'We Have Moved the Needle,' says A&F's Todd Corley

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

When Todd Corley was approached about the newly created position of corporate officer in charge of diversity and inclusion at Abercrombie & Fitch, he was intrigued.

He had seen far too many companies institute workplace diversity "programs" or "policies"-rather than a complete, companywide philosophy-and knew limited approaches were destined to fail. But this concept aimed to permeate the company's culture and reshape its corporate DNA.

Corley couldn't help but notice upon his visit to the corporate office, however, that his was the darkest face he encountered. And that's when it hit him. "That's why I was interviewing for this role," he says. "To make a change."

Since joining Abercrombie & Fitch in November 2004, Corley has become a respected architect of corporate diversity in the city and beyond. Now senior vice president and global chief diversity officer, he has led initiatives that have made the company among Columbus's most progressive in terms of acceptance and social responsibility.

Corley initially went into finance after graduating from Le Moyne College in Syracuse, but soon left to get an MBA at Georgetown University, where he was exposed to the ideas of diversity and change management. A job at a New York consulting firm segued into a post at Starwood Resorts, operator of hotels such as W and the Westin. Along the way, he graduated from the inaugural Brand and Reputation Management program created by Tuck Executive Education at Dartmouth University.

Although he barely knew where Columbus was when he was recruited, Corley says the more he heard about the city, the more he welcomed the opportunity for his wife and two children-and the chance to make a difference. "There was something about developing this from the ground up," he says. "That's when you can really have an impact."

Corley guided development of a six-part diversity and inclusion strategy, which includes: leadership commitment; employee engagement; measurement and accountability; communication; training and education; and policy integration.

Abercrombie & Fitch looks at 25 different dimensions of diversity on an interactive three-ring model, revolving around the core concept of "personality." The outside ring considers elements that can change, such as job title, seniority and organizational responsibility. The next level moves to more personal aspects that may or may not change: education, income, work experience, religion, recreation and hobbies, marital status, appearance and family. Finally, the inner ring reflects that which can't be changed-race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity and physical ability.

"This helps us look at what is central for everybody," Corley says, "and create an environment where we can respect our differences."

Eight years into the effort, Abercrombie & Fitch has seen results. The workforce has grown from 700 stores whose employees were 90 percent Caucasian-and lawsuits alleging discriminatory hiring practices-to 1,100 stores that have closer to a 50-50 mix among the 85,000 employees.

"We have moved the needle," Corley says. "You have no credibility of diversity if you say you believe one thing and look another way. We had to start with the elephant in the room."

Corley, a member of the Central Ohio Diversity Consortium and the Executive Leadership Council, says the key to making such changes last is to not think about impacting a moment, but rather changing behavior and conversation. To do that communitywide, Columbus must move past the biases of longtime residents with long-held beliefs, where "that comfort of familiarity can get in the way," he says.

"Columbus has to put the issues on the forefront about what diversity and inclusion means to the city," Corley says. "We benefit from a strategy that ties the city all together. Then we will see how we can all benefit from such a rich history of different backgrounds coming and living here."

Nicole Kraft is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the September 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.