Corporate Wellbeing Asia 2023
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Johnson & Johnson’s Sumeet Salwan on building an inclusive culture

Sumeet Salwan, global head of HR, medical devices and corporate functions at Johnson & Johnson, gives an overview of the global trends in diversity and inclusion, shares tips on how companies can approach the issue, and reiterates why a diverse workforce is good for the business, in an interview with Jerene Ang. 

Q I understand that Johnson & Johnson believes in diversity and inclusion as a way of doing business. Why is diversity such an important imperative?

I think it’s common to approach diversity from a “why it’s important” or a “what you do” perspective, but at Johnson & Johnson it’s much more about “who we are” as a company. In fact, “respecting the dignity of our employees” was embedded in our culture when it was written into our credo nearly 75 years ago. Our credo challenges us every day, to consider the needs and responsibilities of our employees and to create an environment where everyone can be themselves and feel like they belong.

I believe that we all have a role to play in creating more inclusive workplaces – the issue is too big for one person or company to solve on their own.

Q As a worldwide head of HR, what trends in diversity and inclusion do you notice across different regions?

While there are certainly common threads when it comes to diversity (gender, for example, is a pervasive challenge regardless of where you are in the world) there are also many regional nuances, often in response to the prevailing social demographics or political climate.

Ethnic diversity has always been a priority for Johnson & Johnson globally. In Europe it is becoming increasingly significant, triggered by immigration issues and the refugee crisis. In China and India it’s about Millennials; and in South East Asia, there’s always a push towards local talent, especially in regional hubs like Singapore where representing the diversity of the region is important.

The workplace is also undergoing profound change. We must understand and embrace the employee experience - we will work in new ways, our future talent will look very different and how we attract them will shift. From hire to retire, it is critical to create a deep sense of belonging to drive high performance and business outcomes.

At the end of the day, regardless of the regional differences, the goal should be the same – to teach people how to embrace these differences, to create a true culture of belonging. To quote Audre Lorde; “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognise, accept, and celebrate those differences."

Q What are some of the initiatives you have implemented in this area, especially one that you are most proud of? Who drives these initiatives?

Work-life integration has been a big focus area for us in the last few years. In recognition of the shifting needs of our workforce we’ve introduced new policies and benefits to support our employees and enable them to succeed. Such initiatives include our family leave policy, expansion of adoption and other parenthood benefits, flexible work arrangements, and our global breast milk shipping programme.

We invited Harvard Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji to speak with our top leaders, then we encouraged our leaders to share their personal stories about unconscious bias.

Of all our initiatives, I’m particularly proud of our work on building inclusive leadership competencies. Understanding how unconscious bias can be a barrier to inclusion isn’t unique to Johnson & Johnson – lots of companies focus on this – we’ve just done it a little differently.

One of our goals was to raise awareness of unconscious bias amongst our people managers worldwide, helping them to realise that we all have biases is a critical first step in mitigating them. We invited Harvard Professor Mahzarin R. Banaji to speak with our top leaders, then we encouraged our leaders to share their personal stories about unconscious bias with their teams, thus creating an environment where people don’t look at these biases as flaws and where they feel safe to discuss them.

To further expand this, we recently launched an unconscious bias e-learning that is available to all our people, which builds upon this awareness and provides specific tools and resources about how to manage unconscious bias that our people can use right away.

I strongly believe that HR will and should play an architect’s role in diversity and inclusion - devising the strategy, shaping the programmes and identifying the experts – but ultimately it should be business-led. The leaders are the ones who need to be passionate about creating an inclusive culture and way of working. The HR team should aim to organise this passion in our leaders, provide them with expertise and drive leadership accountability.

ALSO READ: Johnson & Johnson rolls out new parental leave policy in Malaysia

Q When implementing these diversity and inclusion initiatives, how do you engage with the key stakeholders?

The way you communicate your diversity and inclusion strategy to your internal stakeholders has a huge impact on engagement and overall success.  It’s a lot like the rules of change management. In order for people to embrace the change you need to share a vision that’s clear and focused. Then you need to identify fewer, more impactful tactics. Many diversity strategies fall over because they try to do it all. If you truly want to build an inclusive culture, you need to focus on what’s really going to move the needle.

