Karolina Szmidt

President of the Management Board of Henkel Polska

Nowadays, more and more often company managers put emphasis on the fact that their organization fits into a broader social context and undertakes initiatives related to corporate social responsibility. What activities do you carry out in this area, how is it implemented, what does responsible leadership mean to you?

Today, the world and the global community are experiencing an exceptionally strong crisis of trust in many institutions that have traditionally enjoyed public trust. We do not trust traditional media in the belief that they are chasing “clickability”, we do not believe social media, fearing fake news, we do not trust governments, politicians or officials. But – as the Edelman Trust Barometer study, conducted in 28 countries around the world, whose results were published in January this year, shows – we want to believe in business. What’s more, business is perceived as a real and main driving force for changes for the better, for example in the field of environmental protection or counteracting discrimination.

These are the social expectations towards business, but also the ambitions of many companies that, like Henkel, realize, for example, that natural resources are not made of rubber and if we are to ensure a good life for future generations, we must all start limiting ourselves today.

I think that a special responsibility lies with large, multinational companies because of the scale of their operations and the fact that the change in one product, multiplied by the millions of households in which this product is used, has a chance to make a really noticeable difference.

More and more investors and financial institutions choose as their partners those organizations that operate in accordance with ESG recommendations. Do you think that is right? How does the company you manage go beyond the so-called business as usual? What is it doing for the climate, local communities, diversity or what would you like to implement in the near future?

The term ESG is a symbol of change. With its appearance, the old and well-known shareholder capitalism, in which only financial results mattered, is becoming a thing of the past. Stakeholder capitalism begins. Now, in the assessment of companies, it is not only the numbers of profits and losses that count. And it is becoming increasingly important what impact companies have on their environment. And the letters ESG correspond to three types of impact: on the environment, on society, on corporate governance.

At Henkel, our sustainability strategy addresses all three areas of impact. What’s more, we want to be an example for other companies on how to take care of the environment, support local communities and ensure ethics.

For example, when we think about the environment, we think about the problem of plastic. We have set ourselves two goals for 2025. First of all, all our packaging is to be recyclable or reusable. Secondly, they will consist of 30% recycled plastic.

We want to be a source of positive change in local communities, helping them solve the most important problems. In Poland, we achieve this goal to a large extent through the employee volunteering program. We believe that our employees know the needs of their local communities best. And only last year, Henkel supported nearly 200 employee social projects for Polish schools, associations, parishes, etc. with the amount of almost PLN 2 million.

We care about corporate governance. We have our own meticulously described rules and standards of operation. All our employees know that Henkel has a zero-tolerance policy for illegal activities and internal procedures. Henkel’s corporate governance is overseen by the corporate compliance department and employees receive regular training.

Every company creates its corporate culture that embodies the values that customers see externally. Do customers prefer to choose this particular company because it does something good with which the customer identifies or is it mainly price-driven purchasing decisions? What is your opinion, what trends have you observed, is something changing in this area?

I will refer to the research carried out last autumn in the world, including in Poland, by the consulting company Deloitte. It turned out that many consumers are looking for sustainable products and want to buy them. Globally, 46 percent of survey respondents said they check various details about whether a product is climate-friendly. In Poland, such a declaration was made by over 60% of the people surveyed. This means that we have more and more conscious consumers who choose environmentally friendly products. This trend will intensify. And that means, firstly, investing in sustainable production and, secondly, creating product formulations that will reduce the environmental footprint of consumers themselves when they use our products. Thirdly, as manufacturers, we must learn to effectively inform our consumers about all this so that they can make rational and value-based purchasing decisions.

The Deloitte study also examined employees’ expectations towards employers. Almost a third of those surveyed would be willing to change jobs to work for an organization that cares about the environment. This is confirmed by our own observations. From employee engagement surveys from previous years and the research on employees’ needs regarding internal communication, which we carried out at Henkel, Poland in August of this year, we know that the threads of environmental responsibility and social commitment of the company are very important to our employees. We know that the fact that Henkel cares about the environment and specifically supports local communities through its employee volunteer program is a source of pride, motivation and loyalty for our employees.

The development of values and ethical principles in many organizations may indicate that awareness in this area is growing. Many managers declare that they put ethics at the center of their activities. Is compliance with the principles of fair play in management a guarantee of stable development of the company?

The basic ethical guideline for all employees at Henkel is the Code of Ethics. Thanks to it, we know what is considered right and what is reprehensible in the company. It helps us dispel doubts in business relationships and in the workplace. We place so much emphasis on the ethics of our actions because we know that the conduct of each individual employee determines the perception of our company and its reputation, which ultimately translates into business and financial results.

 What if an employee has doubts about the ethics of decisions and actions taken in the company? For such a circumstance, there is a system in which every employee can report their doubts in complete discretion. He can do it in a conversation with a supervisor, HR department or Compliance Officer, he can use an anonymous compliance line also in Polish or finally from the mediation of an external lawyer of the company (the so-called ombudsperson), who is obliged to maintain professional secrecy.

In June of this year, we published a refreshed Code of Ethics, and immediately afterwards we launched an educational campaign addressed to employees. In it, we appealed never to cut corners on ethical issues. In the campaign, we used real-life examples to make employees aware that we often face difficult choices, and that ethical behavior is sometimes separated by a thin red line. The Code of Ethics is supposed to be like our compass, thanks to which we know how to navigate in an increasingly complicated world.

The world needs wise and good leaders who want to have a positive impact on their environment. Was there a moment when you started to look for a deeper meaning in your work, an opportunity to do something good for your communities or country? What has been achieved?

I think that for many of us, the war in Ukraine was a moment when we re-evaluated many issues and priorities. We saw the same thing in Henkel. Shock and disbelief, and immediately afterwards the need to act, to help, to regain the feeling of even a small influence on this madness that was happening around us.

What started on Friday, February 25, with an email from a Ukrainian colleague to our sales employee in Warsaw, by Monday afternoon had morphed into a systematic volunteer assistance program for the families of Ukrainian Henkel employees fleeing to Poland in search of safety. 150 employees from all over Poland were involved in the assistance program. We took care of over 60 families and a total of over 200 people, picking up from the border, securing temporary and then permanent accommodation, offering various types of organizational support, such as enrolling children in schools, medical assistance in difficult cases such as dialysis or conducting a threatened pregnancy, making documents and many others. Employees devoted private evenings and weekends to this, but also with the knowledge and consent of the company official working hours. Henkel did not remain indifferent – it activated the necessary financial support to make employee engagement even more effective. So far, we have spent a budget of EUR 177,000 in Poland to help the families of Ukrainian Henkel employees (maybe it is worth giving in PLN? – about one million zlotys).

I say this in the first person plural because I’m proud to have been a part of this activity. I joined where I could best help – by arranging the global headquarters and ensuring the flow of subsequent tranches of financial support. I am proud that as a company and as people we have passed this exam for a “five”.

Karolina Szmidt

Since April 2020, she has been the President of the Management Board of Henkel Polska. She combines this position with the function of HR Director in the North-East Europe region, responsible for developing and implementing the company’s strategy in the area of human resources management in Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine and Central Asian countries.

She has over twenty years of experience working in international organizations, most of which in managerial positions, including SC Johnson, Royal Unibrew Polska and Skanska. She has been associated with Henkel since 2015.

She is a graduate of the Academy of Physical Education in Krakow, as well as postgraduate studies in human resources management, leadership and the application of psychology and sociology in management.

Last Updated on January 27, 2023 by Anastazja Lach