Insights from Walgreens Global Chief Diversity Officer Steve Pemberton
The subject of inclusion and diversity has become an increasingly important topic for parents of children on the autism spectrum, as more and more children are aging out of the system and in need of support from our world community to find jobs, and gain a better sense of independence. Many companies are just now beginning to weave the concepts of inclusion and diversity into the fabric of their business, while others have had these concepts as a part of their corporate DNA for decades.
As a result, I decided to do a series of articles featuring corporations who have demonstrated long standing success in this area, to learn and share their insights.
In 1928, Charles Walgreen sent a letter to an executive staff member, inquiring why an African-American pharmacist within his company was being paid less than the Caucasian pharmacists. He then ordered that the employee begin to receive equal pay. The fact that Charles Walgreen had already been employing an African-American pharmacist during the 1920’s already demonstrated the character of the man and his company, but this historical incident exemplified just how committed he was to his belief in equality. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Steve Pemberton, the Global Chief Diversity Officer of Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc., the parent company of Walgreens, who shared with me some poignant and practical truths that have allowed Walgreens to build a legacy of inclusion and diversity.
MB: What motivated you personally to become an ambassador for Walgreens diversity and inclusion initiatives?
SP: Health and wellness is a common denominator that impacts all peoples within our communities. This was a unique opportunity to help formalize, expand, and build upon a program to meet the needs of an ever-changing world. How often do you get the opportunity to become a part of a corporation that has this kind of history?
MB: What are some reasons why other companies might still find it challenging to broaden their efforts and make their work forces more inclusive, and what insights and guidance can you provide?
SP: Many people start off with the best of intentions, but they think that they have all of the answers. The reality is, they don’t have all the answers, and they don’t have all of the questions either. You have to remember to be a student. Also, there is a fear of how to move forward. In order to move forward you must be cognizant of your community and identify commonalities. Whether you are talking about race, gender, people of different abilities, political affiliations, etc., you need to find common threads of humanity to eliminate extreme divides. And you have to be willing to allow diversity to change the way you do business. Some companies rush to get diversity quick. They see it as a destination, not a journey of understanding.
MB: Does Walgreens or do you personally, provide training for other companies seeking to learn or improve their diversity and inclusion programs.
SP: Walgreens does provide tours of our facilities to help educate and encourage other companies. Once you enter our facilities, you’re immediately immersed in diversity and can see the benefits this kind of company culture offers.
MB: What updates and improvements has Walgreens implemented over the years in order to keep current and accommodate the expanding realm of diversity?
SP: Walgreens has extensive training for all aspects of their corporation, distribution centers, stores, and corporate offices which accommodate all people. The training includes transitional work programs and job coaches.
MB: What can differently-abled employees expect from Walgreens; and what does Walgreens expect from them?
SP: Just about every parent who has a child who is differently-abled has the same thought, which is, what will happen if I’m not here to take care of my child? It brings relief for many parents to know that Walgreens has created a culture which provides an opportunity for those who are differently-abled to grow and learn. They are able to feel a sense of value, earn a paycheck, have benefits, be a part of an extended family, and many have retired from here. In return, we receive loyal, skilled, hardworking, and reliable employees. We’re not lowering the bar, we’re changing the dynamic.
MB: Do you have a couple of stories about how employees’ lives have been transformed after coming to work for Walgreens?
SP: We have countless stories, but a couple of the most recent include Julie and Steven who met in one of our transitional work groups and now work in our distribution center in Windsor, CT. They fell in love, got married, and established a home of their own. Another favorite story of mine is Thomas, who works out of our Anderson, SC distribution center, who many people, including his job coach, assumed was non-verbal for the first several months. It turns out, that he just wasn’t comfortable speaking yet. But now he gives tours! It’s these kinds of stories that inspire us as an organization, validates our commitment and fuels or endeavors.