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Making Common Sense A Business Value

Shippers, SustainabilityPublished on August 24, 2020

Sustainability in business is defined as operating an enterprise which has minimal negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy. Quite often, the “Sustainability” umbrella encompasses Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which refers to a company’s commitment to be good stewards of the environmental and social landscape in which they operate. CSR activities can often help forge a stronger bond between employees and corporations in an effort to boost morale, reduce attrition, and help employees feel more connected with the world around them.

One of the organizations doing some incredible things in Corporate Social Responsibility is Arkansas-based Tyson Foods. As Senior Director, Corporate Social Responsibility, Debra Vernon heads up a comprehensive program which focuses on risks and challenges to their business from a social perspective in order to reinforce Tyson’s mission of reducing food insecurity and improving the quality of life for its workforce and the plant communities. 

Debra gave us important perspectives as to why a company’s Corporate Social Responsibility program can be so valuable to the organization on so many levels as she answered the following questions: 

  • Can you tell me about your role and responsibilities as a sustainability leader at Tyson?
  • You’ve already been focused on sustainability for 30 years prior to joining Tyson. What was the most unexpected part of joining Tyson?
  • Can you share one of the CSR priorities you are working on right now?
  • How do you measure progress against your goals?
  • What’s been the most challenging part of your work this year?

Debra walked us through Tyson’s decision to focus inwardly for its CSR efforts to benefit the company’s predominantly immigrant workforce in five key social risk areas: healthcare, childcare, transportation, housing, and cultural education and integration. Her 30-plus years of CSR expertise are quite invaluable to those who may be considering a CSR effort in their organization as she explains how to measure the ROI and recognize why investing in a social purpose can also provide positive business benefits.

Watch the video or read the transcription below.


Jennifer Wong: Hi everyone. My name is Jennifer. I’m the head of sustainability at Convoy. Thank you for tuning into our interview series where you’ll hear directly from leaders on how they’ve transformed corporate cultures and have made a material impact on society. Today I’m very excited to introduce you all to Debra Vernon. She is the Senior Direct at Corporate Social Responsibility at Tyson Foods. Debra has already spent over 30 years in corporate responsibility and communication before joining Tyson, so very excited to hear about all of her experiences in the past as well as what she’s already accomplished at her work at Tyson today. Debra, welcome.

Debra: Thanks for having me. 

Jennifer: I would love to hear more about your role and responsibilities as a sustainability leader at Tyson. 

Debra: So I am part of the Sustainability Leadership Team and because we’re such a large company, sustainability is divided into environment, sustainable food, animal well being and corporate social responsibility at Tyson and CSR acclimates with them the health people community section of the sustainability strategy. So, we focus on social risk and challenges to our business. It’s really a very social risk perspective. And our mission if you really drill it down is to reduce insecurity and improve quality of life for our workforce and for our plant communities. And under CSR there’s several areas that I oversee. One is social investment. The other one is team member engagement. [2:00] We also have team member social responsibility which are programs that are directed to our team members around education and stability I think is the best way to put it, stability in the community. And then we also just added some workforce development capability. And then we look to partner across the business, so we are very deeply embedded with our operations group, with our HR group in terms of diversity. With our government affairs group in terms of community relations. So, we’re very much of a matrix team looking to support our operations across our footprint in those areas. 

Jennifer: Can you share the most unexpected part of joining Tyson? 

Debra: So, I’ve worked in the dot com world with a lot of startups, I’ve worked at medium sized companies, so this was the first really large company, global company that I’ve worked for. We have about 140,000 employees which we call team members now. We have about 130 plant communities in the US alone and that doesn’t include our international locations. So the scope and scale was very different and when we looked across the landscape, when I first came onboard and was trying to figure out where we should focus our efforts, we found the most pressing needs from a social sustainability perspective where relative to our [4:00] front line out in the workforce. Many of them are recent immigrants, they’re trying to negotiate the complexity of life in the US as new Americans and so they face, as you might imagine if you were dropped in the middle of, you know, another country where you had no context. They have a lot of issues and challenges. Everything from, you know, communication gaps with their supervisors or coworkers and the broader community to lack of access or understanding about, you know, healthcare and housing and childcare and schooling and how do they do that. They’re vulnerable. They’re vulnerable to predatory lending and scams. They have skills gaps that let them not be able to learn how they can move up within Tyson and they just feel really disconnected. So, when we were looking at kind of the broad scope of, “Where do we focus our time?” It felt like it was really internal for us and that’s the first time that, you know, I’ve worked at other companies doing the same kind of work and it was always kind of more of an outward focus whereas at Tyson it has been an inward focus. And the company really has embraced that. 