Importantly, at Johnson & Johnson our strategy was co-created with our people around the world – ensuring that what we put in place would be relevant around the world. It is complemented with the full commitment and support of the CEO and executive committee. But what’s equally important is identifying the connectors who will make things happen. These are the people on the ground - the passionate advocates and grassroots change agents who will execute against the strategy and get the work done.  Johnson & Johnson also has a network of senior business sponsors in each country and function who act as diversity and inclusion advocates and play an amplifier role.

Q What were the challenges you faced? And how did you overcome them?

In my mind, there are three significant challenges that we face as we build truly diverse and inclusive workplaces.

We can all live on the same street or community but each family builds a set of values that is unique to them. Companies can and should do the same.

Firstly, at the core, is the societal and structural challenge. Many diversity issues, for example gender stereotypes, are structurally embedded in culture. It’s important that we recognise this and understand that these are not things that can be changed by one initiative – it requires a cultural shift and a new way of thinking, and this takes time and patience. It’s important to recognise these issues but never use them as a reason to explain lack of progress. The best analogy for me is that of family culture. We can all live on the same street or community but each family builds a set of values that is unique to them. Companies can and should do the same.

Another common challenge is preventing your diversity and inclusion strategy from being seen as just another corporate ‘to do’ or a box that needs to be checked. To avoid this, we ensure that our employees feel inspired and connected to the vision, and that they understand that diversity and inclusion isn’t a campaign or a programme – it’s simply who we are as a company, and the way we do things.

Then there’s the issue of accountability. Often companies are hesitant to put metrics in place for diversity and inclusion as it becomes about individual groups, which risks disengaging the majority. The challenge is to balance leadership accountability for diversity, while at the same time ensuring that we don’t create silos and instead drive inclusion for everyone in the company. The answer is to focus on the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’. Instead of making it an issue about specific groups (e.g. women, LGBT) make it about the overall company culture. When you do things, do it at a company level, not for individual groups. For example, don’t create a maternity policy, create a family leave policy which takes into account the needs of a much broader subset of the organisation.

Q What people impact did you see as a result of your initiatives?

There are many ways to measure the impact of your diversity initiatives, but the best gauge is always how your people feel and what they believe. At Johnson & Johnson we have created an Inclusion Index based on our employee engagement survey to drive awareness - and more importantly accountability - around inclusion throughout our organisation. Our most recent survey showed that the overwhelming majority of our people believe that Johnson & Johnson is a place where diverse perspectives are valued, and almost all employees believe that their supervisors treat employees with respect. This says a lot about our culture, and while there is always more to be done, it’s a good indication that we’re on the right track.

We’ve reached more than 17,000 of our people leaders around the world with Professor Banaji's session – which is almost two thirds of our people leaders.

From the point of view of specific programmes, we’ve reached more than 17,000 of our people leaders around the world with Professor Banaji's session – which is almost two thirds of our people leaders. The feedback from participants is overwhelmingly positive, with upwards of 90% of attendees saying that they can use the information they learned.

READ MORE: The 6-step guide for diversity & inclusion success at work

Q How should companies - especially in the STEM industries - ensure that there is diversity in their workforce?

When it comes to building a diverse STEM community it’s imperative that we start at the beginning and affect change at all points in the career development spectrum.  Unlike other aspects of diversity, such as gender or ethnicity, where you can introduce initiatives at an organisational level, that’s not the case with STEM – it’s often too late at that point.

To build a strong pipeline of female technical talent for the future we need to engage women at the pivotal development stages in their lives. That’s why Johnson & Johnson works with schools and colleges around the world, on programmes like the WiSTEM²D Scholars Program which supports women pursuing research in science, technology, engineering, math, manufacturing, and design. We also have relationships with STEM organisations that focus on women – like the Society for Women Engineers in the U.S. to help us identify women in STEM fields.

Finally, we have activated our Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to be talent scouts for diverse talent. These are voluntary, employee-led groups that focus on shared identities/affinities and experiences, who look to apply those perspectives to initiatives that create value for all of Johnson & Johnson. While the majority of these groups are currently US based, relevant ones are being expanded globally, for example our Women’s ERG – WLI (Women’s Leadership Initiative).

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