CW Financial Outlook & Sustainability Forum: Successful diversity and inclusion efforts require courage, empathy

23:21 PM | November 20, 2020 | Rebecca Coons

Harnessing the culture, innovation, and bottom-line benefits of diversity and inclusion (D&I) requires corporate commitment and self-reflection, according to BASF, winner of the third annual Carver-Curie Diversity Award for Diversity in the Chemical Industry. 

Co-sponsored by IHS Chemical Week and the Chemists’ Club, the award is named after George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, and Marie Curie, a two-time Nobel Prize winner. Both were world-famous chemists whose achievements epitomize the benefits that D&I can bring to the world. The award was presented Thursday at CW’s Chemical Industry Financial Outlook and Sustainability Forum and Awards, held in a virtual format. 

Patricia Rossman, chief diversity and inclusion officer at BASF, says D&I is an “imperative” that helps BASF build better communities and customer relationships and unlocks productivity and creativity in its colleagues.  “We are all data people [in the chemical industry], and study after study has shown that diversity and inclusion is good for business and helps shareholder value… by enhancing performance,”  Rossman says.

Denise Hartmann, senior vice president dispersions & resins, Americas, BASF, said the company believes chemistry is “the enabler” of sustainable futures globally. “So, our employee population must reflect the diversity in the world—who we are selling to, who we are creating these chemistries for. It is so important to have that diversity of voice and diversity of perspective.” 

Although D&I are “human issues” and not political, Rossman says the killing of George Floyd in May opened the door at BASF to deeper discussions of race relations in society and in the workplace.  “Frankly, we’ve been having conversations that we hadn’t had before. The feedback from colleagues is that, now that this door is open, let’s make sure we continue to keep it open. So, we are engaging in a series of conversations, drawing together people at all levels and under the banner of acting with courage, compassion and empathy.” 

Critically evaluating D&I progress and being willing to take bold action has helped BASF improve its D&I performance and meaningfully increase colleague engagement. In 2017, the company—not content with the slow and incremental progress its D&I efforts had produced to date—initiated a Talent and Diversity Challenge. “We looked at data and found that good intentions were not enough,” Rossman says. “We were still hiring ‘ourselves’ despite saying we were open to the best talent from all backgrounds. We were setting pretty rigid job requirements  and job descriptions, and that was screening out some great talent.” To rectify this, the company mandated that half of the interviewees for all roles had to reflect the diversity the company was seeking in its talent pool, and half the people conducting the interviews had to reflect that diversity as well. The policy has been a “circuit breaker for us, helping us improve our ability to bring in greater diversity to our talent pool,” she adds. The company also began to put higher value on candidates with the “innate curiosity” it sees as synonymous with the field of chemistry. 

Setting goals and measuring gender and minority employment has been more straightforward than tracking progress on inclusivity, Hartmann says.  “You can bring in diversity in terms of metrics. But if we’re not leveraging the full power of that diversity through inclusion,  then we’re really missing out on the benefits of these different voices and perspectives and on moving faster to create the chemistries we seek.” Colleagues can only work optimally if they can be themselves in the workplace, Hartmann says, but a sense of inclusion is experiential and difficult to measure. “People need to feel it, and therefore it is subjective for each individual. It’s very personal,” she added.  “We’re still working to develop the correct [key performance indicators] around employees feeling like they belong.” 

Hartmann noted that company conversations in the wake of the George Floyd killing revealed BASF might not be as far along in in its “inclusion journey” as it hoped, and action areas were developed as a result. One key action area that emerged was leader action and accountability.  “We’re looking at how leaders behave to create the right environment for their teams,” Hartmann says. “We’re developing trainings to raise the awareness of culture experience and empathy levels of our leadership.” BASF also instituted a three-year plan for all its  sites that it calls “Getting our basics right.” This plan involves aligning infrastructure with the diversity the company is seeking to achieve.  “We’re looking at whether we have adequate dedicated spaces for nursing mothers, quiet or prayer rooms, and if we reflect gender neutrality in our facilities,” she added. The company is also exploring how it can promote D&I beyond its gates through community programs that promote diversity in STEM.