The amount of need is overwhelming. I mean, if you can imagine, I think I used the example of, you know, one of us was dropped in Afghanistan and, you know, we had no idea where do my kids go to school, [6:00] how do I talk to teachers. Many of our team members, in either their own native language or English, and so it’s really… you see their challenges every day. And so that’s really where we’ve been focusing our efforts since I came aboard. 

Jennifer: What are some of the priorities that you’ve been focused on today? 

Debra: Well, I’ll set it up a little bit broadly and then kind of drill down from there. I mean, from studying our sustainability goals related to social risk, we look for really strong and direct links between a business problem and the benefits that we expect to capture and the actions that we’re going to take to make sure those benefits are captured. So, we’re looking, you know, to do a variety of things. We’re looking to enhance attraction. So, invest in programs like childcare that allow people to afford to work. So that’s an area that we’ve been doing a lot of due diligence in. We haven’t yet pulled the trigger but we’re doing a lot of due diligence in what a program like that could look like. We do a lot of work around risk mitigation. So, investment projects that reduce the risk of a social problem from causing turnover. Whatever that social problem may be and there’s a variety. Things that improve operating efficiency. So, we like to invest in our nonprofits capacity to address social issues that are caused by our business. For instance, health care. So, we can go into a community and we have a segment of new employees that come in from Somalia and they need healthcare access. And because they don’t know how to access healthcare, they don’t know what a copay is, they don’t know the difference between [8:00] a primary care physician and urgent care, and emergency room. That becomes a burden on our community. So, we invest in programs with nonprofits to address that and we do pilot programs and if its successful, then we’ll partner with HR or other groups within the company to blow that out on a bigger scale. We do programs for our market share holders. So, we just made a 1.8-million-dollar donation to Donors Choose where teachers in our plant communities can register to buy school supplies and we do that with our K-12 groups, so they coordinate with us. They have then another way to go out and market what we’re doing for our plant communities and help grow our K-12. We do things like things that are designed to help with employer choice. So, this last spring we invested in 7 programs around providing legal aid to immigrants. We also made four social justice investments and the fifth one we left to our team members to choose and they chose Immigrant Connections so we’ll be making a million dollar donation to immigrant connections and what they do is they provide legal aid to immigrant team members. So, a real focus for us. And then we invest in projects that foster acceptance with, you know, our stakeholders and our community. When we look at the tail end of 2018, we did an assessment of 21 of our communities, [10:00] separate types of communities. And we found that there were five major social risk areas that impacted all of our communities in some way shape or form. And they were healthcare, childcare, transportation, clothing, and cultural inclusion and immigration. We did a lot of our work in 2019 and again this year has been around drilling down into how we can address and solve some of those issues in our communities for our team members so that has led to a lot more grant housing, a lot of work around grant childcare, a lot of work around healthcare. Particularly in relationship to a couple of plants that we’re building, but also in established communities where we know that we have issues with housing because they’re in very very rural areas. A lot of our plants are in very rural areas as you might imagine. And there really isn’t enough housing there, for not only our team members but for the community at large. So, it’s a variety of things that kind of help us go from the big picture down to the small picture that ends up letting us help team members in Tyson plant communities. 

Jennifer: I really loved how you mentioned you kind of did that research to really understand what are the drivers that are going to be most important to help reach those goals. I think taking a scientific approach to understand how you can make the most direct results is really great, I think, in sustainability because it’s such a big topic. There are so many different avenues of where you can make a positive impact. I think being able to really identify those key levers are so important when every company is resource constrained. 

Debra: Yeah. So we don’t have, I mean, Tyson has a mixed portfolio and we do prepare foods, but a lot of business is commodity [12:00] based and so we don’t have those deep pockets that, you know, some other big companies have so we really try to make every dollar squeak. And I think even if we did have big pockets, at this economic point, everyone is trying to make dollars squeak and so you realize that you can’t boil the ocean. So where are you going to focus your efforts to really try and move the needle? And for us it has been both our team members and home grant security. And that’s where we’ve chosen to, from a social standpoint, focus our efforts. 

Jennifer: How do you measure progress or success against these types of programs? 

