The business case for diversity and inclusivity is clear: Krishan Balendra on the ONE JKH brand

June is Pride month, which automatically draws the mind towards inclusivity and equality, as LGBTQ+ people around the world celebrate their identities and campaign for equality. Equality isn’t just a legal matter, it is also a social one, and even a business-related one because of how much of our lives we spend at work. 

We would all hope to work at or build companies that value equality and diversity at all levels, from those entering the workforce right up to senior management. John Keells Holdings (JKH), one of Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest companies, is one of those companies that values diversity. In September 2020, JKH launched “ONE JKH”, a brand driving the values of diversity, equality, and inclusion. Against the backdrop of Pride month, Brunch spoke with John Keells Group Chairman Krishan Balendra for more on the story behind ONE JKH and equality at the workplace. 


Krishan Balendra

How did the ONE JKH brand start?

John Keells has always been progressive in our approach towards valuing diversity in our workforce. Over our 150-year heritage, our approach on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) has shown that people are happy and do their best work when treated with respect, dignity, and fairness and this also ties into our values – caring, trust, integrity, excellence, and innovation. It is important that, what we refer to as, “Life at JKH”, continues to be a place of inclusion, where everyone can be their true selves and respect and trust is fundamental. 

In the last five years alone, we worked on many key initiatives related to different aspects of diversity: with regards to gender diversity, in 2018, we joined the IFC SheWorks Sri Lanka partnership and last year, we signed up for the UN Global Compact’s accelerated programme Target Gender Equality where both initiatives focused on increasing women’s representation and leadership in business; we have ensured that our business locations are wheelchair friendly and accessible to differently abled persons; last year we also supported Grassrooted Trust and the National Transgender Network in conducting an employee perception survey with our staff towards increasing the employability of transgender persons in the Sri Lankan corporate sector and this work is still ongoing; and last but not least, in the aftermath of the Easter bombing in 2019, you would recall we launched an islandwide campaign across all our businesses “We are stronger united. Let us stand together as one nation. 

Given the wide spectrum of work being done for DE&I we needed to better communicate it to our different stakeholder groups – our people, our consumers, our communities, and our shareholders. To this end, we needed a brand to consolidate these efforts, with a brand identity that represented our focus and commitment.

It was imperative that we had the support and commitment of our people from the inception, and we launched an internal competition for staff to come up with brand name options; it was encouraging to see their enthusiasm and our DE&I brand name was a result of an idea proposed by a staff member. We launched “ONE JKH” in September 2020 to communicate that irrespective of our race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and ability, at JKH, we are one; the colours used in the logo represent gender parity, being differently abled, and LGBTIQ+ persons. 


Who are the people behind ONE JKH?

I believe all of us at John Keells are advocates and ambassadors of the brand and we all have a part to play. All our DE&I initiatives under the ONE JKH brand are spearheaded by our group DE&I team and have the commitment and drive from the leadership. We have goals and KPIs (key performance indicators) to track our progress on these initiatives and there are teams at each of our sectors leading these. We encourage everyone in the organisation to think innovatively in how we can do better, and subsequently introduced a category at the Chairman’s Awards for DE&I to recognise exceptional performance and results in this regard. 


What does ONE JKH do within JKH as well as outside JKH?

Besides the work done in the last five years briefly mentioned before, our focus now is to increase women in our workforce. On International Women’s Day this year, the group announced our five-year goal, to increase women in the workforce up to 40%. In order to achieve this goal we are working on a series of interventions to attract and retain women at all levels including leadership; we have enhanced our maternity and paternity leave, we promote agile working arrangements, we have rolled out processes on employer-supported child care facilities, we have identified women-centric training and provide mentoring for women, we have identified non-traditional roles for women within our organisation with targeted recruitment and retention interventions, and we conduct awareness sessions and discussions to address unconscious bias. 

Our DE&I efforts also extend to our value chain and our communities. We communicate our work in diversity and inclusion to our suppliers, through forums and a dedicated newsletter, so that they too are encouraged to implement this approach in their respective companies. Another recent initiative by our brand Elephant House “Diriya Upahara” recognises women-owned and women-led businesses in their supply chain

We place the ONE JKH logo in all our recruitment campaigns to emphasise that we are an equal opportunity employer, we have CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives like “Project WAVE” (Working Against Violence through Education) which addresses gender stereotyping and gender-based violence, and we empower rural women through our “Praja Shakthi” initiative. We have a robust process where we vet all our group advertising campaigns so that they are in line with our values and ONE JKH, and we do not discriminate against or stereotype any individuals or communities.  

Why is it important for large companies like JKH to have a diversity and inclusion brand? 

Irrespective of whether a company has a brand to represent DE&I, the business case for diversity and inclusivity is clear – it increases our talent pool, it brings innovation, and starts rich discussions and debates during decision-making; all of which support the notion that companies must work towards being more inclusive. At John Keells, we have started our journey by looking at areas for improvement, learning best practices, and benchmarking against global success stories while understanding the challenges we face in Sri Lanka in terms of stereotyping and perceptions, and have set ourselves goals and commitments to do better. 


Are there any comments that you would like to make during Pride month?  

We were the first Sri Lankan corporate to formalise an already inclusive culture towards LGBTIQ+ persons by including the terms “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in all people-related policies in 2015. We did not limit it to policy but worked with EQUAL GROUND Sri Lanka to conduct group-wide awareness sessions towards being inclusive to the LGBTIQ+ community. These policies enabled us to be the first Sri Lankan corporate to recruit a transgender person into a customer-facing, executive role. It is important to us that everyone within and outside of John Keells feels respected and valued.