Tackling the Challenges in Hiring Persons with Disabilities, a Discussion with Johnpaul Dimech, CEO Geographic Regions and Region Chair, Asia Pacific at Sodexo

February 4, 20213:54 pm2380 views

The employment of persons with disabilities (PWDs) should be among the biggest concerns for the government. Even before the outbreak, they have been facing barriers to fair and equal job opportunities. And today as Covid-19 spreads around the world, their vulnerabilities are growing higher.

On this occasion, Johnpaul Dimech of Sodexo is here with HR in Asia to discuss why and how employers could tackle the challenges in hiring PWDs and create an inclusive work environment.

Question: Johnpaul, according to the Ministry of Manpower, only 1 in 4 of persons with disabilities (PWDs) in Singapore are employed – meaning that a large proportion of this population lives without a stable livelihood. In your opinion, besides the stigma around disability, what makes employers reluctant in bringing PWDs to their workforce?

Answer: Often the biggest barrier to the inclusion of people with disabilities is other people’s attitudes, which is why at Sodexo we have made a commitment that 100% of our workforce will have access to initiatives supporting the inclusion of people with disabilities by 2025. Concretely this means that each country where Sodexo operates will have:

  • A non-discrimination policy on people with disabilities
  • A disability champion amongst our employees to pursue our disability commitment
  • Communications to support the inclusion of people with disabilities, that focus on breaking down stigma and stereotypes

Sodexo views diversity and inclusion as a business imperative and it has always been part of our DNA. We want to work with our stakeholders, clients and employees who share in our values. Organisations can also be reluctant to integrate people with disabilities because of concerns about the cost and complexity of adjustments – our experience is that most are low cost and simple to make and, in some cases, different ways of working can benefit the whole team.

Question: Disability is not inability. Why do you think it is important to create a truly inclusive working environment?

Answer: Since our founding in 1966 in France, we have believed that improving the quality of life of our employees, clients, consumers and communities that we serve – doing good business in a good way is a part of who Sodexo is.  Creating a truly inclusive working environment is part of this mission and we want to ensure we are able to tap into the broadest pool of talent

The business case for including people with disabilities is clear. Research tell us that over 1.3 billion people across the world live with a disability (World Bank) and 80% of disabilities are acquired between the ages of 18 and 64 (Disabled Living Foundation), so most people are acquiring disabilities during the years when they would be working. If we aren’t attracting, retaining and developing people with disabilities we are missing a huge pool of talent. This talent pool can also help us to understand the needs of people with disabilities who, along with their friends and family, are responsible for $8 trillion of spending power (Global Economics of Disability Report). Disability inclusion is not just an ethical imperative, but a business one as well!

Question: What are the challenges that Sodexo has been facing in its commitment to providing an inclusive workplace?

Answer: Sodexo is a hugely diverse organisation that operates in 64 countries, serving over 100 million consumers each day, and provides a wide range of services, including food and other integrated facilities management services, such as security and technical, electrical and mechanical services.

Our experience is that various geographies, clients and teams are at different places on their disability inclusion journey, which is why our global commitment is so important, to provide a minimum standard for all to adopt by 2025. We recognise that our colleagues can be concerned about saying the wrong thing or not knowing how best to communicate with people with disabilities, so we aim to give confidence and exposure through our global communication campaigns, which have used the theme of  ‘Open Up’. The communications have asked our disabled employees to share their own stories and asked non-disabled colleagues to ‘open their minds’ to disability inclusion.

We also think carefully about the on-boarding of people with disabilities, so we can be sure the team learns how to communicate, makes any necessary accommodations and works together as effectively as possible.

Question: So, how does Sodexo turn these challenges into opportunities?

Answer: We work with clients who share these same values, whom may already have PwD inclusion programmes, and have facilities and buildings that are PwD accessible. By coming together with our clients, we are able to forge deeper partnerships and engage the larger business community, such as a PwD inclusion conference we co-hosted in India with a pharmaceutical client, and a roundtable session with an FMCG client where we opened up the conversation.

To support us in building awareness and training, we also work with external partners and NGOs. Some of these include the Mountbatten Vocational School in Singapore, a special needs learning centre, and Enabling Village, a Singapore-government linked centre that supports PwDs with vocational training, who conducted workshops with us on PwD inclusion. This in turn allows us to build deeper partnerships with other companies and institutions and have an ecosystem that supports one another.

Question: What initiatives that Sodexo has in place to walk the talk and put in place actionable diversity and inclusivity programmes?

Answer: In 2019, we launched a partnership program with Samsui Supplies & Services, a Singapore-based group, to provide training to people with disabilities. The knowledge and skills will prepare them for a career in the food and beverage industry enabling them to gain a means of financial independence. At the end of 2020, 3 batches of trainees have successfully graduated from the programme, overcoming the various remote learning challenges brought about during Singapore’s Circuit Breaker period.

At the same time, we have a number of internal programs to promote diversity and inclusion. One example is a training workshop for employees, Spirit of Inclusion, where we get to better understand the internal biases we all have. With this awareness, we are better able to work towards a greater understanding and inclusion of those who are different from us.

Question: What benefits your company have been gaining after having a more diverse team? Do all the efforts pay off?

Answer: Sodexo, at our heart, is a people business. We are people serving other people. As such, we need a diverse pool of talent to reflect the clients and consumers we serve. Having a diverse team enables us to reflect the fabric of the communities we serve and are a part of, and better anticipate their needs and concerns.

At the same time, we are also in a business environment where talent is increasingly tight. Inclusive hiring allows us to widen our talent pool and bring in a much better pipeline to support our talent needs. By developing PwDs and giving them the opportunity to develop, we also groom future leaders who can benefit our business growth. On a more personal level, I am proud to sponsor our global disability strategy and think that having diversity in our teams ensure different levels of interactions among colleagues. This helps to broaden perspectives and a better appreciation for talent that all come together in a great team.

Question: Please share with our readers, what can companies do in their first step into creating more diverse and inclusive workplaces?

Answer: It starts by opening up the conversation. We need to speak with our teams and have them understand the need to embrace a diverse workplace. Without the buy in at every level of the organisation, it will not be easy for inclusion programs to gain traction. The great news is that organisations are not alone – there are many partners who can help- like the Valuable 500, the ILO Business and Disability network and the Business Disability forum. By sharing experiences and practices we can move quicker towards true inclusion.


Johnpaul Dimech is Sodexo’s CEO Geographic Regions as well as Region Chair for Asia Pacific. He is also a member of Sodexo’s Group Executive Committee. Johnpaul is a seasoned and astute international CEO with over 20 years’ experience in the B2B and B2C markets. He began his career at Sodexo in 1998 at the Olympic Stadium in Sydney. He has since worked his way through a series of global C-suite positions, including being the Country CEO of Australia, Singapore and India.

Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Content rights: This exclusive interview content is produced by HR in ASIA. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in this interview is prohibited. You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content.

(Visited 1 times, 1 visits today)