CSR Overseas

Assignments can help drive employee engagement, retention

By Katti Gray Aug 5, 2011

As part of Pfizer Inc.’s strategy to tie corporate social responsibility to worker engagement and retention, Pfizer Sales Manager Neil Piper spent half of 2009 in Swaziland. Among his many endeavors, he oversaw water purification and de-worming projects designed to safeguard the health of 40,000 children in that sliver of a nation in southern Africa.

“Many of them were living with HIV and were already so vulnerable,” said Piper, whose workdays in Atlantaare spent pitching Pfizer Inc.’s products to clinicians.

“The difference in my current role and my role in Swaziland is that in Swaziland I was general manager for this [nonprofit] organization that served the whole country. Instead of just focusing on sales, I also focused on marketing, distribution and pricing, and some governmental affairs, partnering with different ministries, particularly the ministry of health. It gave me a good understanding of how well Pfizer has trained us and how much I had to offer.”

In Swaziland, as in other parts of the developing world, Manhattan-based Pfizer is angling to engender goodwill while building its brand and meeting human, social, organizational and economic needs. In the process, it is ramping up the expertise of high-impact and high-potential employees such as Piper who are selected for such fellowships.

Follow-up surveys conducted by Pfizer—and IBM, which has a similar project—show that these programs stoke their participants’ sense of company loyalty and employees’ value to the firm.

“You will not find a more engaged employee than our Global Health Fellows,” said Pfizer’s Vice President of Corporate Responsibility and Reputation, Caroline Roane, referring to the program in which Piper participated.

‘So Committed’

“They come back so committed to Pfizer and so thankful for the opportunity, and that goes a long way in [the current] environment where most companies are not giving big raises or stock options.”

She said these employees “develop a far better understanding of how to work in a resource-limited setting. They just become better at what they do.”

Through its Corporate Services Corporation, which sends 500 top-performing workers and executives per year to developing regions, IBM, with an international workforce of more than 426,000, has witnessed a similar transformation in its globe-trotting volunteers.

“They often describe it as the experience of a lifetime,” Stanley Litow, IBM’s vice president of corporate citizenship, said of the month-long fellowship launched in 2003. “They have the opportunity to marry their own community interests with something akin to a corporate version of a Peace Corps.” Not only does it increase their self-worth and help cultivate their team-building skills, he says, employees come back understanding “global issues in a more profound way.” For them, “this wasn’t just another business trip.”

John Fredette, a Boston-based IBM manager of broadcast media and branded entertainment, spent four weeks in Kenya in March 2011. He was part of a 12-person team of IBM staffers from several countries that conferred with IBM managers based in Kenya.

During one project, the team began constructing a model for how the Postal Corporation of Kenya and e-Government Kenya could create and market in-person and online financial services to the disenfranchised.

“Honestly, it was the hardest I’ve ever worked,” said Fredette, whose IBM team members “were living together [and] working together. We‘d get up six in the morning, have breakfast and talk about our projects; go into town to our worksites … have dinner together and talk about more work, hanging around in someone’s room or on an outside patio. It was 14- to 16-hour days but one of the most gratifying things I’ve ever done.”

His team—architects, IT specialists, marketing specialists and others—worked toward making Kenya’s government run more efficiently.

Spreading the Wealth

Returning home, they underwent a requisite debriefing. They shared with colleagues the nature of the work and the return on investment of that work. In addition, they shared their ideas on how to further expand a program that the U.S. Agency on International Development is aiming to replicate and promote to businesses throughout Kenya.

Litow said Novartis, FedEx, Dow and John Deere are among the companies that are conferring with IBM about how to fashion service corps for their organizations.

The Pfizer fellows, who number nearly 300, kicked off an alumni network in 2010 to heighten awareness of the fellowship, mentor other prospective fellows and engage corporate leaders—inside and outside Pfizer—on the merits of the program.

“We have this unique experience and skill set and knowledge,” said Piper, one of the alumni group’s 40 leaders.

Being deposited in a foreign land with different cultural mores, values and lifestyles requires preparation. How such programs are couched and promoted in-house is vital to their success, said LaToya Ingram, Pfizer’s manager for colleague development and mentoring. This isn’t a perk, where employees are sent to South Africa “for six months on a great vacation, playing with South African children,” Ingram said. “That’s so not the case. [Fellows] are seen as conduits to the really important stakeholders in markets where the company is trying to grow.”

When in Rome

Volunteers from Pfizer and IBM are trained in cultural sensitivity before leaving home. That’s “vitally important,” said Neal R. Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics, Inc., a corporate consultancy that prepares people for international assignments.

“We know of organizations that, even with the best of intentions, sent people on similar projects without adequate preparation,” Goodman said. “It results in tremendous disappointment and sometimes [results in] the opposite effect of what was desired, simply because the people going overseas didn’t appreciate the cultural values and the way things are done. If they don’t know the rules of the road … they’re almost guaranteed to fail.”

Piper agreed, noting that he had to make adjustments in the bid to help the nonprofit agency with which he worked to market condoms in the cities and rural outposts of largely impoverished Swaziland. The U.S. State Department estimates 63 percent of the population there lives in poverty.

“Where there’s 9 to 5 in the U.S., or other consistent business hours, in Swaziland it’s not rare that the stores would be a clay hut with no electricity. It wasn’t uncommon to have an 8-year-old child working the counter or [a different] person working the counter from one day to the next,” he said.

“The key,” he added, “when working to create change in a subsistence culture is to make sure the change is sustainable.”

Lasting impact, said Roane, is Pfizer’s aim. It is trying to ensure that its bid to be more engaged globally is multidimensional. “The next level is having [our partners] in these underdeveloped countries come here, having somebody from Turkey go to California. That’s a second evolution,” she said.

New York-based freelance journalist Katti Gray’s work has been published by The Washington Post, Newsday, Ms., Essence, the Los Angeles Times, ABCNews.com, TheRoot.com and other news organizations. She can be reached at katti@kattigray.com or www.kattigray.com.

Related Article:
The Care and Feeding of High-Potential Employees, HR Magazine, August 2011

Related Video:
Global Diversity Initiatives, Neal R. Goodman, Ph.D., president of Global Dynamics, Inc., discusses the importance of localizing global initiatives.


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