UCare spent thousands on building six prayer rooms and state-of-the-art foot-washing stations at its Minneapolis headquarters so dozens of Somali employees could properly perform wudu — the purification wash before Muslim prayers.

The health care company tries hard to make sure diversity and inclusion are not buzzwords. Maintenance workers at its two northeast Minneapolis buildings are drafting plans to add gender-neutral bathrooms for transgender staffers.

Nurturing diversity is important because it's the right thing to do, but it's also good for recruitment in a tight labor market — and for business, as customer bases are increasingly diverse.

At UCare — which has made the Star Tribune Top Workplaces list for each of the program's 10 years — one-third of employees are people of color or immigrants.

"We like to hire people who look like our [patient] members and who have similar life experiences," said UCare spokeswoman Wendy Wicks. "It's important to have a representation of the communities we serve."

Tonya Hobbie, diversity chairwoman for the Society for Human Resource Management's southern Minnesota district, said diversity programs need to fit a company's needs, so the programs may look different. Some train staff on the best ways to interview or recruit different populations, for example knowing how different cultures interpret eye contact or handshakes. Other programs highlight ways to successfully recruit veterans.

"Diversity means so much more" than just race, Hobbie said. "In our HR world, it's in everything we do as far as how we recruit, how we talk with people and the culture that you have in your organization. It really comes down to creating that inclusively diverse culture."

At Aldi U.S., with 59 grocery stores and 1,163 workers in Minnesota, diversity initiatives involve everything from the food sold inside the stores to marketing outside the company.

Aldi, which ranks 20th on this year's large companies list, has stores in low- and moderate-income communities and also sponsors foodshelves and school programs. It advertises in magazines such as Hispanic Network, Black EOE Journal, and Professional Woman's Magazine.

Brunswick Boat Group in New York Mills, which ranks sixth on the list, launched a Women in Manufacturing employee group last year at its Lund and Crestliner boat factory as the number of female workers grows. Currently, 23% of the 598 workers are women.

Golden Valley-based Allianz Life Insurance Company of North America is hiring a chief officer of diversity and inclusion, who will report directly to the company's CEO. Also, 50% of its executive leaders are women.

"Not only does diversity make good business sense in terms of preparing us for the future and adapting to a changing landscape, but it will enable us for the growth we need," said Claire Woit, spokeswoman for Allianz's 1,950-employee Minnesota operation. "Making sure the workforce is diverse at all levels of the company and making sure we develop everyone" is an important organizational value, she said.

Allianz invests thousands of dollars and hours in recruiting and development of employees to ensure a diverse workforce, according to Jenny Guldseth, chief human resources officer.

May and September are dedicated to employee development and diversity training. The company recently completed sessions about "unconscious bias" and "the respectful workforce culture," Guldseth said.

At UCare, it's important that its workplace programs reflect the cultures and needs of certain cultures. For example, it hosts an annual international employee craft show. It offered grants for Somali women to learn about fitness, nutrition and how to stave off diabetes as they adapt to an American diet and the lure of fast food. It also cosponsors Minnesota's Hmong New Year, the Diwali Festival of Lights in Minneapolis, the Cinco de Mayo festival in St. Paul and the Pride Parade in Minneapolis.

The company also hosts book clubs and brings speakers in to help its employees understand different populations. Recently, a quadruple amputee spoke about her farm life and the need to help Minnesotans overcome assumptions about people with disabilities.

KSTP meteorologist Ken Barlow shared what it is like living with bipolar disorder. The Mixed Blood Theatre Company performed a play about reactions Islamic women have endured when wearing the hijab in Minnesota.

UCare also recently hosted Hmong author Kao Kalia Yang, whose book documents her father's work helping the United States during the Vietnam War and how he and his family were forced to flee Laos.

"The more we can highlight this idea of [inclusiveness] in a business setting, the more of the impact it has on the employees and the community," said Pat Schmitt, UCare's vice president of human resources and organizational effectiveness.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725