Debra: Upward Academy teaches ESL, GED, and Citizenship in our plants. Last year we introduce digital literacy and for that, we are now this year and the tail end of last year, rolling out digital labs. So if you can imagine just a cart, a rolling cart, and in it are tablet computers and all of our curriculum materials are preloaded onto the tablet computers and so before and after shifts, so we teach them in the plant, there’s no disruption of operation, and because our team members lives are complex enough without, you know, trying to take care of their families and get to work and some of them may not have a car or they may share a car with one of [14:00] their family members or they walk. So, having the classes in the plant before and after shift just ensures that it’s more convenient to them. And it’s right there. So, we’ve been teaching that. We’ve introduced the digital literacy curriculum. We just got finished with our second pilot test of a financial literacy curriculum. And a little bit different on the financial literacy curriculum whereas most of the program we’ve talked about 401K and savings and that kind of thing, ours talks about, “This is a bank in America. This is was interest is. This is what happens when you go to a bank…” its just very very basic. “This is what an ATM card is…” And that kind of thing. So, it’s very very basic. We are planning to roll out that program. And so previously, we had programs that were mainly focused on our new American team members, now with the financial and digital literacy we’re able to expand the curriculum to folks who are native English speakers who are maybe from families of generational poverty in our third world location so that they have ways to participate in the program. And so we have measured this in terms of, long explanation, we measure this in terms of turnover but we have a rural sociologist that we work with, she used to be from the University of Arkansas, she’s worked with us for about three years now. And what we do is we try to measure what the impact of these programs is because when you’re in a business, I mean, the business of business is business. So there needs to be some kind of upside to any program that you’re doing because if there’s not, those are the programs that, although the commitment of Tyson to this program has been phenomenal. It’s now a public facing goal. [16:00] But in general, in my experience, if there is not a business benefit to a program, those are the ones that tend to get cut after a while. This one has not and what we have found after working with our researcher and doing everything from qualitative interviews to calibrating all of our HR data to…its amazing what she’s done. We have found that the overall return on investment of the program was about 123% so for every dollar we invest, we get 1.23 back. The baseline seems to be increasing job satisfaction and loyalty and a lot of our team members take it, it helps them negotiate life in America, both in the plant and outside the plant. So, they understand, you know, how to interact better and talk better with their kid’s teachers, and healthcare providers, and with their co-workers, and with their supervisors. But for us, the really big thing that was kind of like a light going off for us was that we measured people in the plant, again, people in the plant that were taking Upward Academy and we found that the expected rate of termination of just a general category of, you know, team members was about 31% for various reasons for whatever they were. And that would equal to about 162 terminations. If the team member was enrolled in Upward Academy, the turnover rate was 3.3% or 17 terminations. So, we saved about 145 terminations and each of those turns is 6,000 dollars for us so that was the business upside for us. Now, we’re continuing to measure it, it’s up to date because the data measurement comes from people actually being in classes and since March, [18:00] we have not been in classes at the plants because the plants have been closed, you know, to just about any but essential personnel. But they will be starting up again likely in January and that’s the upside that we see. So, there’s a social purpose but there’s a business benefit. 

Jennifer: Wow. Congrats to all of your success so far! It’s incredible to hear all of these stories, even if just briefly about all of the different types of programs that you’ve been running.

For my last question, I know that this success hasn’t come easily, what has been the most challenging part of your work? 

Debra: Well, I’d like to say that, you know, being able to move forward on these programs is really credit to my team. I don’t know how to work with them every day and they are such experts, they just blow me away. To the willingness of the company to take a chance on these ideas that they aren’t quite familiar with and they have not had any experience with and Tyson has been incredibly open to, you know, every time we raise our hand and say, “We have another cockamamie idea. What do you think of that?” They have been willing to hear it out and when it makes sense to cross all the parameters, they have been 100%. So that, that has been great. The difficulties are the unknowns. The unknowns, I mean, everybody here…I think I shared the example of when I was in the southern valley working, you always kind of felt like you didn’t know enough, that everybody around you knew more than you do. Then you realize that everybody is going by the seam of their pants [20:00] because technology is moving so fast and that’s where we find ourselves. Things are moving so fast that you have to act on almost 70% of the information that you have and take your best guess and try so fast to get out but if you succeed blow it out, and that’s what makes it successful. And the company’s willingness to back us, my team’s willingness to do the extra due diligence are…the people in our plants, you know, we are very deeply embedded with HR and our operations groups, they attack it at the ground level. It has been a group effort and it has been a lot of hurdles but I’ve never seen a program that so many people wrap themselves around because they understood the benefits of it. So, I think that’s it. Its just the unknown challenges that you don’t know until you’re right in the middle of it. 

Jennifer: Thank you so much, Debra. This is the best part of my day so far and I’m sure it’s going to be the best part of anyone’s day when they hear this interview. 

Debra: Yeah, and if you get any questions, I’m happy to share because we’re always happy to learn more so, thank you for allowing us to publicize what we’re doing and in return, we hope that people will reach out to us so we can take notes and get better at what we’re doing. 


Jennifer Wong

Jennifer is the Head of Sustainability at Convoy, helping transportation leaders make progress against their environmental and social impact goals.
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