Building Rainbow Coalitions

Employees at Bayer Biological Products in Berkeley, Calif., throw a party once a year celebrating their diverse cultural backgrounds.

By | November 7, 2005

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Employees at Bayer Biological Products in Berkeley, Calif., throw a party once a year celebrating their diverse cultural backgrounds. The daylong fete, observed through music, dance, costume, and cuisine, spotlights the biotech company's commitment to fostering inclusion. Collectively, its 1,551 employees represent 47 countries and speak 32 languages.

"When I talk about this with potential recruits, their eyes light up," says Kris Weidling, human resources manager at Bayer BP, Bayer HealthCare's worldwide headquarters for biologic products. "Not only are we talking about, 'Yeah, diversity's important, inclusion's important,' [but] we've got specific things we've done to really show that we do treasure it."

While Berkeley's population is eclectic to begin with, the hemo-philia treatment-maker goes the extra mile to attract and nurture a multicultural workforce. Since 1988, for example, the division's diversity council has provided a forum for everyone from line-level staff to vice presidents to discuss diversity-related issues. In addition, the council publishes an in-house magazine, Diversity News Network. A recent issue featured an article about embracing and raising a biracial child, an employee's perspective on her Chinese ancestry, and recipes from the Yucatan.

Increasingly, global pharmaceutical companies and biotech interests are treating diversity as more than a social responsibility. They've come to see it as a business imperative.

"It's really critical for us to find innovative answers to novel and complex business issues," Weidling explains. "Our ability to solve these complex problems is going to be greatly enhanced if we bring together diverse groups of people who incorporate a variety of backgrounds, ideas, values, and personalities." In the broadest terms, it means reaching women as well as people of different races, ethnicities, and ages.

WOMEN ON TOP: TOP FINANCIAL PERFORMANCE

Catalyst, a New York-based research organization focused on women's issues, makes the business case for gender diversity with a study published last year. The analysis of 353 Fortune 500 companies found that those with the highest representation of women in their top management teams, the top quartile, experienced better financial performance than bottom quartile companies having the lowest women's representation.

Studies of team behavior also substantiate the case for diversity, notes Deborah Helmer, vice president of Human Resources for Wyeth Pharmaceutical's Research and Development operation in Collegeville, Penn. The upshot: Diverse teams solve problems quicker and more creatively than homogeneous teams, she says.

A fresh perspective is particularly critical in the current environment where discoveries of blockbuster medicines are an infrequent event, adds Mahdi Fawzi, Wyeth's executive vice president of preclinical development and chair of the R&D Diversity Council. "When you have rates of failure in R&D up to 90 percent from drug candidates to drugs on the market, you need to think out of the box," he says.

RECRUITING WITH DIVERSITY IN MIND

The quest for a competitive edge has given rise to a flurry of recruitment initiatives. Last year, for example, Wyeth partnered with Wesley, Brown & Bartle, a New York-based diversity recruitment firm, to identify diverse PhD and MD candidates. "There's serious attention being given today to creating a recruiting strategy that yields a diverse slate instead of just … 'Who are the two people that are handy that we know that could be hired to fill this position?"' says William "Buster" M. Houchins Jr., vice chair of Christian & Timbers, a global executive search firm in Columbia, Md.

Several months ago, Houchins says, the recruiting firm created its own board of advisers comprising leaders from Asian, Hispanic, and other ethnic communities to help make connections with prospective talent. "On behalf of our clients, we're going to be much more proactive than reactive in creating diverse slates."

Employee retention, career development, and cultural awareness initiatives are also integral pieces of Big Pharma's approach to expanding diversity within the workforce. To develop talent from within, Wyeth offers a Diversity Development Program, a "mini MBA-type program," Fawzi calls it. The program, now in its second year, exposes a handpicked group of high performers to the business activities of the company's R&D organization through quarterly, management-led seminars.

Some results of Wyeth's retention and recruitment initiatives are already visible, Fawzi says. "Five years ago we had very high turnover in the mid-management level for diverse candidates and women," he notes. "That has been reduced significantly over the last four years with our focus on diversity."

Last year, Merck & Co. rolled out Micro-Inequities. This novel program is designed to help employees recognize and correct subtle behaviors that convey negative messages, whether it's losing eye contact with the person with whom you are speaking, or ignoring a female employee's idea while rewarding a man for making the same suggestion, says Deborah Dagit, executive director of diversity and work environment at the Whitehouse Station, NJ, pharmaceutical company. Roughly half of Merck's US workforce has been through the program. Eventually, all domestic workers will participate.

DRUG, BIOTECH COMPANIES LAG OTHER INDUSTRIES

Human resource and diversity leaders would agree there's much to do before drug and biologic makers become bastions of cultural diversity. Drug and biotech companies generally lag retailers and consumer packaged-goods companies, observes Janet Reid, managing partner with Global Leader Management Consulting, a Cincinnati-based diversity consulting and training company. Plus, a dearth of minorities and women going into science makes it particularly challenging to fill positions requiring MD- or PhD-level training, she adds.

But there are encouraging signs of progress. Virginia Clarke, leader of global diversity in the Chicago office of executive recruiting firm Spencer Stuart, says diversity initiatives are becoming more integrated as business unit leaders are held accountable for recruitment objectives. "It's 'Alright, so leader of R&D, you had kind of put a bogie out there to increase the number of women in your group by X. How did you do against it?"' she says.

Meanwhile, company-sponsored diversity networks and mentoring opportunities are making the "glass ceiling" somewhat more penetrable for women and minorities who aspire to management-level positions. One example: Women Leaders in Action, a forum for female employees of Abbott Laboratories in Abbott Park, Ill. Hundreds of women turn out for the group's periodic meetings to hear invited speakers and schmooze with their Abbott colleagues.

Women gain a better understanding of the company's business through their participation in the network, says Jill Mueller, group vice president for human resources in Abbott's Global Pharmaceutical Products Group. They may also happen upon informal mentoring opportunities that could be a stepping-stone in their careers.

Mueller relates: "I personally have had some people come up to me and say, 'Jill, can I talk to you for a minute? How, as a female, have you navigated through Abbott? Now you work for the COO. How did you do that?"'

"Our ability to solve these complex problems is going to be greatly enhanced if we bring together diverse groups of people who incorporate a variety of backgrounds, ideas, values, and personalities."

- Kris Weidling

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