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How diversity and inclusion are driving the bottom line at American Express

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At many corporations, diversity is viewed as a “nice to have.”

... But according to Valerie Grillo, chief diversity officer at American Express, their commitment to diversity is “not just because it’s the right thing to do, but frankly, because our business leaders believe that a focus on diversity is actually going to help us with the bottom line.”

Diversity isn’t about ticking off boxes, however. “You can have as many diverse employees as possible, but if we don’t have a culture where employees feel that they can speak up and their voices are heard, you’re not going to really take advantage of that.” Grillo points out that 40% of Amex’s 60,000 employees worldwide are part of a special interest employee network group, such as WIN, the women’s interest network, or PRIDE for LGBT employees. The groups provide mentoring, “speed networking,” and other opportunities to connect with like-minded colleagues.

An inclusive environment can pay off in three areas, says Grillo. One is recruitment.“It’s really important for us to be an employer of choice across the board, period,” she says, citing Amex’s positive rankings on lists for LGBT-friendliness and receptiveness to working mothers. “It helps with our retention, because our general employee base likes knowing they work for a company that has an inclusive workforce that supports equality.” As I describe in my new book Stand Out, both employers and employees need to distinguish themselves in the marketplace, and a commitment to diversity can be an excellent brand cornerstone.

With its diversity initiatives, Amex also sought to enhance its relationship with customers. Starting in the summer of 2012 and continuing for the past three summers, the company targeted the gay-friendly enclave of Provincetown, Massachusetts (expanding to eight nationwide markets by 2014) to conduct pilot outreach to LGBT customers. “The insight that we based it on was a Harris Interactive statistic that LGBT folks are 72% more likely to support a brand if they know that the company’s workplace practices are gay-friendly,” says Dante Mastri, acting director of innovation and design for Amex’s Merchant Services, as well as the leader of the PRIDE Diversity marketing initiatives.

“Basically, if LGBT folks know that Amex is good to their LGBT employees, they’re more likely to support us,” he says. They handed out information about Amex’s stance on LGBT issues, as well as cards highlighting local merchants that accept Amex. “My theory is the more that we’re out in front of consumers in this way, the more we’re going to see diverse talent coming to the company, as well,” says Mastri.

Finally, Amex hopes their diversity initiatives will benefit the merchants they work with.  “In the first year, we partnered with an executive from Twitter TWTR +0.35% and put together a workshop [for local businesses] on how to leverage social media to grow your business,” he says. Their focus was “What are some of the business-growing insights and assets that we can bring to these merchants to make it valuable for them to accept Amex?” They gave them LGBT-friendly stickers to put in their windows and, in New York City last November, organized a Small Business Saturday Night event aimed at LGBT consumers featuring celebrities like Mary Lambert.

The results have been positive, says Mastri. From the first to the second year of the program in Provincetown, “We went back and we actually saw, during the period we were in market, double-digit growth and charge volume over the previous year. So we actually drove people to spend more in these locations.” Diversity, while laudable, isn’t likely to gain much traction in the corporate world as long as it’s viewed as an expense. At companies like American Express AXP -2.04%, it will succeed because of its ability to drive relationships with employees, customers and merchants – and ultimately revenue.

Dorie Clark

By Dorie Clark

Dorie is an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out, which was named the #1 Leadership Book of 2015 by Inc. magazine. Dorie is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, TIME, and Entrepreneur. Dorie is a marketing strategy consultant and speaker for clients including Google, Microsoft, Yale University, Fidelity, and the World Bank. For more information: dorieclark.com.

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