Every new year, business leaders race to finalize objectives, initiatives, and budgets. This year, they will need to be extra scrupulous in confronting the costly impact of a tight labor market and the volatile headwinds of the financial markets. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare ranks in the top three areas of growth, with job openings at 8.7% and hires stagnant at 3.7%. How can leaders meet business demands and gain a competitive edge, while protecting their most valuable resource – their talent?   

The answer, says Lucy Abreu, Executive Vice President, DEI Communications & Inclusive Workplace Strategist, Syneos Health, is to create an inclusive workplace.  

“Intentionally fostering an environment where all colleagues can actively contribute – authentically and safely —has proven to deepen employee performance, strengthen corporate loyalty and pride, and optimize business outcomes,” says Abreu. “Prioritizing an inclusive workplace culture may be the catalyst needed to meet your organization’s talent and financial goals.” 

Abreu, a healthcare communications leader with a wealth of experience in human resources, advises Syneos clients on promoting an inclusive workplace culture to help them “future-proof” their organizations. She often partners with the Syneos DEI Advisory Council to co-develop strategies. She recently spoke with some council members to gather insights on how leaders can promote inclusive workforce behaviors to position their businesses for the transformation needed to sustain their organizations through emerging industry challenges, trends, and regulations.

What does it mean to have an inclusive work environment? 

A picture containing application Description automatically generated "An ‘inclusive work environment’ is one in which those in seats of power encourage, rather than tolerate, a diversity of people to express their opinions, ideologies, and cultural practices even when they counter an organization's previous norms," states Council member Joel Plummer, African American History Adjunct Professor, Rutgers University. "In short, every member of an organization should feel comfortable being their authentic self without fear of retribution; this can happen most quickly if the people with the most power in an organization personally set the tone of the workplace's culture." 

Many council members emphasized that a diverse workforce can help solve the healthcare challenges of an evolving U.S. patient population, especially as organizations encounter more rigorous regulatory guidelines requiring enhanced data reporting on clinical trial demographics, such as those proposed in the DEPICT Act. 

A picture containing application Description automatically generated"Having an inclusive, diverse, and culturally representative workplace will ensure the future of health, employment, and innovation learns from past neglects and builds for one that is economically, culturally, and socially impactful," shared Council member Ivelyse Andino, CEO and Founder of Radical Health, an organization dedicated to strengthening health fluency and advancing health equity through technology. 

Operationalizing an inclusive culture. Where do you start?

Logo Description automatically generated"An inclusive culture is a multi-prong organism that must be embedded in all aspects of the operations, but it starts with hiring," shared Council member Megan Bloomer, corporate executive and board member, sustainability & CSR expert. "As a leader, I am first and foremost responsible for authoring job descriptions that are inclusive in nature. I should also advocate for a diverse pool of applicants from my recruiters. Once we enter the interview phase, I am responsible for holding space to hear diverse ideas."  

Bloomer went on to say that these early decisions allow organizations to benefit from individuals who will work together to "propose the most robust and comprehensive solutions" based on their "varied life experiences and backgrounds." 

Turning intention into action. Leaders must role model the behavior.  

A picture containing application Description automatically generatedA common theme expressed by council members was the need for leaders to serve as role models in promoting an inclusive culture.  

"Inclusion is not some new corporate slogan. Instead, it is a reckoning,” Council member Stephen Mikita, JD, Patient Advocate, and Former Assistant Attorney General, Utah, emphatically stated. “We must all account for ourselves and each other – no one is forgotten, ignored, or left behind. Everyone is safe and feels valued. The feeling is palpable. That’s when inclusion happens." 

A picture containing application Description automatically generatedCouncil member Natasha Hemmings, CEO of Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey, chimed in with her experience. "As a leader, I've learned that a sense of belonging can transform an employee's effectiveness and make our jobs more enjoyable while ultimately creating a better environment for everyone. The first way I promote belonging is to be vulnerable as a leader and admit, 'This is hard stuff.' Every one of my employees has a voice in our work, and each voice has value. I’ve said it many times; they are starting to believe it themselves."

A picture containing logo Description automatically generated

Council member April Joy Damian, Ph.D., Vice President of the Weitzman Institute provided four actions leaders can take as they consider 2023 planning:

  1. Do the introspective work and reflect on one's growth areas, including unconscious bias. 
  1. Place value on an inclusive culture and sense of belonging as critical to the success of the company, as opposed to being a separate "warm and fuzzies" effort; drive home the business case for having an inclusive work environment and make it part of your job descriptions. 

  1. Create a culture of accountability and continuous learning; each team member has a responsibility to create an inclusive culture where colleagues are included and celebrated for who they area. 

  1. Tie individual efforts to performance reviews, promotions, and raises. 


What's the risk if biotech and pharma leaders deprioritize workplace inclusivity? 

 While our industry is considered a high-growth market, the labor supply is still strained, with organizations experiencing longer time to fill critical clinical and R&D roles. Proactively addressing inclusive workforce culture as a norm can protect your talent pipeline and avoid regrettable losses and other preventable risks. A study conducted by the SHRM revealed turnover due to culture cost organizations $223 billion.  

Summarizing it all, Damian stated, "one risk organizations face is missed opportunities to recruit high-caliber, strong talent. Similarly, another risk is turnover; the fact that more companies are paying attention to and investing in workplace inclusivity means that people don't have to tolerate work environments that marginalize staff, intentionally or inadvertently. Losing out on great talent has a ripple effect as companies subsequently lose out on creative and innovative solutions that can come from academic training and lived experiences. Lastly, funders are looking at workplace inclusivity and choosing not to fund or work with companies that cannot demonstrate an inclusive workplace and/or have not made strides in this area." 

The opportunities are vast, and the stakes are high. Leaders can leverage an inclusive workplace culture as a magnet for talent and deepen employee engagement with intentional actions. Some of healthcare's most significant challenges lie before us, and recruiting and retaining top talent in 2023 will determine how leaders can meet the demands of the business, healthcare ecosystem, employees, and patients.  

About the Author:

Lucy is an Executive Vice President at Syneos Health Communications, where she manages a robust client portfolio of leading biotech and pharmaceutical companies, including Fortune 100 global organizations. She brings forth over 20 years of expertise in healthcare and financial services communications, specializing in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, change management, corporate strategy, and product lifecycle comms. One of her most prized achievements is co-launching the Syneos DEI Advisory Council, a cohort of external luminaries who provide insights and counsel in partnership with the Corporate Practice team on pressing DEI topics and trends. Prior to Syneos, Lucy led in-house corporate communication and PR teams for U.S. pharmaceuticals and financial services companies, working at Otsuka Americas Pharmaceutical Inc., Johnson and Johnson, and BlackRock. She spent her early career as a journalist working at CNN, ABC, CBS, and Gannett Newspapers.

She is an alumnus of the McKinsey Black Leadership Executive Program and a Council of Urban Professionals Fellow. She earned a B.A. from Rutgers University (broadcast journalism) and an M.S. from Syracuse University (print journalism).