“Labels are for clothes,” not people, Kerry Bowden likes to say. The general manager of the Olive Garden restaurant in Sherman, TX, lives by those words, and he said Darden does, too.
“Our company is way ahead of the curve on diversity and inclusivity in its team members,” he said. “Darden understands that diversity in its people as well as in thoughts and ideas will make our business grow and keep us innovative and competitive.”
Kerry said he was honored to be one of 10 employees selected by Darden to attend the Out & Equal Workplace Summit in Orlando, FL, in October on the company’s behalf. Out & Equal is the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to achieving LGBT workplace equality. Kerry said the summit’s workshops, panels and networking events confirmed what he already knew about Darden: “We have already solved a lot of the challenges other large companies are facing regarding diversity. We already know that our people are our largest resource, and our flexibility as leaders in managing diversity in gender, race and LGBT issues as well as different generations is vital to our success.”
Kerry, who has worked for Olive Garden 14 years, has been a general manager for three years, the last two of them at the Sherman restaurant. “I call it my home.”
A Generation X-er, Kerry said diversity is not only about race and gender. “I’ve got team members ranging from 17 to 63 years old. We learn from each other. Leaders have to be inclusive and flexible to achieve the balance to work with Baby Boomers and Millennials as well as the next generation that’s coming.”
Darden’s commitment to diversity “is in our DNA,” he said, and it comes straight from the company’s core values, especially respect and caring, integrity and fairness, and our diversity. “Diversity starts with hiring, engaging and retaining exceptional team members, and our company reinforces our commitment to inclusion in everything we do. When we create a safe, nonjudgmental workplace and remove barriers, people blossom and grow. When we allow team members’ personalities to come out, they will blow our minds with their excellent performance.”
Kerry said his team members play a key role in hiring by participating in peer interviews. “Here at Sherman, we look for a winning personality. That means getting a guest to smile after a long day or creating a memorable experience for a guest when they bring their family in to celebrate a 100th birthday, which happened here recently.”
When he arrived in 2008, the team included three people who are gay including him, but he said the team has become much more diverse. “All of us strive to get better every day, and some of that progress is about knowledge. People can be afraid of what they don’t know or don’t understand. When guests get to know our team members as people serving them great food in an environment where everyone is welcome, good things happen.”
Those good things are reflected in Darden’s recent 100% score on the Human Rights Campaign 2017 Corporate Equality Index, which measures an organization’s inclusivity of LGBT employees, for the fifth year in a row.
“I have a fire in my heart to sell my company and our people,” said Kerry, who hopes to become a director of operations someday. “I wake up every day feeling blessed that I get to come to work and delight so many guests and have an opportunity to influence the lives of my amazing team members: young people, those my age, and many who are older than me, across three generations.”
Kerry’s optimistic nature was tested in 2012, when his partner of 18 years died. His operations leader arranged for the team to deliver food after the memorial service and set everything up, without Kerry even asking for help. “Olive Garden took care of me, and that’s when I knew I was working for the right company.
“They helped me build a career and a life for myself, and I am always trying to pay it forward for the kindness, understanding and inclusiveness of the company. I will never be able to repay Olive Garden and Darden for all they have done for me, but I am trying.”