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Loud and Proud: Shake Shack's recipe for an inclusive workplace

NEW YORK, April 14 (Reuters) - If there is a key mantra for companies right now, it has to be “diversity and inclusion.”

With issues of race, gender and sexuality coming to the forefront of American life, the nation’s board rooms are scrambling to assemble talent pipelines that look more like the nation as a whole.

Burger chain Shake Shack Inc is enjoying a nice head start in this particular race.

The New York City-founded staple recently received a perfect score from the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for its LGBTQ-friendly workplace. Advocacy even finds its way onto the menu, with items like the “Pride Shake.”

Reuters recently sat down with Shake Shack’s president and chief financial officer, Tara Comonte, a native of Scotland, to chat about the right recipe for mixing business and social principles.

Edited excerpts are below.

Q: Shake Shack has been named a “Best Place To Work” for LGBTQ employees for many years running – how did that become part of the company DNA?

A: It has always been a people-first organization, ever since it was born as a hot-dog cart in NYC. Danny Meyer and Randy Garutti have a set of principles they refer to as “Enlightened Hospitality,” and that involves taking care of our team first.

Everything stems from that.

Q: Did this focus on company culture stem from your time in investment banking, which was not positive for you?

A: I always say to people, “You learn just as much from the experiences you didn’t love, or the bosses who weren’t great, as you do from the ones which were fantastic.” Investment banking just wasn’t a culture I enjoyed or thrived in.

It was incredibly hierarchical, where the proxy for success was being at your desk early in the morning or late at night.

I have also spent way too many meetings in rooms lacking in diversity, trying to sell products that looked nothing like the room. One example is I was working for this big global beauty brand, in a room full of 12 men debating a mascara ad.

I remember thinking, “This is the most bizarre conversation ever. No one in this room is even a target for this product.”

Q: How does being an employee-first company affect talent attraction and retention?

A: The war for talent is only getting more competitive. People have to want to work and stay with you. So we have to provide an environment where each party in the relationship gives their best: The individual gives their best for the company, and the company gives their best to the individual.

That’s why we’re “all in” on diversity and inclusion and equality.

Q: Since not everyone agrees on LGBTQ issues, have you experienced any pushback?

A: We’re not trying to judge anyone, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. You’re not going to get everyone on the same page all the time. But we’re going to be who we’re going to be.

Our North Star is that we need to do the right thing, as a business and a brand and leaders in the community. We need to have conviction in our beliefs, and do our best to educate and be inclusive.

Q: You have been open about discussing “Imposter Syndrome” – as a woman in the C-suite, what has your experience been like?

A: Imposter Syndrome is real, and unfortunately women have a lot more of it than men. That being said, women need to have confidence in their own worth.

I had a conversation like that recently, when a female colleague was quiet in a meeting. I said, “Remember, you earned your seat at that table, and we want your point of view. You have a valuable perspective that needs to be heard.”

The more you see women at the boardroom table, having voices and leadership roles and bringing great ideas, the easier it is for women coming up.

Q: Diversity and inclusion has become a key theme over the past year, so what advice do you have for other companies?

A: Build a team that reflects the marketplace you’re trying to address, and the community you’re trying to engage. That will drive understanding and empathy and creativity, and the more successful you are going to be.

Make sure every single employee has an equal opportunity to go as far as they want to go. If you don’t, you will lose your star performers, because people won’t want to hang around. (Reporting by Christopher Taylor in New York Editing by Lauren Young and Matthew Lewis)

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