Boehringer Ingelheim Regenbogen Netzwerk
24 May 2017

"Respect, trust, empathy and passion” – Interview with Prof. Eric Haaksma on the Rainbow Network

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity – what does this have to do with the workplace? In this day and age, we believe a lot. Since only in 1990, the World Health Organisation (WHO) removed homosexuality from its list of diseases. Much has changed for the better in the almost three decades since then – but equal opportunities for lesbians, gays and transgender people is still a work in progress.


Boehringer Ingelheim is making its own commitment to establishing a culture where diversity is valued, be it gender, cultural background, age, physical characteristics, or sexual orientation and gender identity. The German Rainbow Network is supporting this by increasing the visibility of the “brightly coloured” side of life in our company and giving LGBTIQ colleagues a safe space for exchanging experiences and ideas.


In our series of LGBTIQ interviews, colleagues from the Boehringer Ingelheim Rainbow Networks in Ingelheim and Biberach tell us about their experiences. To the start of the series, meet Prof. Eric Haaksma, Head of Research Germany in Ingelheim and Biberach and management sponsor of the Boehringer Ingelheim Rainbow Network.

Professor Haaksma, what was the motivation for setting up the Rainbow Network at Boehringer Ingelheim?

Innovation is vitally important for Boehringer Ingelheim. Our concept of innovation is centred on teamwork, and the critical ingredient for successful teamwork is diversity, that is to say a variety of different approaches and different opinions. Working creatively together is the key.

It is therefore a logical move to set up networks such as the Rainbow Network at Boehringer Ingelheim.


In your view, how can Boehringer Ingelheim derive value from the creation of the network, and actively involve it in work activities?

My experience tells me that the only way to improve ideas is to challenge them. There is an enormous amount to be learned along these lines from working in diverse teams, on questions such as “How do I communicate with people?”, or “How do I structure teamwork?”. Our aim is to acknowledge the diversity within society, and in particular within this company, and to use it to our advantage. From conversations with members of the network, I have become aware that our LGBTIQ employees reflect deeply on their life and their situation. If we can succeed in incorporating these different perspectives in the everyday work environment at Boehringer Ingelheim, this will bring major benefits for all of us. We can only gain from diversity.


What is Boehringer Ingelheim’s approach on the LGBTIQ topic?

As a family-owned company, Boehringer Ingelheim has a very clear focus, as set down in our core principles: serving humankind, by carrying out research into diseases, and developing new drugs and new treatment approaches. The central question from my perspective is how we can make optimum use of the diversity we have within the company. Up until now, we have not been very good at this. How can we apply diversity in our everyday work environment? From my conversations with Rainbow Network members, I know that these employees have a lot to offer to Boehringer Ingelheim, but on the other hand many of them feel worried and afraid about coming out at the workplace. Some LGBTIQ employees have even developed their own language, for example, using gender-neutral terms to refer to their partner, instead of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. This means they do not have to lie, but they are still concealing the fact that they are lesbian or gay. That is something that we have to change. We need to have an open society – also here at Boehringer Ingelheim. We need respect, trust, empathy and passion – which are indeed core values of our company. Only in an inclusive workplace, valueing differences, can you fully express your creativity and make your contribution to the company. And to make full use of my potential, I have to be open about who I am. We have not yet reached that point in today’s society, and here at Boehringer Ingelheim, too, a lot of work still lies ahead of us in this regard. In our company and also at Boehringer Ingelheim, we must continue to work towards this goal.


How realistic do you see the possibility of Boehringer Ingelheim establishing some kind of “safe space” for its LGBTIQ employees?

I believe that we can create such a “safe space” for our staff. At the present time, we still have some LGBTIQ employees who feel anxious about coming out to their colleagues or superiors. The Rainbow Network makes a real contribution in this context, as a forum where members can challenge and support each other. Imagine the following conversation, for example: “Have you ever talked about it with your boss?” – “No, I’m scared of getting a negative response.” This sort of interaction can easily turn into a downward spiral, which we need to stop and turn around. The network also provides a space where interested non-LGBTIQ colleagues can ask questions and become better informed – because interaction creates openness.


What does the subject matter for Boehringer Ingelheim mean on a global scale?

