Weleda on diversity: “We understand diversity as a mission and an internal priority.”

An interview with Elke Abendschein, Head of Human Resources Weleda Group, and Clara Neumann, Human Resources Competence Center Manager.

Diversity at Weleda

Promoting diversity and inclusion is a key aspect of Weleda’s corporate culture. Concrete examples and stories of the people at Weleda show how we put these values into practice every day.

What does diversity mean at Weleda?

Clara Neumann: Above all, diversity means that all employees must be treated equally – regardless of age, gender, social or ethnic affiliation, religion/belief, sexual orientation and physical, mental and spiritual condition. As a company inspired by anthroposophy, diversity has been part of Weleda’s identity for 100 years. One of Weleda’s principles is to see diversity as a resource that helps create a vibrant company culture. We apply this principle to our supply chains and internally in our company.

Elke Abendschein: We see diversity as a mission and an internal priority. Differences are a vital asset for our company. Our focus is not only on what is best for Weleda as a company but also for the individuals who work here. We promote diversity because we want to support our employees in the best possible way. One example is our “Biography Days”. During this seminar, employees can take time to consider essential questions, such as “How am I doing? Do I have a good work-life balance? What else do I want to do in life? This might lead to someone realizing they want to follow a completely different path, maybe even without Weleda. So, while we take a risk in offering this format, it is also an opportunity for employees to take charge of their personal development.

Our approach to diversity management is unconventional and multifaceted.

CN: Trying to respond to everyone’s needs can be challenging – also because individual solutions sometimes cost more effort. But as a values-oriented company, we want to go the extra step to honour our corporate culture and the individuals who are so committed to Weleda in their work.

How else does Weleda engage with its staff?

CN: We offer special working arrangements, including for people who care for relatives, eurhythmy courses, a company choir, and at our site in Schwäbisch Gmünd (Germany) we have a parent-child room and even our own daycare centre. In addition, we offer support, partly in cooperation with external partners, for difficult personal situations. During the COVID-19 crisis, we launched a “Resilience Page” with practical tips and ideas for body, soul and spirit and introduced individual consultation hours for employees. We also have diversity programmes. Some years ago, we launched an intergenerational network where retired former employees volunteered to look after other employees’ children or give piano lessons. Then came our “Diversity wins!” programme, through which we are helping refugees, advancing cultural diversity in the company and, to our great delight, now have several people with a refugee background in training. A small but illustrative example of our commitment to diversity is the story of how a woman wearing a headscarf completed an internship in a production area with a strict dress code for the sterile work environment.

That was part of a career orientation programme. What exactly happened?

CN: The hygiene regulations require covering the hair with a special bonnet. Taking off her headscarf was not an option for the intern, which we naturally respected. But the conventional hair bonnet would not have fit over her headscarf. A colleague suggested she wear a hooded coverall as painters use to comply with the hygiene regulations. Another Arabic-speaking colleague explained the situation to her in detail; it was important she understood that we did not want to treat her differently but rather accommodate internal guidelines while still meeting her needs. She decided to go with the coverall. We could give many examples of finding individual solutions, even if it requires more effort. For example, when we announced reduced work hours during the pandemic, Weleda decided not to impose the same reduction across the board but instead allowed our teams to decide for themselves how to divide up their hours. Employees who had to care for their children at home could reduce their hours more than others. Our principle is that all people are equally valuable, but they are not all the same. Our aim is not to make the same things possible for as many people as possible but to provide high-quality support that takes individuals seriously. Diversity in this sense requires intentional design and people willing to commit themselves to it.

What about part-time work in the company?

EA: We have around 2,500 employees worldwide, of whom around 1,700 work full-time and around 800 part-time – including in management positions. We employ 400 managers worldwide, around 200 of them in Germany and Switzerland, 40 percent of whom are women. Several women share joint leadership on a part-time basis. Weleda also offers the possibility of converting remuneration into free time, flexible and individual working hours models, and has a very open policy on mobile working.

