There are four lessons to learn about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). For starters, HR professionals have to consciously take both detractors and supporters into consideration when drafting policies. Lester Tan catches up with Armaan Seth, Head HR, APAC, Syngenta, to find out what DEI is, and isn’t about.
Unlike a research piece on tips and strategies to boost DEI at the workplace, this interview with Syngenta’s APAC Head of HR, Armaan Seth gets real about how we should first have the right frame of mind, right culture in place before embarking on DEI – because without it, DEI is merely a policy that wouldn’t work.
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What comes to your mind when you think about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)? Is it equal representation? Equal opportunities? Or is it teamwork and collaboration?
According to a Deloitte report, there is no one true definition to DEI. It is, in fact, contrasting between generations. For instance, to a Millennial, DEI is a culture of connectedness—one that celebrates collaboration and professional growth. To a Gen X or a Baby Boomer, on the other hand, DEI is about equal representation and opportunities; a place where there is no discrimination or prejudice.
To Syngenta’s Head of HR Armaan Seth, DEI is more than those facets. DEI is about change, or instigating change for that matter.
“When you're talking about diversity and inclusion,” Seth spoke to us over Zoom, “you're trying to culturally change the way things have been done over many decades.
“Change is never easy. Change will always rub off in different ways on different people. Some people are more comfortable with change. Some people try to resist change, and that's fine. That's how we [should] operate.”
And right then and there, that’s the first lesson on DEI – to gracefully welcome the supporters, while acknowledging the naysayers.
For the unacquainted, Syngenta is a global provider of agricultural science and tech, helping farmers to grow their crops, while saving the environment at markets like India, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. At the moment, it boasts 49,000 employees across more than 100 countries. In APAC alone, the company has approximately 5,300 full-time employees, and counting.
Read on for more DEI insights from the conversation with Armaan Seth.
#1 DEI is about meeting in the middle
No doubt, diversity, equity, and inclusion is about acceptance. From ethnicity, to religion, to gender, to sexual preferences, it is a concept about treating everyone as equals at the workplace. However, that’s not just it.
“It's a fine line to find what's right for the people, but also what's right culturally for the markets that [Syngenta] exists in. But there is never a way of not making it work, if you have a solutions mindset,” says Seth with a smile.
He proceeds to explain with a hypothetical situation.
“If there is a certain initiative or policy I’d like to launch across the region, in some markets, it's easier to launch. In other markets, maybe the time isn’t right. But that does not mean we don't do anything at all, we find a middle path. We find the first step to [achieving] that policy.”
We concur that when it comes to change, there are bound to be detractors, and there are bound to be supporters. The learning point is: finding the sweet spot amidst change—right in the middle, a stance that both detractors and supporters can accept.
That’s a crucial point. Because the point of investing in DEI isn’t to “fluff up feathers or push people into a corner”, and enforce a policy for the sake of it. Instead, DEI is a moment “to show traction, depth” as leaders.
When change is met with a hiccup, Seth calls for leaders to then ask themselves: “Can we at least start with this? Can we show some progress over time, so that once the time is right, we are able to bring that initiative or policy in?”
At the end of the day, although DEI is a concept about acceptance and change, the importance of establishing a middle ground with those that you work with mustn’t be neglected too.
#2 DEI needs to have the right environment to work
We asked Seth: What does it mean to be a people-focused company in today’s world?
Quite immediately, he responds, it’s one that genuinely cares about its people. It’s one that empowers employees—and make them feel like themselves. More importantly, it’s one that gives them job and life satisfaction.
While this may seem cliché to some, Seth and his team at Syngenta are walking the talk.
“We truly believe in co-creating the future with our employees and our partners, whether they are contingent workers, interns, or whoever they may be,” he explains.
“And we do this through continuous employee listening, where we try and bring our best practices to life by understanding from our employees, what works best for them, what do they want us to do for them to have an easier, more efficient, more productive time both at work and at home.”
Another thing Syngenta does is have an open forum, in the form of Microsoft Yammer, to draw employees to volunteer in company projects. From there, various employee resource groups (ERGs) are formed, where employees openly share and implement their ideas, to meet the varied needs of the company.
And the response is, more often than not, immense.
“Typically, we see a lot of people raising their hands, volunteering to be part of these ERGs, even though these are things above and beyond their work. Just because they feel so strongly about the cause.”
So, DEI is about valuing each and every employee, and offering opportunities for them to contribute. But DEI can’t be fully implemented if it isn’t practiced; in fact, it cannot happen at all if there’s no environment to flourish in.
#3 DEI can’t happen without the right recruitment
As with many organisations, Syngenta has several projects at hand. It is currently looking at ways to increase women leadership in both corporate and commercial roles in Asia Pacific; to involve more youth talent in the company’s operations and projects, and more.
All these projects wouldn’t have been possible without its crop of employees. And HR played a part: finding the suitable (and diverse) talent that fits Syngenta’s ethos and where it stands in regard to DEI.
“Cultural match,” Seth shares, “is much more important than skills match.
“Skills are something we truly believe we can teach people. But the match on culture; the match on values and beliefs that we share as an organisation—that's difficult to build over time.
“So even if they if it means taking a bit more time to get the right person in, we will wait for that. We are in no hurry to say ‘Hey, a role needs to be filled in tomorrow, I just need hands and feet on the ground.’
“It's never like that. It's about having the right person for the right role, rather than having a good person for the role.”
Seth believes, if you have the right people, you’ll have an engaged workforce. And by having that, coupled with an open culture, “the best ideas can originate within the organisation. Because these are the people who understand your business the best.”
#4 DEI is an endless race
In Seth's final lesson, he spoke of the company’s various initiatives designed to meet the needs of its varied employees.
At Syngenta Singapore, mothers have 16 weeks of maternity leave; fathers, on the other hand, have eight weeks of paternity leave. For those who are adopting, they have 16 weeks of adoption leave. Meanwhile, at the India office, LGBTQ2+ employees, and their partners, receive extensive insurance coverage. All its employees, and their loved ones, have access to basic wellness benefits and programmes.
Outside of office premises, in Indonesia, Syngenta works with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to boost farmers’ financial literacy through various programmes. In India, Syngenta works with women farmers, called Project Rural Haats, to give them more autonomy in their line of work (a much-needed boost).
But the work to achieve DEI can’t end there, according to Seth. Fair treatment, developing talent, diverse recruitment, these are only pieces of the DEI puzzle.
There’s future of work that needs to be tackled too.
“When you start drilling down, what does it mean for work? What does it mean for our people? How will things change? When people start working flexibly in a hybrid environment; some people sitting at home, some in office, how are you going to create the right culture, the right behaviours, the right collaboration? It's a huge space which we need to start thinking about now.”
That’s the goal he and his HR team are striving towards for Syngenta. And personally, for Seth, he is big on mental wellness.
“For me, personally, I think, the biggest priority in 2021 and 2022, will continue to be the safety and wellbeing of our employees.
“We've been quite successful at doing a lot of things where our employees feel safe, psychologically secure. But we need to do a lot more around building mental resilience, and mental wellbeing of our people.
“There's a lot more that needs to be explored for people to get back to a sense of normalcy, to get back to being productive no matter where they are working or who they are working with.”
Before Seth signs off the meeting, we ask if he’s daunted by the tasks ahead.
He merely smiles.
“I personally see HR being the flagbearer of these changes.”
If you enjoy this content, check out another one of our interview with Shopee about work culture.