Creating a People-First Culture

By , Shola Agoro, and TJ Stidwill | 6 minute read | September 7, 2022

What matters to people, matters to us

Today’s workplaces are more diverse and globally connected than ever before. We want a workplace culture that puts people first – one where they are known, heard, invested in one another, and engaged in meaningful work.

At IBM, these priorities are embedded into the fabric of who we are. For 100-plus years, IBM has adopted policies and practices that ensure our workplaces are inclusive, equitable and diverse.

In the early 1950s, IBM President Thomas Watson Jr. wanted to build manufacturing facilities in the U.S. South. Concerned how his plan for an integrated workforce would be viewed by segregated states, Watson wrote a letter stating, “It is the policy of this organization to hire people who have the personality, talent and background necessary to fill a given job, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Three years later, black and white IBMers worked and ate together in the company’s new plants in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Lexington, Kentucky. By then, IBM had already enacted a string of progressive workplace programs and policies that embraced minorities, persons with disabilities, and women. Fast forward to January 2021, when IBM publicly supported the passage of legislation by the Arkansas General Assembly to prevent hate crimes, passed in the spring of the same year.


Strength in difference

Today, IBM builds on the strength of its people to fuel innovation and reflect the diverse character of partners and customers across the globe.

What matters to our people, matters to us. We extend pathways to one another through IBM Be Equal, which fosters a culture of inclusion supported by allies. Education, enablement, and leader championship of our Business Resource Groups (BRGs) ensure “people-first” is the impetus behind initiatives like nuanced career development and counselling sessions; professional development, coaching, and mentoring opportunities; IBM CAN BE (Canada Black Experience), intersectional LGBTQ+ advocacy inclusive of trans and non-binary workforce needs; and internships directly impacting both the current and next generation of IBMers through initiatives like P-TECH.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that IBM Canada has been named one of Canada’s best diversity employers four years in a row. We believe that when our people are empowered, accepted, and heard, everything else falls into place. Employees are fulfilled. Customers receive the best experience. The business thrives.


Building a sense of belonging

As a global company, our employees and clients hail from different nations, experiences, and walks of life. We embrace those differences and seek to ensure our interactions are authentic and empathetic. This is where diversity, equity and inclusion come into play.

For us, diversity is about bringing diverse perspectives to the table, where every voice is equitable, heard and valued, where we are committed to providing equal opportunity and being a culture of transparency and trust. By giving diverse communities a voice, we are creating an environment where everyone can advance. It’s about thriving on our differences.

Inclusion is one of the foundational principles of IBM culture. Every person feels valued, welcomed and encouraged to bring their authentic selves to work, ready to actively engage. We are proponents of radical candor, of sharing experiences to understand and elevate one another, and shine the light on ways to do better.

At IBM, diversity, equity and inclusion go far beyond policies, programs, or headcounts. It’s about creating a culture of belonging. That’s why we seek to:

  • increase diversity representation and inclusion at every level (accountability)
  • drive systemic change that creates opportunity for diverse communities (advocacy)
  • help every IBMer be an upstander through inclusive behaviors (allyship)
  • champion all diverse communities of IBMers and support every employee to thrive and bring their authentic selves to work (employee experiences)


Bridging the gap between communities

IBM is committed to developing employees from all backgrounds and fostering inclusion. Be Equal is a global IBM initiative that champions diversity and inclusion by highlighting IBMer communities and bridging gaps.

Business Resource Groups (BRGs) are key to the Be Equal program. At IBM Canada, these eight groups consist of: Indigenous, Black, Pan Asian, Hispanic, Persons with Diverse Abilities including Neurodiversity, Women, LGBTQ+, and Veterans.

Volunteer-led and designed for learning, support, and engagement, each BRG is led by a chair, has executive champions, and is dedicated to improving and accelerating the growth and engagement of diverse communities. Collaboration across BRGs takes place through monthly meetings and open dialogue on Slack. Each group also collaborates “up” by sharing with global communities.

The Be Equal Ally program also provides a space for allies to learn about BRGs and the actions they can take to ensure equality with everyone.

The impact of the BRGs is felt deeply by both group members and their allies. For example, our Indigenous Peoples BRG held a virtual sharing circle on “Red Dress Day” (May 5), to bring awareness to gender-based violence against Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. People shared the significance of the day and how it affected their lives, from both the indigenous and the ally perspective.

Sessions like these offer an aperture to share experiences and create awareness. Whether focused on the indigenous experience, the black community, LGBTQ+, veterans, and others, participating employees find these sessions transformational.


A pledge to work-life balance

The pandemic taught us that we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We’ve learned to prioritize the needs of the moment, while remaining committed to the big picture. A people-first attitude is essential to make this work.

During the pandemic, children at home presented a work-from-home challenge to parents. Yet time and again, parents like ourselves experienced understanding, empathy and grace from leaders and colleagues as we tended to our children instead of letting them struggle. We felt supported as we balanced the demands of our personal and professional lives.

Indeed, according to IBV research, work-life balance—not compensation—has become the top priority for more than half (51%) of global workers. More flexibility in work schedule and location was the top reason workers changed jobs in 2020 (32%).

The IBM Work-Life Pledge is all about ensuring that balance. It encompasses flexibility, respect, empathy, appreciation, inclusivity, and understanding toward others by promoting five key principles:

  1. Support flexible work and work-life balance
  2. Come into the office with purpose
  3. Find ways to disconnect
  4. Enhance our culture by sharing knowledge, appreciation, and feedback
  5. Reach out and check in with others wherever they may be working from


Why IBM is a “Best Diversity Employer”

We believe that the diversity, equality and inclusion efforts at IBM – and our communities within the larger community – give people a place that they feel safe. Work-life balance is promoted and respected. These efforts are supported by our leaders who are committed to empowering our talent.

By respecting the unique needs, perspectives, and potential of all team members, IBM builds deeper trust and more commitment from employees.

When people know their voices are heard, that’s when they say, yes, I feel a sense of belonging at IBM. Yes, I want to give more to my job. Yes, I want to ensure I’m producing 100% quality work. This translates to a stronger relationship with our clients, which translates to greater business value. It’s like any living thing. If it is fed and nourished, it will blossom.

As IBM Canada President Dave McCann puts it: “We run a people-based company. And at the heart of having a professional family is having each other’s backs – in creating a culture where people take care of each other, and people help each other.”


Shola Agora, Diversity & Inclusion Leader, IBM Canada



TJ Stidwill, Associate Partner, Public Sector Data and Technology Transformation, IBM Canada



Read the IBM 2021 ESG Report