What is ESG and Why is it Important to Attracting the Best Talent?


Flic Gabbay, tranScrip (Chair)

Lisa Urquhart, Vantage 

Bartlomiej Janac (Bart), Charles River Laboratories

Claire Thompson, Agility Life Sciences

Flic Gabbay, chairing the session, describes how each of the panellists collectively offer a ‘flavour’ of different organisations and perspectives but complement each other nicely when discussing such a topic. Flic starts off by introducing, tranScrip, and explains what ESG means to them when put into practice. Recently, tranScrip had been invested in by a Social Impact Fund which required them to have ESG KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) in order for them to measure that they are conforming to their ESG policies and this meant that the first thing they needed to do was explore what ESG is because it can be difficult to dive in to. 

So, ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance which covers an enormously broad range of topics. The reason why it was first introduced was that companies who were deciding who they wanted to invest in noticed that the organisations who adhered well to the ESG principles performed better. Some examples of the environmental impacts that the industry can have is the level of carbon footprint, single-use plastic and air miles. In terms of the social impact, the Life Sciences, by its very nature has a huge social impact. During the session, the panel also covered what are the challenges around governance; how companies manage and look after those within an organisation but also how they set out those standards. 
The baton was handed over to Claire Thompson, CEO of Agility Life Sciences. Claire shared that, for large companies, ESG comes off the back of corporate and social responsibility and they felt like they had to do it or show they were doing something. However, for her it is all about “deeds not words”. Right now, the focus of the world is on Pharma and Claire highlights that we need to convey the benefits of the Life Sciences sector and demystify medicines. It starts with the environment and the environment that you give people which enables them to succeed which is one of their key company cultures, as well as ‘wellbeing over workload’ and ‘people and purpose over products and profit’. If you do not look after and support the talent that you recruit you will not get to the product or have a service without them. It is so important to engage and empower your employees because without them you will have nothing. Something that Agility Life Sciences does is advertise every role as either full-time or part-time to enable flexibility and create more opportunities. Another great policy is that each employee is given 10% of their time back which they can dedicate to a purpose and give back to something they are passionate about. Claire believes that employees should be given the freedom to choose this as opposed to being directed. 

Last year, Agility Life Sciences launched GIFT (Girls in Football Teams) which is an initiative for girl’s and women’s football teams around the UK. They can apply to receive a £500 grant and it has already been successful in supporting teams from under 8-year-olds right up to senior level. A hugely inspiring way of giving back to the community and having a societal impact.  Going back in time to take a leaf out Bananarama’s book, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”, Claire described how yes, there are other companies that do the same scientific, strategic and communication work that they do but it is how they do it which makes them stand out and how they support, recruit and retain great talent. Claire rounds off what ESG means to her by emphasising how important it is to celebrate success especially during the pandemic. She has an employee rewards programme where you can nominate each other and have the chance to win either ‘booze, shoes or snooze’, snooze being time off. This is a really great way to engage with all employees and reward effectively.

Graphical user interfaceDescription automatically generatedFor Bart, ESG means two things. The first being the impact a company has on the space it occupies and secondly the impact it is having on people. At Charles River Labs (CRL) they have initiatives that support the reduction of non-recyclable waste they generate and sustainability champions who work to preserve the local environment. They are currently based in Portishead near Bristol which is a beautiful area which highlights just how important it is that when deciding to occupy that space companies really look after it. He adds that, ‘every company can be doing this since everyone will occupy a space on our planet and with the current climate crisis it is important that organisations recognise the pivotal responsibility that they have toward tackling this crisis’. Another effective way that CRL support the environmental factors is by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, supporting ‘Green Chemistry’ which is a strategy to make their medicinal chemistry processes more sustainable for example. They have several ultra-low temperature freezers in their labs, and they work hard to make sure that the impact on the environment is as low as possible. We need to look after our planet collectively. 
In terms of the people side, it is important that a company recognises that people are individuals with personal challenges and how they can support those people. The pandemic has been a global issue and the policies companies have in place to ensure the wellbeing of their employees have been incredibly important. Personal events such as losing a loved one also need to be carefully considered and how organisations support their employees with such challenges really reflects the type of company they are and the company culture which sees their employees as assets and not just people they provide a wage for but really supporting them outside of the typical 9 – 5 working day. The impact on society also comes under people since we are all global citizens, we need to do what we can to help everyone within society whether they are inside or outside of the company and actively supporting people around the world.

Bart identifies as LGBTQ+ so it is very important for him that companies actively empower all employees especially those who are disadvantaged within society or historically have been, and to uplift them so that they have an equal playing field and chance to progress and achieve. This means all employees can be their full authentic selves and not have to hide who they are and educate colleagues on the problems they  face because of their identities, thus driving cultural change within the workplace. Having started just two years ago, Bart has been heavily involved in a pilot of Employee Resource Groups and co-founded a UK chapter for LGBTQ+ for employees at CRL. Through this Employer Research Group (ERG  ), it really aims to involve all employees to ensure they have a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ colleagues. ERG do put the power in employees’ hands however there needs to be the support from management and sponsor groups for these to thrive. 

