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Rising fear among Asians leads Eli Lilly to rethink employee groups

November 23, 2018

As part of a job offer from Eli Lilly and Co., new employees get a letter encouraging them to join one of the pharmaceutical firm’s affinity groups. There’s one for African Americans, one for Latino employees—and four for Asians.

Most companies offer one internal network for “Asian” employees, a group that encompasses people from Turkey to Japan. For 20 years, Lilly’s been more specific, offering the Chinese Culture Network, the Japanese International Leaders Network, the Lilly India Network or one tailored to Middle Easterners.

Now, the results of a two-year internal study suggest that when it comes to employees’ needs and concerns, those distinctions might not matter as much as the company thought. The Asian workers in Lilly’s U.S. operations have more in common than not, the survey found, so much so that the Asian networks have proposed combining the groups next year.

Reverting to the overly broad “Asian” label would seem to run counter to the general company trend of acknowledging more differences, not fewer. And in fact, when the company announced the results of the survey, some employees were distraught to the point of tears. But the company and the leaders of the four Asian employee networks are convinced it’s the right move.

What they have most in common, Lilly chief diversity officer Joy Fitzgerald said, is fear: “The external environment right now in the U.S. is certainly having strong implications on the psychological safety of many of our Asian colleagues.”

Regardless of country of origin or place of birth—70 percent of Lilly’s Asian employees were born overseas—concerns over uncertain immigration policies and religious harassment have become relevant to the entire group. They’re becoming more worried for their families and children, and it’s starting to affect them in the workplace, Fitzgerald said.

Asian people living in the U.S. are especially likely to have personal experience with immigration, either as immigrants themselves or through their parents. In the 2016, 78 percent of Asian adults in the U.S. were foreign-born, up from 45 percent in 1970, according to a Pew study.

Collapsing the four Asian groups would give a louder voice to a group comprised of 2,700 people from East Asia, the Indian subcontinent and the Pacific Islands. The company currently counts two Asian people—one Indian and one Filipino—on its 14-person executive committee.

Still, when the results of Lilly’s study were presented to a group of 90 employees during a two-day workshop in September, it sparked tears from some current network members. At first workers didn’t believe that the commonalities between the groups were so strong.

At the same time, the four existing groups didn’t necessarily cover everyone either. “In some cases we found we didn’t even have a bucket for many of our employees that they felt like they perfectly fit in,” Fitzgerald said.

One group can solve that problem—and give rise to others. Employee networking groups often create cultural awareness within a company, noted Pooja Jain-Link, director of research at the Center for Talent Innovation, and that gets tricky. What happens when Diwali comes around? Or Chinese New Year? Does the group celebrate every holiday that’s representative of all of the Asian diversity within a firm?

“It can get kind of tough when you’re all together,” Jain-Link said. “The challenge to having a single inclusion group is that group has to work extra hard to actually be inclusive to everyone.”

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