Chief Financial Officer Rachel Empey and Sebastian Biedenkopf, Management Board member responsible for Human Resources, talk about diversity and inclusion at Fresenius. In an interview with Head of Communications Matthias Link, they discuss how diverse Fresenius already is, why change in culture is still needed, and how they define specific goals to make the company’s cultural environment more diverse and inclusive.
(Published: April 2022, Rachel Empey's tenure as CFO endet on August 31, 2022; Matthias Link left the company as of December 1, 2022)
Matthias Link: Everyone is talking about diversity, but everyone has a different idea of what it means. If you had to sum up in just one brief sentence what diversity means to you personally, what would you say, Rachel?
Rachel Empey: In one sentence: I believe in the power of teams! Diversity isn’t just about men or women. It also has to do with personal experiences, backgrounds and attitudes; essentially, all aspects of a personality. Every difference in experience, every perspective, is useful to our company.
Matthias Link: Would you agree, Sebastian?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: I subscribe to everything Rachel just said. When I hear the word diversity, I think of the German word Vielfalt, which to me has exclusively positive connotations. We all want diversity. We all love to travel to other countries. People think it’s cool living in cities where there are restaurants serving food from 80 different parts of the world. Diversity is enrichment. And that also applies to teams, as Rachel just said. Diversity enriches teams. Diversity makes teams better.
‘All my instructors were men. That was completely normal.’
Matthias Link: We all grow up in our own environments and move mostly within particular social milieus. This shapes us and also sets us apart from others to a certain extent. How did you manage to navigate your way out of that familiar environment? Or isn’t that necessary for recognizing the value of diversity?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: I was born into an academic household. That was in 1964, one of the years in which a lot of children were born. Mothers had a lot of kids back then. My mother had four, for example. Very few mothers worked outside of their own four walls. Society was dominated by men. In the workplace, in politics, in education. Apart from the exception of female teachers, professional role models were almost all men. And at university, all my instructors were men. That was completely normal back then.
Matthias Link: And? Did you miss out on anything?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: You often only notice that something is missing after you experience something different. For me, that was during my military service, because all kinds of people were bundled together there as a group. Suddenly, I found myself mixing with people from all social backgrounds. The entire spectrum. That was a very interesting experience. And a positive one. Even more formative was, as the younger brother, following from close-up the difficult time that my sister, who is four years older, had in establishing her own career. In those days, she still had to overcome major obstacles to progress professionally. She did battle her way through, but I saw the effort it took. And I felt that was really unfair. Incidentally, it wasn’t until the last semester of my studies that I had a female professor. That was in the ‘80s and still a novelty then. Fortunately, a lot has changed since.
‘I’ve tried to see being different as something positive.’
Rachel Empey: There’s a lot of truth to that, Sebastian. I studied mathematics at Oxford. I think fewer than 5 or 6 percent of the students were women. Then, very early on in my career, I had the opportunity to work in global corporations. Seeing the world from other perspectives was a very special experience for me. It opened the door to diversity, so to speak. As a Brit, I definitely also benefited from the opportunity to work in Europe, to move around freely. And I learned a lot along the way. I’ve appreciated working in highly international, diverse teams ever since.
Matthias Link: Have you experienced discrimination? Because of your background, because you’re a woman, because you weren’t perhaps accepted or welcomed as you should have been?
Rachel Empey: My life, my professional life, certainly hasn’t always been plain sailing. I’ve often said to myself, ‘Okay, I might not be like everyone else in the room, but I’m fine with that.’ I’ve certainly never felt uncomfortable in my own skin because I wasn’t like everyone else. If someone’s not okay with that, it’s not my problem. It’s a question of attitude. I’ve tried to see being different as something positive, as a gift. Who wants to be the same as everyone else, right? (laughs)
The comfort zone of prejudice
Matthias Link: Have there been people in your professional lives about whom you thought, ‘wow, they really impressed me,’ because you realized they were free of prejudice?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: You’ve just mentioned a very important term. Namely, the word prejudice. Prejudice means having a narrow perspective. And it can only be widened by opening yourself up to diversity. You can do that by venturing into new territory or meeting people from different backgrounds. When I look at my career, the people with the least prejudice have been those who had worked somewhere else as ‘foreigners.’ Most likely because they stepped outside their comfort zones. Because prejudices can be incredibly comfortable. Having prejudices reduces complexity so you feel that you understand the world. And within that lies great danger. It’s something that we are experiencing to a striking extent during the pandemic, where many are living in a bubble of ignorance. You must move beyond this comfort zone of convenience. If you make that effort, it broadens your personal horizons beyond measure.