Last but certainly not least Lisa shared that the most important thing for her is the environmental impact, mostly local and less global. An example of how Vantage supports their local environment, being based in London, off the edge of a city and Tower Hamlets, is their aim to source as much as they can from local companies to support the local economy. The social element, whilst it is a big deal, is also tricky to define and measure. Vantage is good at supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees by having a weekly check-in meeting, they also organise treats or early finishes. Particularly since lockdown, they have noticed a spike in overworking.

Lisa continued that when an employee wants to do something to support a charity the company will match donations. Sometimes it only needs to be as simple as listening and giving your employees a platform for their voices. After the Sarah Everard case, Vantage organised to meet as a group of men and women to discuss the basic strategies that women will employ late at night and it was interesting that a lot of men did not understand it. Following on from this they opened up an anonymous forum for people to share their experiences. This was a great learning experience particularly for the men but the women too and provoked openness within the forum. 

It is recognised that people who have children require more flexible working hours however, it is important not to discriminate and offer these flexible opportunities to those who do not have children also. Lisa explains how they also offer benefits such as free health care and pensions to their employees straight away and even for the younger staff. She rounds off by saying that there is still a way to go with diversity within the industry and talking about the social and governance issues is great, but they need to be modelled and enforced by senior teams.

We are adaptable by nature and have been thrown into this strange Covid-19 world. Flic highlights that some of the people aspects that we address under the ESG umbrella have been well adapted to online. Flic asked the panel what they have done as a result of the lockdown and will it change how they do things in the future. She starts by pointing out that, initially, during the first lockdown, they were so worried about employees being isolated but actually, they have now been able to build stronger relationships with people on MS Teams meetings in groups and have got to know people much better, especially on video where you can see most people’s homes behind them. Also, this year JP Morgan week was cancelled saving a significant amount of air miles to San Francisco, so their carbon footprint was much lower. tranScrip has collaborated with a tree-planting charity and promoted a “Meet with me and we’ll plant a tree” slogan, this led to a whopping 89 trees being planted!

Most of Claire’s teamwork remotely anyway however, she does miss the interface with clients. She also observed that those who are generally much quieter individuals started to come out of their shells much more because their voices were being heard at an equal volume to others; one person in particular who has been outstanding for years was promoted last year because it was more visible just how good she was. Now everyone is confident in speaking up, so this has been a great thing for them. Claire says that Agility Life Sciences will continue to be virtual as much as they can because there is no need to go back to face to face all the time when all voices can be heard.

On the flip side, not everyone enjoys working from home. At Charles River Labs employees are now given the choice to work from home or in the labs and by opening up the possibility this gives the choice back to employees to decide where they work best and can be most effective. Bart felt inspired by those that have really stepped up during this time. CRL has been working hard to promote staff wellbeing by running online yoga sessions, crafts and quizzes to invest in the social aspect. They would leave treats on desks or sent to homes, for example, to keep people going through what has been a very challenging year. They have mental health first aiders who have been incredible at supporting people shielding or having to work at home for long periods, helping them with the transition and building resilience. 

Lisa points out that most people are now suffering from ‘zoom fatigue’ because being in front of a screen and on video all day is exhausting. She trusts her employees so now if people do not want to have their video on, she respects this. Something that they could have done better could have been partnering with another company and their mental health first aiders. Lisa says that treats have been the preferred method of reward for staff because personally “wobbling   around in the living room doing yoga with the cat jumping on her is not as ideal!” Claire added that she has been very open with her team about when she has been up and down on the stress curve to encourage and reassure her employees that it is ok for them to do that too. Interestingly, Flic made a very valid point that it is hard to give people the time off when the business is the most stressed because that is when you need the employee the most. It is important to find balance around the situation and support them through this. 

At tranScrip they used to get together to do charity work and do gardening for a facility that supports people with mental health problems. They have not been able to do this since before Covid-19. Flic asks how Lisa has managed to work around this. Lisa says that they have not been able to get to Tower Hamlets, but they did do a steps challenge and whoever did the most steps that week they donated one penny per step of the combined total to a charity. This was a great strategy to get people out of the house and everyone could join in. They also did grow challenges with sunflowers or vegetables along with a celebrity bake-off.

Whilst Flic says she is hopeless at cooking, Bart adds that CRL also did a bake-off competition and that they have a volunteering day once a year. With this day people were able to use it for childcare or to look after a relative. There are also a number of online charities that people could volunteer for. On the other hand, Claire tells the panel about her experience of ‘orange days’ at GSK where she had to volunteer to do XYZ and this felt like enforced fun which is why when she gives 10% of her employees time back to them to support something she lets them choose so something they will engage in without dictating it to them. Lisa likes this idea and also points out that when we talk about development there is this idea that it has to be role-specific and if you spend money on something that is not specific then it is a waste of time/money. 
Flic shares an inspiring story that is typically told to people who do management training in the US. It is about 3M. They had a policy that half a day a week was yours to do what you want, and they would support it. One of the people in 3M wanted to make glue to put on his hymn book with a piece of paper so that he could find the hymns in the bible at the service quickly. There was nothing that could do this without doing damage and he accidentally invented Post-It notes, and the rest is history! Giving people the opportunity to be creative is very important.

