Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

As part of AstraZeneca Canada’s commitment to sustainability, employees were empowered with important lifesaving skills like CPR and AED training.Provided

When a few new employees joined her team last year, Cherrie Small, director of study operations with the R&D Hub at AstraZeneca Canada (AZ Canada), took the initiative to organize an event about neurodiversity – helping to build an understanding about the cognitive differences in how people think, learn, communicate and process information.

“The response to the event was overwhelming,” says Small. “I received countless messages from employees expressing their gratitude – with a few even confiding in me that they were neurodiverse themselves, living with conditions such as ADHD and autism, but hadn’t revealed this at work for fear of being judged.”

Mississauga, Ont.-headquartered AZ Canada is a science-led biopharmaceutical firm that employs about 1,500 people in this country who research, develop and market innovative medicines. Diversity and inclusion measures for that work force are “really front and centre in our talent attraction story and fundamental to driving the innovation required to develop and deliver life-changing medicines,” says Kiersten Combs, president of AZ Canada.

“We invest quite heavily in training programs around inclusive leadership as well as unconscious bias,” continues Combs, who notes that 40 per cent of current employees identify as visibly diverse. “We also have a number of employee resource groups such as TH!NK Neurodiversity, AZPride Canada, AZC Francophone, and the Network of Women, championed by employees and aimed at creating a greater sense of belonging and visibility for members.”

Women, she says, account for 68 per cent of the Canadian staff and 60 per cent of senior leaders.

For Small, who has a PhD in immunology and spent a decade in the male-dominated university sciences realm, the focus on diversity and inclusion at AZ Canada has been a refreshing change. “As a Black woman, I can say that when you come into any organization, you’re aware of your colour and gender, and, unfortunately, you’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be judged based on them?’” she observes. “But here I have been embraced.”

Small adds that the ‘speak-up culture’ at AZ Canada ensures inclusion and diversity prevail, as well as a sense that all employees’ input is valued. She cites the company’s non-hierarchical atmosphere and commitment to open communication, exemplified by its monthly ‘Ask Me Anything’ and ‘Open Mic’ forums. All that contributes to AZ Canada’s 95-per-cent employee retention rate.

“Creating a vibrant and inclusive work environment, where each employee feels safe, empowered, and can reach their full potential is a critical part of our success as an organization,” says Combs, who notes that the company continues to grow its research footprint in Canada. Earlier this year it announced 500 high-tech and scientific jobs as part of the expansion of its R&D Hub in Mississauga, and the creation of a new Alexion Development Hub for rare diseases.

AstraZeneca also champions sustainability. “We very much believe that we have a responsibility above and beyond our medicines to help tackle some of society’s biggest challenges – from climate change and access to health care, to supporting greater inclusion, diversity and equity within our communities,” says Combs.

That mission includes the goal of making AstraZeneca carbon-negative by 2030, a global forest program that aims to plant 400 million trees by the same year, and support for One Tree Planted and the City of Mississauga’s One Million Trees program. As for the health care facet of sustainability, Combs declares, “Ensuring that people can access the medicines they need to treat disease earlier is what drives everything we do here. It’s all about improving and saving the lives of Canadians.”

More from Canada’s Top 100 Employers

Advertising feature produced by Canada’s Top 100 Employers, a division of Mediacorp Canada Inc. The Globe and Mail’s editorial department was not involved.

Interact with The Globe