Patricia Sowell Harris is very into McDonald’s. Understandably so. She started as a "fry girl" but moved on after two weeks to administrative assistant.

That was in 1976. Today, she is global chief diversity and inclusion officer and is responsible for the diversity programming that affects 1.8 million employees across 117 countries.

"I started like so many people saying, 'I'll work here until I got a real job,'" she said last week at the Society of Human Resources Diversity and Inclusion Conference in Washington, D.C. Five months after that, human resources approached her to work for the president. Eventually, the affirmative action department approached her to join their team and she's worked on creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment ever since.

"I get to see a lot of differences in the way people operate on both sides of the counter," she said. Though she did not offer specifics on how the company promotes diversity, she did say that its mission is "the courage to be in the presence of discomfort that results from an inclusive environment." Today, 45% of franchise owners are women and minorities.

That courage was tested over a year ago when McDonald’s released "Come as you are," ads in France that showed a young gay man eating in a McDonald's with his father, who didn't know his son is gay. The ad caused negative reactions from the public who found it inappropriate.

"As we try to be open and inclusive, we get beat up at the same time. Some of those days I had to pick myself up off the floor; people called in and said they would no longer bring their kids to McDonald’s," Harris said, though the organization stood by the ad. "We believe in diversity and inclusion and the value of our customers. But sometimes it's hard for us, because we have such a large customer base and they don't want us to do what we want to do."

Diversity programming ranges from internal services like diversity and inclusion coaching, counseling and McDMentoring 5.0 to demographics trends and analysis.

"It's making [employees] understand that they won't get this information in an operations manual, but only in diversity education seminars," she said of McDonald’s mandatory seminars. The company also maintains several employee business networks for young professionals, working mothers and five other groups.

"As a diversity officer, there was a time when I had to go to all those meetings and I had to make sure we were talking about [diversity.] Today, I don't have to bring it up because other people are talking about it," she said of the success they've had. 

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