conversation with everyone about it. We have meetings in every single store to talk about the strategy and what it means. And we’re also very deliberate about that feeling of belonging: Diversity, equity and inclusion starts with the president of our company but it’s also a strategy that belongs to every single person in the company. We also are working to listen to what folks are saying. We have associate engagement surveys like everyone and have great scores but we need to really pay attention to what’s coming out of it.

HRE: As you settle into the new year, do you plan to bring any resolutions to your work as CHRO?

Johnson: I’m not a big resolutions person but I am a big believer in continuous improvement. I can’t rest in what I’ve accomplished; I want to keep making it better. I want to keep pushing organizationally, and making sure our associates feel like they really belong and have a great future at Food Lion. I think about the hiring process, professional development, the experience of associates—we do a great job but there are always ways to get better so we can make sure every associate can reach their potential.

HRE: What do you find to be the most fulfilling aspect of working in HR today?

Johnson: I’m a businessperson who loves HR. What I bring to what we do is I look at HR from that business lens—to take the organization’s strategy and bring it to life through our amazing people is just the most rewarding thing to me. And you never can fully arrive at that. Even if you’re making great strides, you never fully arrive and have to keep working toward it. That just jazzes me.

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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]