Diversity, Inclusion & the "Raison D'être" of Air France

Interview with Sabine Bourbonnais, Head of Diversity-Inclusion Projects & Human Resources at Air France

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Image Source: Air France | Sabine Bourbonnais

Industries ranging from banking to healthcare to aviation and beyond are stepping up their diversity and inclusion game — and Ava is here to support.

Sabine Bourbonnais, Head of Diversity and Inclusion projects at Air France spoke with Pauline Pigeon at Ava on the important topics of diversity, corporate culture, and the obstacles that must be overcome for workplace inclusion to succeed.

Ava: Hi Sabine, let's start with your role at Air France. Please tell us how long you've been with Air France and what your main mission is at the company.

I have worked for almost 24 years for Air France, so I know the house well. In 2018, I joined the HRD teams to take on topics related to disability in the workplace. In September 2021, my scope expanded to all diversity topics.

Ava: Share with us what diversity means to you?

Diversity extends to multiple subjects: this is why we have defined our commitments in terms of equal opportunities, inclusion of LGBT people, promotion of diversity in the company's professions, equality for men and women, employment support for young people from underprivileged neighborhoods, employment of seniors or the implementation of actions for people with disabilities, etc.

Diversity means having people with different characteristics in our ranks — taking into account everything that defines an individual. For example, I am a woman of such origin, I studied, I am such an age, I have two children, etc. We work to ensure that diversity is integrated into each of our actions. Our company is not isolated "in its bubble"  — it is part of an ecosystem located in France and beyond, since we travel all over the planet.


Image Source: Air France

At Air France, we are aware that inclusion is a source of performance. It is even an essential element of performance: diversified teams always have better capacities for innovation. But the world is changing fast and we all need to strengthen this skill!

As an air carrier, bringing people together is really part of our raison d'être. Our clients live in the four corners of the world, they are very diverse by nature: their ethnic origins, ages, religions or sexual orientations are multiple. They are simply the image of society.

Ava: Can you give us an example of how the company promotes diversity & inclusion?

We work tirelessly to raise awareness and train employees on these subjects. The projects carried out are all articulated around these two axes. Since the outbreak of COVID-19,  people are increasingly seeking alignment between who they are and what they do.

In the world of aeronautics, there are many enthusiasts. We are not here by chance. Our company aims to connect people. To understand our commitments, keep this in mind.

❝Air France has a role to play in our society...

Our company aims to connect people.❞

At Air France, we have been implementing initiatives around inclusion and diversity for a very long time.

Ava: What is the disability policy at Air France?

The policy aimed at improving the working conditions of people with disabilities has been in place for 33 years at Air France. In 2021, we signed our 11th three-year agreement. This shows the strength and consistency of our commitment to this subject. At present, this disability policy is anchored in the values ​​and in the operation of the company.

Our internal organization is simple: we have a team of 6 people in the General Directorate of Human Resources. In each department, a disability-diversity referent deploys Air France's disability policy, initiates actions in the field, relays priority issues and acts as a privileged contact for HR.

This network organization allows us to work in close collaboration with disability referents, occupational medicine, social services, human resources and managers. When we face complex situations, we discuss these topics to bring out solutions in a concerted way.

We are also committed to maintaining the employment of people with disabilities. Today at Air France, 2,000 people have declared their disability to the company. It is both a little and a lot. In concrete terms, only 10% of our employees needed to put in place a technical tool or organizational arrangement each year.

"We already had compensation tools to support Deaf or hard-of-hearing employees, but Ava offers something new...

Ava has a distinctive advantage: it is based on both AI and more reliable and precise human intervention."

In no case does this mean that the disability remains without consequences for the person.

Disability is, in 80% of cases, invisible. The nature of the disability is a matter of medical secrecy. Indeed, within the disability mission, we do not know the nature of the disability of our employees. When an employee chooses to share it with us, we keep this information confidential. It is a moral and trusting pact established between Air France and our employees.

For example, if an employee tells us about his life, his disability and his treatments, we keep this information confidential. Similarly, if we order an ergonomic chair or software for dyslexic people: this informs us of the nature of the disability, but we are bound by the strictest confidentiality.

However, to apply the measures of the disability agreement, the person must declare their disability to the company. Some people are still reluctant to do so. They often dread the “label” effect which, in a reductive way, could confine them to their handicap. They may also fear potential consequences for their career. Many reasons can slow down these employees — their reasons are very personal.