Rachel Empey: The world has changed over the past 25 years, fortunately. In my first jobs, many people still had a very different mindset. For example, there was the idea that women weren’t allowed to wear trouser suits if they had contact with customers. It seems unbelievable now that such “rules” existed. A lot has happened, especially in recent years, certainly supported and accelerated by the spread of social media. The world is different today and continues to change. And that’s a good thing. That’s why I don’t look back in anger, but forward with hope and optimism. And I surround myself with people who respect diversity.
Signals and corporate culture
Matthias Link: You’ve worked for other companies in other industries – are they further along than Fresenius in terms of promoting diversity and inclusion? Is there anything we can learn from them? And in what ways are we at Fresenius already way ahead?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: To me, there are two aspects. The first concerns the company: What is the company doing to promote diversity? The second aspect is: What’s going on in the minds of employees? Other companies where I worked addressed these issues at an earlier stage and accomplished a lot. That certainly doesn’t mean mindsets also changed. But companies have the opportunity to initiate and promote this shift in thinking. This applies to us here at Fresenius, too.
Matthias Link: Looking around, you get the impression that a company can no longer afford not to display a ’rainbow flag’ at its headquarters – not doing so risks damaging their reputation.
Rachel Empey: Yes, that’s true!
Matthias Link: The question is whether it’s done more for appearance than to reflect reality...
Sebastian Biedenkopf: It may seem an exaggerated gesture, sure. But it does send out a certain signal. And signals are needed to break down ingrained practices.
Rachel Empey: Both are important. That is, communicating that we are a diverse company and that we welcome more diversity. But also, and equally importantly, that we proactively broaden our scope of diversity even further. What you communicate must relate to what you actually do in practice. There needs to be a good balance.
Matthias Link: What do you mean by that, Rachel?
Rachel Empey: As an employer, we want and need to inspire talented and diverse people. And we need to project this outwardly. You can see this as the surface, but in essence, it’s about our executives and all our employees thinking and acting accordingly. It requires a corporate culture that promotes and embraces diversity. We are already a very global and diverse company. But there’s certainly more that we can achieve with the various cultures, numerous countries and regions, and multiple business models and segments involved. This applies to our entire global Fresenius Group.
Sebastian Biedenkopf: I agree: Symbols are important because they send out signals. But is it the case that if the male Management Board members say, ’We’re all not wearing ties anymore,’ everyone then takes off their ties? And then when a newcomer to the Management Board decides in favor of ties, everyone puts their ties back on again? No, that approach certainly doesn’t help. And if I feature a rainbow on my website but don’t behave accordingly, then the rainbow doesn’t do any good at all. It’s actually counterproductive.
Culture change and corporate success
Matthias Link: How do we make this work at Fresenius?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: Alongside symbols, I need to promote the change in mindset, a shift in corporate culture. Symbols can help me do this, but they are only a tool. If I have a rainbow on my website, then I’m showing those who are driving cultural change that they are supported. But I also have to model the change. I need to bring people along with me. This is the decisive factor, and the most demanding one. I’ll give a quick example: Someone comes to me and says, ‘I’ve found a candidate who will fit perfectly into our team.’ I then reply, ‘If this person fits perfectly into the team, is this really perfect? What about diversity? Give it some more thought.’ I believe it’s this kind of thing in our daily interactions that can promote conscious and active reflection and consequently a shift in thinking.
Rachel Empey: Yes, it’s not only important for the Management Board and our executives, but for all employees to consider: What is exemplary behavior? What impact will it have if I behave one way or another? Even small things and seemingly trivial matters can have a big impact – both positive and negative. Every day. This is called ‘the shadow of a leader.’ It’s very important to me that we become aware of this – and consciously ‘cast our shadows’ accordingly.
Matthias Link: Declarations like, ‘diversity is an added value, diversity is important, diversity should be promoted’ are easy. Defining concrete goals is a bit tougher. Isn’t it?
Rachel Empey: I think the first step is to talk about it. There are many studies that say diverse companies perform much better and more sustainably. And wouldn't we all like to work for a company that is successful? It's more fun, isn't it?
Matthias Link: Yes, of course.
Rachel Empey: But for me that doesn’t mean we want to be diverse just because it's fun, just because it's hip and trendy. It's about our collective success.
Quotas and goals
Matthias Link: And how do we achieve this? Through quotas?
Rachel Empey: I'm not a fan of quotas. If our diversity goal didn't go beyond, let’s say, having 30 percent women in leadership positions, then it would clearly fall short. We should address diversity in a larger and broader context. I would also like for us to avoid promoting activities just to achieve formal diversity goals while forgetting, or losing sight, of the deeper meaning. Setting diversity targets just to have some and to be able to show them off – I don't think much of that. We must keep in mind: Why are we doing this? And how can we change our cultural environment so that what’s needed actually happens? Naturally, you need to measure progress and success to some degree. But I think we must be very careful and cautious in doing that, so that we don’t create the wrong incentives. That would be well intentioned, but not well done.
