Diversity & Inclusion

Harrah’s chief diversity officer redefines inclusion

Traditionally, companies have thought that diversity is all about race and gender. Nowhere is that more the case than in the hospitality industry, which, in many jurisdictions, is held to certain legal standards.

But Fred Keeton didn’t want to just meet those standards. As Harrah’s Entertainment’s chief diversity officer, he has spent the past three years attempting to revolutionize the concept of diversity and, in the process, demonstrate to senior management that inclusion is the key to business survival. “So many professionals are caught up in the old way of thinking about diversity,” he says. “They have not even taken their definition of inclusion beyond the politically correct attachment solely to identity.”

Only inclusive environments that truly harness the power of each individual will continue to be industry leaders, Keeton argues. “The expanded diversity and inclusion approach that I have brought in is a completely new approach to this traditional topic,” he says. “Rather than counting solely faces or having [a] purely race- and gender-based [approach], I expanded this to include other dimensions, including previous experiences, occupational differences, cognitive diversity, geographic diversity, etc.”

Getting senior leaders to buy into this new thinking was particularly challenging, however. “The biggest roadblock is a lack of understanding around the true meaning of diversity and inclusion. It was difficult to overcome. You have to be tenacious,” Keeton says. “This is a role that requires courageous leadership. You have to be tenacious and manage — both up and down — very well.”

Diverse, high-level team boosts chances for success

According to Keeton, showing the positive effects of inclusion on the bottom line was crucial in gaining the CEO’s support. After all, he says, the best way to ensure success of a diversity program is to “create a meaningful link with your CEO and your senior management team around your company’s business strategy because it all starts there.”

Indeed, Keeton spent much of his time in the early stages researching and working closely with senior leaders to learn from their ideas and obtain their early buy-in. “I then selected highly influential business people throughout our company to form a team to do a deep dive on critical business elements,” he says.

The resulting Diversity Strategy Team — with members coming from a cross section of the company — focused on key areas of diversity: recruiting, retention, supplier, design and construction, marketing, and community relations. About 18 months ago, Keeton began rolling out extensive diversity and inclusion education programs in pilot form, training employees by incorporating much of the learning obtained through the team’s efforts. The programs include four guiding principles:

  • The company will not suspend business logic for diversity efforts.
  • Its efforts must be totally inclusive so each individual or group can see what is in it for them.
  • The company will use a formal management methodology (which the team created) to maximize diversity and inclusion impact.
  • Inclusion will be marketed internally as a skill that employees can apply at work, at home, and in their communities.

When the training is completed, Keeton hopes that all 95,000 Harrah’s employees will understand the importance of diversity to the company’s success. In the meantime, his team has begun formalizing through policy, process, procedure, and metrics four targeted areas: HR, supplier diversity, design and construction diversity, and community relations diversity.

“I’m most proud of creating a solid foundation for sustainable diversity and inclusion. This is a journey, not a destination,” Keeton says. “We have approached the [diversity] topic in a way that is totally inclusive. We have created something completely unique. Some people talk about an inclusive environment, but they have not truly created it. People must do two things. First, they have to answer the ‘What’s in it for me?’ question positively. Secondly, they must see the application of the concept to business success.”