Imagine waking up every morning for a month with a dedicated Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) exercise. Your behavior would change fast. Now, imagine every employee at your company doing the same thing. Your culture would change fast.
That's the reality for the employees at Denny's, the iconic diner-style restaurant chain known for its 24/7 operation. Today, they stand at 65,000 employees and 1450 restaurants, serving over 400 million breakfasts annually.
Spearheaded by their Chief of Learning and Development, Fasika Melaku Peterson, their Director of Leadership Development, Raila Roinisalo, and VP of DE&I April Kelly-Drummond, Denny's has embarked on a pioneering DEI journey. Their 16-month DEI program, “Denny’s Together,” builds employees’ awareness and focuses on turning that awareness into on-the-job action.
Here’s how and why Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo went about designing the “Denny’s Together” DEI program.
A DEI Pulse Survey Highlighted the Opportunity for the ‘Denny’s Together’ Program
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have long been critical to Denny’s, where they pride themselves on being “a diner for today’s America.”
That said, they only recently built out their 18-month program. Melaku Peterson said, “We are ‘a diner for today's America.’ That means that we have to not only support, serve, and take care of our wide range of guests, but also do the same for our team members. After administering pulse surveys around DEI, we saw areas for improvement. We needed to make sure that Denny’s was a place where everyone felt like they belonged.”
Specifically, they saw that while employees valued DEI, they weren’t quite “getting to the top of the mountain.” Meaning, they struggled to move from awareness to action. In response, they designed the “Denny’s Together” program, which prioritized practice and on-the-job application.
The Denny’s ‘Rules To Live By’ Anchor the Program
Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo started by establishing foundational ground rules of DEI. They called these their “Rules to Live By” at Denny’s.
“Change doesn’t come without policy,” Melaku Peterson said about the Denny’s “Rules To Live By.” “But,” she added, “policy alone doesn’t make learning sticky.”
Denny’s Makes DEI Stick with a Long-Term, Action-Oriented Program
We wanted to have an approach that really taps into people's natural compassion and curiosity. —Raila Roinisalo, Director of Leadership Development at Denny’s
To build a program that changed behavior and culture at Denny’s, Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo designed an 18-month program with four key phases. “To go beyond our usual thinking, beliefs, and experiences, and to create a place where everyone belongs and is seen, takes time,” Melaku Peterson pointed out.
Here’s a breakdown of each phase:
Phase 1: Learning the “Rules to Live By.” Phase 1 focuses on education and awareness around the Denny’s “Rules to Live By.” They combine eLearning, videos, and more to create a blended experience. They tailor the content to specific audiences and their work.
Phase 2: The 30-Day Challenge. The daily agenda of the 30-day challenge moves learners out of passive learning and into habit-building through consistent practice. Melaku Peterson said, “The 30-day Challenge Workbook is physical and online. It contains 30 days of experiences, challenges, videos, and reflections.” They also hold “Community Days” during the month, where the cohort gets together, celebrates, has fun, gets to know each other better, and discusses what they learned.
Phase 3: Bold Conversations. Bold Conversations is a two-day, cohort-based session where participants dig into how to communicate in a supportive way, grow their empathy and compassion, and listen to people’s stories.
Phase 4: Understanding Allyship. Lastly, participants work on being active allies. After a one-day learning experience, they undergo a four-week reflection on allyship, getting into “what allyship looks like,” “what does shared power look like,” and “how to create a safe space for all.”
The four phases don’t take up the entire 18-month program. Instead, Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo leave space and time for reflection and practice.
Six Strategies Denny’s Uses to Drive 80%+ Participation From ALL Employees
In its first year, Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo rolled the program out to all their 500 corporate employees—the Denny’s Support Center Team Members. They saw an impressive 80%+ learner participation rate throughout the 1.5-year program.
When I asked Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo what their secret was, they offered six strategies:
#1 – Compelling and Relevant Content: Instead of the typical one-and-done format, Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo took a more creative path. In addition to building out the content based on data from their pulse survey and leveraging the 30-day challenge format, they also emphasized making the learning personal and connecting it to each person’s greater purpose. Melaku Peterson said, “Solicit opinions, connect your connect to people on a personal level, and connect it to something that's not business.”
#2 – Social Sharing: Denny’s built and used their own digital platform for reflection, conversation, and peer learning. Called “Denny’s Circle,” the platform drew strong engagement and grew in membership from 130 employees to 300 (out of 500 total).
#3 – Prizes: Denny’s gave prizes to employees who participated up to a certain threshold. You could enter the raffle if you completed three out of five exercises for the week. And employees who exceeded the threshold or did bonus entries could earn extra raffle tickets. Prizes included two tickets anywhere in the US, lunch with the CEO, lunch with various executive team members, coolers, t-shirts, and more.
#4 – Champions: Denny’s recruited “Go Beyond Champions” to help at events, facilitate conversations, and serve as DEI council members.
#5 – Mid-month Celebration: Halfway through the 30-day challenge, participants got together and celebrated. They also signed a “Go Beyond” banner that hung in their workspace throughout the month.
#6 – End of the Month Celebration: To cap off the thirty-day challenge, they held another community day celebration where participants shared “Authentic Self” stories, reflected, and recorded video testimonials about the program for future participants.
Four Lessons Denny’s Learned as They Designed and Delivered the Program
Many companies have DEI programs, but it’s rare to find companies doing 1.5-year programs. It’s even more rare to find programs so adept at driving behavior change.
For anyone looking to revamp, revitalize, or build a DEI program from scratch, I asked Melaku Peterson and Roinisalo about their most powerful lessons learned. They offered four pieces of advice:
- Executive Buy-In Is Foundational, Not Secondary. “DEI is a massive effort,” Roinisalo said, “so make sure you have firm CEO commitment.” When they started their journey, they already had strong support from their CEO, CFO, and Chairwoman.
- Understand Your Current Culture. “If you don't understand what your culture is today, dig into it first,” Melaku Peterson said.
- Trust & Psychological Safety: Do work to build trust at the program’s outset. Melaku Peterson said, “If I would do anything different for this program, I would have spent more time, in the beginning, explaining what this was, and why it was, why we would want it to be safe, and how to make it safe for everyone throughout.”
- Gain Full Commitment from Participants. “If participants come to you saying that a 30-day commitment is too long, then they aren’t truly committed,” Melaku Peterson pointed out. This high standard for participation set a strong, committed tone that drove the program forward.