If you had a wish list of what the Life Sciences sector could be doing globally to improve its ESG image, what would it be?

Back in the day, big Pharma only really paid lip service to ESG. Flic directs the question to Lisa first and she wishes that it could be more diverse. For example, clinical trials inclusion. Drugs are often launched having only been tested on patients with similar ethnic profiles and they then discover that the drugs do not actually work further down the line on a diverse population. In hypertension, for example, we have two of the most common ACE inhibitors, Ramipril and Lisinopril, that are the most commonly prescribed in the UK. Ramipril has a better profile in protecting kidneys however because black and Asian people were poorly represented in the trials, they discovered that it does not work as well in controlling blood pressure. Similarly with prostate cancer, black men make up about 2% of clinical triallists. This has a huge impact on people’s lives and demonstrates great health inequalities. The fact we have waited until 2021 to think about how we are being diverse within Pharma and reacting now is way too slow. Interestingly, the pandemic has helped things particularly with remote trials; people can afford to go to the clinic, and they are more accessible. Lisa rounded off that we should be doing more to support the environmental impact, “what happens to all the blister packs we use?” and recycling unused drugs given most end up in landfills. 

Flic followed on from Lisa’s point with a shocking statistic that pregnant women are still the most excluded group from clinical trials in comparison to other disciplines. 90% of medicines in pregnant women and 80% of medicines in children have not been researched. We are not good at being inclusive in clinical trials. There are beginning to be a number of initiatives in the EU and the US to solve this challenge. 

Inclusion and visibility of LGBTQ+ people, particularly transgender fluid and recognising binaries of gender and sexuality is Bart’s wish. He wanted people to feel as though they can believe in themselves despite being different from the societal norm and knowing that they can make it and be successful in their career. A lot of big Pharma companies walk the marches and ‘go rainbow for the pride’ and that is great on the face front, but what are they actually doing when you look at their website and their policies and are they actually doing anything to support LGBTQ+ progression and uplift these people. This is something that should be promoted from academia. Finally, he wishes that we can come together to find a solution for the plastic waste and single-use plastic issue in research. 

Big pharma has a mantra of ‘quality by design'. Claire wants to see ‘diversity by design’. There are still more men on the board then there are women of colour. “Pale stale male heterosexuals” is often used to describe the un-diverse boards and senior management teams. Claire believes in “shining a light on nonsense”, if we see all white male panels and boards, we call it out but also highlight that it is so important to shine a light on excellence and hold them up as a pinnacle. When Flic joined Pharma more than 3 decades ago and was appointed to a board, she was in the top 200 of big Pharma. There were just two women on the board, neither of colour, no men of colour and one of those women was the chairman’s daughter-in-law whilst Flic was the other. Awarding and spotlighting great companies that are diverse is very good for inspiring and educating other organisations to do the same. 

How can people who are joining a company tell if they take ESG seriously?

All panellists responded to the question above to say talking to people who already work for the company that you are interested in joining. This will help you to gauge how the employer’s value their employees. If you are met with a corporate response that is usually a red flag in comparison to being met with an individual’s voice and honest opinion. When Bart was looking for a job, he decided what was important to him and then if the company’s views aligned with his own. A great way to explore this is via the website or social media. Lisa adds that you can take a risk when you go to the interview and ask what are their diversity and inclusion policies? What is the staff turnover like? Why do people leave? What is the progression pathway? If they do not have the answers, maybe they are not meeting standard ESG policies. Claire echoes this and adds that leadership is a service, and they need to give that to people around them. “Modern leadership is about empowerment”, says Flic. She encourages the use of LinkedIn networks, attending One Nucleus events and speaking to university advisors as great ways to learn about companies and their ESG strategies. If you arrive at an interview and the organisers don’t offer you to meet any of the other people who work there or you are interviewed by one person, this makes a statement that you are not being interviewed to fit in, you are just being interviewed for your skillset. 

The panel discussed that whilst it can be hard to tell from websites, organisations should be investing in making their culture and mantras more visible at least somewhere. It should come from the top down and there has to be evidence of this. Retention rates are a good tool to be able to explore what a company is like. Recruitment is key, but so is being able to keep great staff. Those who feel valued are more likely to stay. Flic advised that a company should make sure it has engagement with their workforce, part-time or full-time and that employers should make the workforce inclusive. Internships or working with a sub-contractor for a while can give you an idea of what the company culture is like. 

Flic sums up the session by saying it comes down to respect and empowerment, you should be looking at everyone across the board and growing their aspirations equally and finally being mindful of the environment and the impact of what we do.

Tony Jones closed the first One Nucleus Building Life Science Adventures 2021 conference giving thanks to our sponsors, supporters, speakers and importantly to those who attended. Here’s to many more exciting Life Sciences adventures ahead!

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Blog by Jasmin Bannister, Events and Communications Administrator, One Nucleus