Matthias Link: If we meet again in five years and discover we have done a really good job of promoting diversity at Fresenius, what will have changed? What will have improved at Fresenius?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: Ideally, we won't even think about it anymore and we’ll just enjoy the way it is. Just as today we no longer give any thought – at least we didn’t until the coronavirus came along – about the freedom to travel. We have simply forgotten how restricted things were in some ways in the ‘70s and ‘80s. What happened when Europe opened up with the fall of the Iron Curtain eventually came to be taken for granted. It should be no different in the case of diversity. But that can only happen if we make people understand that they must make use of this diversity. To say we have increased the proportion of women in management positions by 3.5 percent this year is a start, but certainly not the goal. We must work to ensure that diversity can flourish, which will lead to inclusion.
Global aspirations and international role models
Matthias Link: Out of diversity comes inclusion? Please explain.
Sebastian Biedenkopf: Having a colorful mix of people from different cultures with a wide variety of interests and different religious backgrounds in my company is very nice, but it's not enough. I also must provide them the opportunity to share and contribute their knowledge, their experiences, their perspectives – and use this treasure of diversity for the company’s benefit. If we succeed, we'll reach the point where in five years’ time no one will think twice about it.
Matthias Link: Both of you have used the term ‘corporate culture.’ At Fresenius, however, there are several very different cultures. How do we achieve cultural change for the entire Fresenius Group? Or is that not the goal?
Rachel Empey: Our aspiration is to continue to push this forward globally for our entire company. The Management Board stands for this; each of us is called upon to really live this attitude and to set a good example – in all areas, business segments and regions where we are present.
Sebastian Biedenkopf: To limit the promotion of diversity to just Germany, for example, would make no sense. Naturally we must – and we certainly want to – do this worldwide. That we are a global company helps us accomplish this. There are Asian societies where women already are much better established in the workplace than they are here. What has long been taken for granted there is only gradually developing here. These are role models from which we can learn something. This is a topic that requires a bit more work: If you try to do it formally and are purely driven by numbers, you're not going to change anything. You also need a certain engagement and emotion. Our regionally diverse structures have a lot to offer in this regard.
Matthias Link: If the approach is to be global, how do we deal with reservations about equality, diversity and participation that are culturally or religiously conditioned in some regions? To put it bluntly: Does diversity also include tolerance for intolerance?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: I don't think you need to tolerate intolerance; you can, and must, take a stand against intolerance. If someone says, ‘I use plastic cups every day and still throw them into the regular trash, because I'm not interested in all this fuss about the environment,’ this is also something I can't respect. If people are hurt or disadvantaged, no matter where and by whom, then we can’t simply accept it. Apart from that, we must respect cultural circumstances and differences, even when they don't quite match our own norms. If my company wants to do business in that country, these differences must, to a degree, be taken into account. That doesn’t prevent me from promoting the things I think are right, without overstepping boundaries.
Rachel Empey: I find that difficult.
Matthias Link: With the foreign countries?
Rachel Empey: Yes.
Sebastian Biedenkopf: That's exciting, isn't it? Really diverse (laughs)!
Rachel Empey: We agree that other cultures and customs deserve respect. But when certain groups of people, for example women, are forced into a certain role in society, then I cannot accept that. It may be in our business interest to take a more pragmatic approach, but I personally find it difficult to do that in situations like this. Your approach is certainly more diplomatic, Sebastian.
Sebastian Biedenkopf: As often is the case in life, this is also about finding a good balance. Of course, I want to help ensure that fundamental rights as we know them are promoted and respected in these countries. But I can't charge head-first through a wall over it – that wouldn’t help either. These are certainly not easy considerations and decisions: A great degree of social competence and tact are required. And in any case, don’t bend on your principles.
Matthias Link: If you could give management and the workforce at Fresenius one tip on what they should do for more diversity, what would it be?
Sebastian Biedenkopf: I recommend the Unconscious Bias training course offered by our HR team. It's about becoming aware of situations in which we often – without realizing it – allow ourselves to be led by prejudices into making sub-optimal decisions. It's a real eye-opener – and we all know awareness is the first step toward change.
Rachel Empey: Yes, everyone should do it. I guarantee many ‘aha!’ experiences. My recommendation, directed especially to executives: Don't always talk. Listen. And think about what you hear.
Matthias Link: I’ve listened very carefully. Sebastian, Rachel: Thank you very much for the very good conversation.
Employees about diversity at Fresenius
Our employees are as diverse as the work we do. We’re convinced that combining different perspectives, opinions, experiences, cultures and values enables us to harness the potential that will make our company even more successful. Diversity takes many forms, and in this video you can hear some Fresenius employees talk about what diversity means to them.