Sodexo's Annick de Vanssay on closing the DEI gap
The APAC region is vastly diverse, and organisations operating across its enormous geography acknowledge that: some 75% of APAC-located employers have made public commitments to diversity and inclusion, whether with the objective of driving financial performance or simply because it is the right thing to do. Studies show that despite differences between the markets in the regions, organisations share common concerns around race, ethnicity, and gender.
But assorted gaps still remain. Some executives find DE&I a barrier to progression, others are dissatisfied with the outcomes of their organisation's DE&I programmes, and still others have been unable to link their DE&I initiatives to business impact. Are there better ways to approach diversity?
People Matters asked Annick de Vanssay, Chief Human Resources Officer of Sodexo, for her take on the progress of DE&I in the Asia Pacific. A champion of effective change, de Vanssay has been leading companies in complex corporate transformation projects for over 30 years. Gender equality is a cause close to her heart and she strives to go above and beyond when implementing more inclusive and diverse work practices wherever she goes – constantly moving the needle towards a more level playing field. She founded BeeLab in 2017, a research group focusing on future leadership competencies, and has been the chairwoman of JUMP, a European NGO committed to the empowerment of women, since 2010.
What do you consider to be the most glaring gaps in today's workplace DEI initiatives?
While we have seen and taken great strides in the past few decades, there are still many opportunities and gaps to be bridged in APAC when it comes to implementing impactful DEI initiatives.
To apply effective change throughout organisations, companies need to rank DEI higher on their list of priorities and take the time to truly understand the local cultural nuances and needs of their workforce to shape their initiatives to be meaningful and resonant. There are often good intentions, but real impact requires leaders to not only educate themselves and dig deep to address the real and present challenges their people face, but a true shift in culture to embrace DEI is an ongoing journey that requires buy-in from everyone. This takes time, consistency and perseverance. I understand that this is no easy task – but moving the needle towards a more inclusive environment for employees will ultimately benefit companies in the long run.
Each company has its individual hurdles to overcome to become a more inclusive and positive workplace, and the process of building DEI programmes takes collaboration and continuous feedback with employees to understand their experiences and challenges in order to build initiatives that best address their needs.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are also very complex issues that present different opportunities and challenges that need to be considered. But studies have shown that although definitions may differentiate from market to market one thing remains the same – that race, ethnicity, and gender continue to be a major concern in the APAC region.
When it comes to DEI, there is no one single solution or approach that will work for everyone. There are clear goals in DEI, but the path to each of them can look different for every team or organisation. True success with DEI also means a shift in paradigms amongst people to embrace new ways of thinking and behaving – it challenges people’s assumptions, traditions, habits and preconceived notions. This is perhaps the most important underlying factor that makes DEI so exciting and challenging at the same time.
Do you find there are certain common factors that make employers' - or, at a more operational level, leaders' or managers' - DEI initiatives more (or less) successful?
We can agree that there is no ‘secret sauce’ to ensure success with DEI initiatives, but a very important factor is that companies should be very clear on the importance placed on DEI; that it is worth the investment and effort. To progress on DEI matters, it must be a top priority subject brought to the highest level of the company and carried by its leaders or executive committee members. By embracing the challenges related to DEI with an open mind, employers can cultivate an authentic intention that sets the tone for the work to come. I also find that effective and successful DEI initiatives are usually approached in a well-rounded manner, woven throughout the entire business with actionable, measurable plans and not just written policies.
Creating and implementing DEI programmes should not be the sole responsibility of just the HR department. Rather, success requires collaboration with other teams and employees across all levels. Employers must foster a work environment that encourages and motivates employees to drive change and make a meaningful impact together. When employers shape business decisions that engage their employees meaningfully rather than using a top-down approach, they tend to be more well received and create a more positive workplace culture.
Measuring and being transparent about our goals is also key to making sustainable progress as it keeps us accountable and facilitates change. For example, in 2018, Sodexo conducted an extensive internal study which revealed that the highest performing teams – on all indicators such as financial, engagement and retention rates for employees and clients, and safety – reflected an ideal gender balance ratio of 40% to 60% women amongst leaders. This finding informs the goal in our Better Tomorrow 2025 plan for 100% of our employees to have gender balance in their management populations by 2025.
DEI is often touted as way of making a company more attractive to talent. In practice, what do you find works best for communicating a company's DEI approach to the talent pool it is trying to attract?
When it comes to communicating our DEI approach, we believe that our employees are the best ambassadors. Happy, fulfilled, and long-term employees are proof that the employee experience at Sodexo is something we can be proud of. Our employee value proposition (EVP) is our promise made to current employees and future candidates, based on what they value most about working at Sodexo. Holistically, it includes compensation and employee benefits, but also other important factors such as development opportunities, a commitment to equal gender representation in leadership and other efforts to achieve greater inclusion and equity.
