Sanofi's Olympic role brings perks and pride to engage workforce

Sanofi’s Olympics sponsorship is partly about showing the outside world that ideas about the company may be outdated. But the games also offer a chance to put the vision of a less corporate, more human business into practice, leading the drugmaker to use its sponsorship to bring thousands of employees to Paris, arrange for staff to carry the Olympic and Paralympic flames and organize its own Sanofi Cup.

The sponsorship began as the “crazy idea” of “what can we do since the games are in Paris?,” Josep Catllà, senior vice president, head of corporate affairs at Sanofi, said. That has now turned into a “very solid program” that Catllà sees as a positive force within the company.  

“We’re giving a platform to people who are defenders of great causes and fighters for medals. It's totally [different to] what we normally do for living. But it's brought a lot of internal engagement, and a lot of pride and happiness to people who are probably more encouraged to work for a company like Sanofi than they were before,” Catllà said.

There is a hard-headed case for making Sanofi more attractive to current and prospective employees. As the European Commission noted (PDF) in December, pharma and related fields face “a widespread skills mismatch” and “the challenges of making the health industry attractive to young talent, especially those with data skills, are enormous.” Companies that rise to those challenges will be better at attracting and retaining employees with highly desirable skills in areas such as artificial intelligence. 

Sanofi’s Olympics campaign has drawn parallels between how its teams spend a decade or more trying to get a drug to the finish line, only to sometimes fall short at the last moment, and how athletes train their whole lives for Olympic events where there can only be one winner. Catllà sees overlap between the resilience and teamwork required in drug development and elite sports. 

That thinking has manifested in an internal engagement campaign. Sanofi is not running the campaign for marketing or commercial reasons, Catllà said. Rather, it is viewing the project as “a way to celebrate with our own teams.”

Sanofi is leveraging its Olympics sponsorship in a range of ways to engage employees. The Olympic torch will pass by some of its sites in France. Sanofi has registered 2,024 employees, out of more than 11,000 applicants, as volunteers who will help at the games this summer. On Sanofi’s dime, the volunteers are coming from around 50 countries and staying in Paris for two weeks. 

“That is something the organizers are really valuing because all of a sudden we bring them a workforce that speaks all these languages, that comes from different cultures, that can associate with a national delegation of athletes to welcome them here, accompany them in the city, etc,” Catllà said. 

Other employees will travel to Paris as part of the Sanofi Cup, an internal sporting competition. More than 26,000 staffers registered to take part in national, inter-company competitions. Sanofi is bringing national winners to Paris in June when it will “close the stadium and have everyone compete there.” The internal games feature Olympic and Paralympic sports. 

The third path to the Olympics for Sanofi staffers is via what Catllà calls a “massive” ticket-buying push. Sanofi has “invested a lot of money in buying tickets,” the SVP said, and has invited 8,000 employees from around the world to come to Paris. The drugmaker is donating another 2,000-plus tickets to patient associations that it works with in France. 

With Paris 2024 now on the horizon, Sanofi is also turning its attention to the legacy of its involvement in the event, including by committing to work with UNESCO on its Fit for Life initiative. The idea is to give opportunities to Sanofi employees and “take the spirit of volunteerism beyond the games,” Catllà said.

More broadly, Catllà is looking to build on Sanofi’s work with advocate athletes to enable its teams to continue to support “causes that are close to our hearts.” The Sanofi SVP framed the ongoing interest in advocacy as part of a push to create a company where people can “bring the best” of themselves and “be openly the way [they] are without any sort of discrimination.”