CN: With our initiative for “Collegial Leadership & Collaboration”, Weleda is redefining its approach to leadership – with flatter hierarchies and more shared responsibility, for example, among team leaders. We hope that in the future, this will help many more employees feel confident about taking on leadership roles – all genders and cultures, full- or part-time.

What about parental leave?

EA: Parental leave is, of course, granted at our company, and we do a lot to provide employees with the best possible support before and after they have children. We don’t always succeed in ensuring that everyone is 100 percent satisfied, but we are committed to parents and their concerns – in my experience, more so than many other companies. That is a unique feature at Weleda and goes well beyond the legal requirements.

CN: We offer individually tailored part-time models, and employees can increase their annual vacation by up to an additional 20 days with our “Time off instead of pay” offer. In Switzerland, we also allow “Father time” – new fathers can take 20 days of paternity leave as they need it within the first six months after the birth of their child.

How about gender issues at Weleda?

CN: In our anniversary year 2021, we dealt intensively with the topic of gender-fair language. In German, for example, this involves adding an asterisk, colon or capital “I” to make words gender-inclusive. Initially, we encountered arguments that this would complicate readability and make our texts too long. In a collegial process with participants from marketing, communications, PR, HR and many other departments, we developed a “compass” for gender-fair language. It provides orientation in writing and, importantly, conveys the inclusive attitude we take across our business.

Is there a gender pay gap at Weleda? Recent surveys have shown that women still earn significantly less than men on average.

EA: In our company, tasks are reviewed and evaluated regardless of who performs them. It is quite clear that we want to pay everyone the same. We are reviewing Swiss salaries as part of the new Gender Equality Act. Other countries will follow, possibly as a global gender pay gap analysis.

The issue of racism has been on the world’s mind, and not only since the Black Lives Matter movement or the far-right extremist attacks in Hanau, Germany. Texts written by the co-founder of Weleda, Rudolf Steiner, have been accused of being racist. What is your response to that?

EA: It is important to deal with this accusation in an open and differentiated manner. Weleda firmly rejects any form of racism and discrimination. Some of Steiner’s statements are indeed racist, and we reject them outright. Whether Steiner was racist in general was investigated by a commission headed by the human rights expert Ted A. van Baarda, among others. They examined Steiner’s work, which comprises 89,000 pages and found only 16 passages that are racist from today’s standpoint, so that his work as a whole cannot be described as racist. As a company, we want to show through our actions that we stand for diversity and contribute to an open, diverse global community.

What are some specific ways in which Weleda is combating racism?

CN: As part of our “Diversity Wins!” programme, we have launched numerous volunteer projects and internal offerings to raise awareness that an open, tolerant corporate culture thrives on employee engagement. Young people with a refugee background have completed internships at the company for professional orientation. They are each partnered with an employee who provides guidance during this time, answering questions and helping if needed. The interns receive a personal introduction to the working culture at Weleda at the beginning to start their assignment well prepared. We also operated a vegetable garden on the company premises for several years, where Weleda employees tended the garden together with residents from Schwäbisch Gmünd. With participants heralding from more than six nations, it was a place for intercultural exchange and collective learning. Learning more about the realities of other people’s lives was also the goal of our after-hours dialogue evenings, which we held in the winter months instead of the garden. Currently, we are involved in several networks and initiatives dedicated to refugees. Some years ago in Switzerland, we co-initiated a regular lunch event to strengthen networking between politics, government, socially-oriented organizations and independent companies on the topic of political asylum. Ultimately, what counts most is what we do on a day-to-day basis and how we reflect on our behaviour. More than 50 nationalities work for Weleda worldwide. We shouldn’t take things for granted but instead examine ourselves and our patterns to recognize and remove our reservations and biases.

Does diversity strengthen Weleda as a company?

CN: Even if it is not our primary motive for engaging with the topic: yes, it likely does. Studies suggest that solid company values combined with profitability make a company more resilient and stable. The same basic philosophy has always guided us, but it has evolved with the times and been expressed in different ways. Personally, I am convinced that diverse teams and multiple perspectives enrich the company. At Weleda, our vision is to provide the world with healing products and social impulses. Both as a company and as individual employees, we must continuously develop our offerings and, above all, our attitude.