While building our EVP, our employee focus groups revealed a key insight – that our employees value being part of Sodexo because it means being part of something greater. Therefore, we shaped our EVP around three core themes that encompass this feeling and experience. Namely, that each person at Sodexo can belong to a team that values them, in an environment that treats them fairly and with respect, and where they can be themselves; act with purpose and feel motivated to make a difference through their everyday actions; and thirdly, thrive in their own way. We strive to provide what our people need to perform at their best, be it the right tools, new opportunities to learn new skills or a culture where health, safety and wellbeing are ingrained in the day-to-day operations and decision-making processes. Our DEI policies are also closely linked to our employees’ experience. Being inclusive in all that we do enables us to fulfill our EVP promise to them. We want our employees to feel empowered and supported in maintaining a safe and healthy work environment.
We are deeply committed to DEI at Sodexo and believe that it is both a moral imperative and an essential business condition for innovation and performance. Providing an inclusive culture and a sense of belonging enables our employees to contribute to Sodexo’s performance and develop their career with us – these are critical elements of our employee value proposition, which is why our initiatives are intentionally integrated within the organisation on all possible fronts.
Can you share more about how you have made DEI a tangible part of Sodexo's work culture?
We are a people service company in 53 countries. Our employees serve millions of people from many walks of life, in every region, so DEI is embedded in everything we do. The diversity of our employees reflects the diversity of our clients and consumers everywhere. To do so, we recognise the importance of understanding and listening to our employees when shaping DEI policies, which is why at Sodexo, we incorporate collaboration and feedback into our processes. After all, DEI efforts aim to increase inclusion, improve lives and protect our people, so our policies cannot be shaped independently from them.
One example is our annual global Voice Employee Engagement Survey that invites employees to share their thoughts on the Sodexo employee experience. Our last Voice survey conducted received a global engagement rate of 78.3%, while APAC saw 88.0% engagement. The results are anonymous and processed independently by our partner The Happiness Index, creating a platform for honest feedback that gives us quality data to understand where the needs and challenges lie.
From FY21 to FY22, the percentage of women in Sodexo’s global senior leadership increased from 38.9% to 42.3%. Our teams in APAC have also ramped up on initiatives to increase opportunities made available to Persons with Disabilities (PWD), survivors of gender-based violence in our communities. Sodexo also recognises that our core business – food services, has immense potential to make a difference on the ground in our communities. That’s why DEI is embedded into our incentive scheme in key geographies, tied directly to our goals. Our Supplier Inclusion Program offers a strong proof point: 25% of our supply purchases globally are with small, local businesses, with a special focus on businesses owned by minorities, women, people with disabilities, or other under-represented groups. Between 2018 and 2020, Sodexo also successfully integrated more than 1,800 refugees in 25 countries into our workforce.
What are some ways that work to dispel stereotypes attached to various demographics and/or various job roles?
The most basic definition of equality in the workplace is a lack of discrimination. It is the fair and unbiased treatment of people regardless of race, gender, disability, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or age, and should start from the hiring process, from job descriptions to ensuring roles and responsibilities are not positioned or biased against any group of people. An effective way for companies to dispel stereotypes and achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion is to lead by example, through action-oriented initiatives that make tangible and positive impacts on the lives of their employees.
We wish to attract and retain talent by creating a safe space for everyone to be themselves at work and empowering them to meet their full potential. This includes providing opportunities that support disability inclusion. For example, in India, the team makes a concerted effort to avail opportunities to survivors of gender-based violence and have since hired survivors of an acid attack. Our team in the Philippines have partnered with the Independent Living Learning Center and made three hires of differently-abled individuals who work on site for one of our major food clients.
Likewise in China, several persons with disabilities have found placements at various sites. Sodexo Singapore partners with several organisations for the disabled and differently-abled for placements at client sites. In April this year, they welcomed 15 students from Pathlight School, Singapore’s first autism-focused school, for a day of job shadowing. There are many more examples throughout the region and our collective efforts continue to grow our impact.
To support training, we also make e-learning modules and webinars available to our employees. In the last few months, our teams across AMPEA had access to webinars on the topics of allyship, how to prevent gender-based violence and the value of neurodiversity.
Finally, Sodexo is also a member of The “Valuable 500” – an international initiative amongst organisations and leaders to place disability on the business agenda. For Sodexo, this membership affirms our ongoing commitment that by 2025, 100% of our workforce will have access to initiatives supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities. We will accomplish this by establishing measurable initiatives to promote the recruitment, engagement and development of people with disabilities within the parameters of local laws and policies.