Recognizing a disability is not an easy process: it is never neutral, because it affects the privacy of the person. Most people acquire a disability - permanent or not - during their lifetime.

"Disability is, in 80% of cases, invisible... it is complicated to assume a mental disability and declare it to the company."

If I declare cancer tomorrow, the consequences on my daily life can sometimes lead me to have RQTH status for a few years.

A person who has undergone heavy treatment and returns to the company will not necessarily discuss his situation. Especially if this pathology is temporary. This is a question that is not really obvious. It is up to us to explain our policy as much as possible in order to reassure the people concerned and adapt our response to their situation. Similarly, it is complicated to assume a mental disability and declare it to the company.

Ava: Air France uses Ava Pro. Can you give us some feedback on the assistive technology in regards to how it's worked for your organization?

Indeed, we discovered Ava in 2019, before the COVID-19 outbreak . It was a solution whose innovative character appealed to us. We were part of a working group with AGEFIPH around the Ava solution, with 3 employees volunteering to test it. Following this test, we offered the use of Ava to employees who wanted it.

We already had compensation tools to support Deaf or hard-of-hearing employees, but Ava offers something new!


Image Source: Ava

Currently, Ava is very suitable for certain professions - it offers more responsiveness to the employee. Some of our employees regularly use Ava Pro. Depending on their use and their desire for autonomy, we let them choose the solution that is most relevant to them. It's on a case-by-case basis. Ava has a distinctive advantage: it is based on both AI and more reliable and precise human intervention. This is really what makes it unique!

Ava: How do you define inclusion?

Inclusion is to allow everyone to find a place adapted to their constraints, in order to create a united and solid collective. To do this, we must not erase the differences, but rather approach collective subjects in a transversal way and recognize that this is an issue that affects everyone.

For example, in the case of a single mother, the arrangements made will enable professional equality to be respected. Another example is reimbursing childcare costs of a child whose parent leaves for a professional mission abroad.

Everyone must be able to exercise a job with responsibility in the best conditions. Inclusion means creating the right environment for each person's unique characteristics to flourish.


Image Source: Air France

Everyone knows that a person who feels good will engage more strongly, and therefore produce better quality work — work of which they are proud.

Ava: What can be done to help change the way people look at disability in the workplace?

It is worth explaining how our automatisms work. Deconstructing stereotypes and biases is a long-term job.  We work over a long time frame. We must always raise awareness more broadly, because in this area, we can never do enough.

It happens that a manager tells us: "I've been working with so-and-so for ten years and I didn't even know he had a disability!"

❝Today's manager must build an effective and inclusive team... Each employee must feel welcomed, competent and recognized by the company.❞

For us, it's a good sign that nothing indicated that this colleague had a disability. Besides, is it important that my colleague knows everything about my life if it has no impact on my work?

Let's not forget that we are social beings. Since our childhood, society has given us stereotypes and has misunderstood disability. As such, the DuoDay experience at Air France is often an extraordinary moment, both for the employees and for the people welcomed into the company. It's an experience that breaks down many prejudices on both sides by showing everyone's daily life. In addition, we are opening up environments that are usually closed and we are unveiling professions that make you dream!

Ava: What concrete missions can a manager give impetus to act in the best possible way with employees with disabilities?

At Air France, we have created an inclusive manager's guide which aims to be as practical as possible. Managers have this tool to help them recognize the individual differences of each person while preserving the cohesion of the team. This manual re-explains the basic principles of equality and equity. Today, the manager must be able to:

  • create an environment conducive to well-being and performance;
  • demonstrate benevolence, transparency, fairness and exemplarity.

It's a goal, of course. Nothing is perfect. With this guide, managers can rely on examples of good practice. Society changes, and the company must understand and follow these developments.

Ava: Why is the inclusion of people with disabilities in society essential in your opinion?

A society that excludes is a society that shuts down. In fact, it deprives itself of great wealth and superb talents. I ask the question: today, can we afford to deprive ourselves of talent? It's in no one's best interest.

Ava: Any final words?

I would use the words of our Deputy General Manager of Human Resources, Patrice Tizon:

❝Each of our talents is unique and
makes up the multitude of our skills.❞

There is no question of denying what makes our uniqueness. It is not a question of erasing our differences, but of managing to live together with our differences AND our skills. Indeed, how can you feel good in your daily work when you can't be yourself?