When Jeffrey Webster graduated from college in 1984, he couldn’t find a job in his field of business administration, so he took a job as a production worker in the stamping department at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., plant. “I was responsible for loading presses with parts,” he says. “Pretty repetitive work, but it didn’t bother me because I grew up on a farm and was used to doing hard work.” From there, Webster found “that there were tremendous opportunities at Nissan.” He worked his way up to assembly line leader, then after a couple more years was promoted to human resources.
Now, as Nissan North America's director of diversity and inclusion (he took the job two years ago), Webster works to make sure Nissan is a welcoming place for women, minorities, and gay, lesbian, and transgender employees—and that they, too, see opportunity at the company.
Nissan’s diversity efforts were formalized about five years ago, with the creation of the department that Webster now helms. Those efforts have lately been gaining some attention, too. Nissan USA received a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign for the past two years running—and in 2014 was named one of Diversity Inc.’s 25 Noteworthy Companies, along with Volkswagen and General Motors.
While the outside recognition is nice, the company is also taking it the bank. “We have the most diverse customer base of any automotive manufacturer in the United States,” says Webster.
Some of the things Nissan does around diversity aren’t that unusual for large manufacturers: their managers receive eight hours of diversity training, and technicians receive two. But some are. Nissan recently was a partner with the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance for the Gay Softball World Series, for instance. And “business synergy teams” centered on encouraging more cross-cultural understanding between employees have organized diversity events and brought speakers to the plant sites—from Vernice Armour, the first African-American woman combat pilot, to prominent civil rights attorney and same-sex marriage advocate Abby Rubenfeld.
Any employee can join a synergy team at a site. Each focuses on a different aspect of diversity: LGBT, generational, veterans, women, wellness at work, and multicultural. “These six teams basically are ambassadors for us in the particular areas they’re a part of,” says Webster.
Such programs are “essential to creating a culture of inclusion,” which pays off in finding and keeping talent, says Webster. “If people feel that they can come to work and not feel that their differences are being put to the side, then they are more apt to talk to people about Nissan, encourage people to come work at Nissan, and are more likely to stay at Nissan.”
In the diversity training, employees are “called to make sure they respect everybody’s differences and they are taught about unconscious biases as well. You say things about people and you never know, there could be someone in a [co-worker’s] family that could be a different race or LGBT. So you need to respect everybody, whether they belong to a certain group or class or not.
“It has to be a culture change,” adds Webster. “You don’t just want to push [diversity] down people’s throats. You want them to accept others because they feel it’s the right thing to do.”
In the U.S., says Webster, Nissan is striving to reach a 10% market share goal, “and it’s very hard to do that if we don’t leverage diversity. “Our goal is to embrace our partners in key areas of our business—dealer ownership, supplier relationships, marketing, advertising, philanthropy and human resources—as well as getting our internal employees to understand that we embrace their differences. Because you can be very diverse, but when you’re not inclusive of the people that are different or diverse, then you’re missing a lot.”