Diversity training, doing good in the communities in which it operates and encouraging employees to dream big dreams are the three pillars of Darden Restaurants’ human resources’ strategy, Clarence Otis, company chairman and CEO, told attendees last week at the Great Place to Work conference in Atlanta.

Darden owns restaurant chains such as Red Lobster and Olive Garden and employs 180,000 workers at 1,800 restaurants throughout North America. Cultivating the right culture “has seen us through good times and bad,” Otis told the crowd. “People do their best work when there’s a bigger purpose to the work. But what elicits commitment [from employees] are the promises we make to employees.”

In surveys, employees cite Darden’s inclusive environment and pride in what the company does as the top two reasons they like working there.

The company starts with the assumption that “everyone who walks through our doors can go to the top,” Otis said. “The notion of upward mobility remains as strong today as it has been at any time in the history of America.”

In addition, the company invests in the development of its people, particularly around diversity. “Our goal is to explore the assumptions we all bring to the table about our differences,” he said. “We believe this is an investment that matters even more today than when we started 12 years ago and cannot afford to pull back, even in difficult economic times.”

Darden also promises employees it will create social value in the communities in which it works. The company has launched three programs to further this promise. Its “Recipe for Success” program helps young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, find academic opportunities, finance post-secondary education and offers scholarships. The Darden Harvest program gathers food from the company’s restaurants and delivers it to local food banks, when food safety rules permit. And the company’s Darden Dimes program provides assistance to employees in need. Otis said more than 90,000 employees donated to the fund last year and the program raised $2 million, despite the challenging economic environment.

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