We stand for human rights and equality of opportunities – as reflected in our core principles, and our membership in the German corporate initiative “Charta der Vielfalt” (Diversity Charter). We must ensure that all LGBTIQ employees are able to do their work and experience our company as a safe environment, irrespective of their background or which location they happen to work at.


Are there any concerns that the company’s commitment to LGBTIQ employees could have a negative impact on some business units, losing customers, for example?

Here, too, I come back to the Boehringer Ingelheim core principles, and the reason why I personally am so happy to work for this company: “serving humankind”. In pursuing that aim, we make no distinctions on the basis of sexual orientation, origin or any other personal attributes. We carry out research on diseases, and develop therapies – that is all there is to it. There may be some who take offence if we take a stand for LGBTIQ employees, for example. But there will be at least as many who say “I think it is great you are doing that”, and respect us all the more. I cannot predict whether there will be negative impacts on the business, “penalising” the company for taking this stance. But I think this is most unlikely. Fortunately, the exclusion of particular groups of minorities is very much the exception rather than the rule.


What is your personal motivation for becoming the management sponsor for the Rainbow Network?

It has only been a few months since I became the management sponsor for the Rainbow Network, and during that time I have really learned a lot from my discussions with network members. The LGBTIQ issue is very complex, both within society as a whole and in the company. I took this as a personal challenge to fully engage with the network, and decided that I could only gain from the experience. My role as sponsor has also helped me personally to become better informed than I was before. While I have always been very open-minded and accepting of others, this particular area was something of a blind spot for me. The Rainbow Network is helping me to still become more open to the society that I live in. And if I can also make a contribution to removing some of the fears and anxieties felt by LGBTIQ employees at Boehringer Ingelheim, and enabling them to better develop their potential, that is a great success. In this way we all benefit: the company, the employees, and myself as a person.


Are you hoping there will be positive impacts on your leadership tasks?

I know I have a particular leadership style – so I welcome this opportunity to expand my thinking and get a better sense of how I interact with a diverse group, and how I can reach people effectively. This will be an enriching experience for me.


The Rainbow Network at Boehringer Ingelheim is still relatively young, and you yourself have been the management sponsor for only a matter of months. What do you see as the next steps for the network?

I see the Diversity Day as an excellent starting point for addressing the issue. At the moment, our main goal is to build awareness and get the issue out into the company as a whole. We are not as open towards LGBTIQ as we might think. Many non-LGBTIQ employees are not aware of the issue at all. The only way to develop such awareness is through interaction and dialogue. Essentially, it is about raising consciousness for the topic which includes explaining to people why it is important to talk about these matters. So for me, the major task for the coming year is to generate dialogue.


What significance does this issue have for the future of Boehringer Ingelheim?

Along with the aspects of innovation and creativity that I have already mentioned, it is also about ensuring that we are an attractive employer for experts from abroad, and talented young people starting their career. One network member said that if we can position ourselves as an open and accepting company, he would be happy to promote Boehringer Ingelheim as a “top employer” at job and career fairs. We need to show people that in this company they will not have to conceal any attribute that is an important part of who they are. That then gives us the opportunity to inspire outstanding scientists from this country and abroad to work at Boehringer Ingelheim. So I believe the network can also act as an ambassador for the company, according to the principle of “What can I as an employee do for Boehringer Ingelheim?”. And I think that is great!


Where do you think the Rainbow Network’s focus should lie in the future? What changes would you like to see over the next three to five years?

In my view, there are three main aspects for the network to focus on. The first is to raise the profile of Diversity & Inclusion issues in Boehringer Ingelheim as a whole, and the Rainbow Network in particular. Secondly, it would be great to create an environment in which our LGBTIQ employees feel so much at home that they want to make a contribution to the company over and above their actual work obligations – like the employee I just talked about, for example, who would be interested in promoting Boehringer Ingelheim at career fairs. Thirdly, I would like the network to become firmly established as an integral and familiar part of the company structure, and therefore regarded as the natural point of contact for any employee who has a question about LGBTIQ issues or would like to talk to someone – about a brother who is gay, for example, or their own lesbian sexual orientation or gender identity. The response we want to generate is, “You are an open and accepting group, and I feel comfortable talking to you”.  If we can do that as a rainbow network, we will have achieved extremely much.

"We need respect, trust, empathy and passion, says Prof. Eric Haaksma. "
Denise Hottmann
Prof. Dr. Eric Haaksma

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