'It was hell': Why Publicis Groupe's CEO is urging leaders to end cancer stigma at work

Arthur Sadoun discusses his cancer diagnosis, why he made it public and how leaders can support his high-profile initiative to end cancer stigma in the workplace.

Sadoun considers himself 'pretty lucky' because his cancer was detected early.

If there’s one fact Arthur Sadoun wants leaders to remember, it’s this: half of people diagnosed with cancer are scared to tell their boss for fear of discrimination.

It’s not a niche concern. With cancer rates rising, one in two people is now expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime; 40% of these while at working age. That means that at any one time, in most workplaces, someone is living silently with the disease.

These are not just abstract numbers for Sadoun, who is the global chief executive of one of the world’s largest marcoms groups. In March last year, he received his own HPV-related cancer diagnosis. But, against the counsel of many of his advisors, he chose not to stay silent.

Instead he took the unusual step as a high-profile leader of a listed company to make his cancer diagnosis public while he was still undergoing treatment.

He wanted his 90,000 staff to know first, so he made an internal film that went viral. He wanted his clients to know, because he knew he wouldn’t be able to travel to see them for a while. And, as the CEO of a French public company with a market capitalization of €16.5 billion, he wanted the shareholders to know.

“I decided that I will make it public for a very simple reason, which is I think that in this post-pandemic world, transparency is more important than ever… You can't say to your client every day that they need to bring more transparency into what they do and not apply that to yourself,” Sadoun says.

It’s easy to talk about transparency and authenticity – just read the reams of leadership literature over the past couple of years, charting the shift from the autocrat to the empath. It’s quite another to open up yourself. But then, as another famous adman Bill Bernbach once said, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.

Speaking out, Sadoun says, makes the diagnosis “even tougher on your family” because the broader concern it generates makes the very personal matter somehow feel bigger.

It is also intimidating. “You show a huge level of vulnerability at the moment where we are in a very competitive market. I know I am perceived today in a certain way as more vulnerable. Definitely. Because I've been sick and now I am in remission,” he says.

He adds: “But I can tell you that I'm actually 10 times stronger than I was a year ago. I'm stronger because I feel better, because I went through something that gave me a lot of perspective. More importantly, I feel stronger because I know that my people trust me even more. You always win by being transparent. Always.”


After the video was released, Sadoun received thousands of emails from across the world – mostly from people outside Publicis – thanking him for making his news public and sharing their personal stories. “It was incredibly eye-opening. One thing I found striking is they were all saying the same thing; when they or their family member was diagnosed with cancer, they immediately started to worry for their health, but then they started to worry for their job.”

Many hid the diagnosis from their employer. Some of the moving stories he was sent included people taking holiday days for surgery, squeezing in radiotherapy sessions in the morning before work, or even pretending it was their child who had cancer instead of themselves. “A CEO like me, we think we are doing the right thing for our people, but it was hard to read those messages and really understand the level of anxiety and insecurity people are feeling,” he says.

“At the moment you get such tough news for your health, you should not be worrying about your job. We decided the second I felt better, we would make that a big initiative and fight this,” he adds.

The fightback

This week, that fight has begun. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Publicis Foundation, backed by cancer charities including Macmillan Cancer Support, has launched a major initiative to end the stigma of cancer in the workplace.

Working with Cancer calls on companies to pledge their commitment to building the most open, supportive and “recovery-forward” work cultures for their employees. This matters, because 92% of cancer patients say that employer support has a positive impact on their health.

It is inviting every business across the world to sign up at WorkingWithCancerPledge.com. On this platform, each company will be able to outline their own commitments to people with cancer in their workforce. It is particularly keen for C-suite leaders to sign up to demonstrate the importance of the issue.

More than 30 major global businesses have already signed up, including Adobe, Bank of America, BNP Paribas, BT, Disney, Google, L’Oréal, Lloyd’s, LVMH, Marriott, McDonald’s, Meta, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Walmart. Management Today’s owner Haymarket Media Group has also signed up.

Working with Cancer is launching an awareness campaign on World Cancer Day on 4 February, with $100 million of donated media space and Facebook has guaranteed a reach of one billion people.

“Generally speaking, when we talk to companies, firstly they're stunned by the facts. Second, they actually have [cancer] policies in place, but their people don't know about them. So in many ways, this is about making these policies visible, understandable and accessible, so that if and when the time comes, people have the reassurance, confidence and the safety they require emotionally to deal with the disease,” Sadoun says.

Although companies don’t have to agree to any specific commitments, it encourages them to publicly share the actions they are taking to end the stigma. “If the name of your company is on this page, it means that your company will take care of you if you get cancer. If they don't, you have fantastic leverage,” Sadoun says.

Sadoun considers himself “pretty lucky” because his cancer was detected early, the prognosis was good and he had access to good treatment.

“Even though it has been hell, and it really has been hell, it has been eye-opening to see how we can help people by doing what we know best, which is removing perception issues, acting upon what needs to be done and bringing together most of the influential companies in the world.”

It helps, he adds, that the company is part of the media ecosystem so has the tools to promote the movement widely.

Part of Publicis’ pledge is to guarantee the salary and job of any employee with cancer for a year after diagnosis. Although people with cancer, or who’ve experienced cancer in the past, are protected under U.K. law, people in other countries can be more vulnerable. Sadoun points out that 65% of his global workforce are based in the U.S. and the second largest headcount is in India.

“We are talking about two countries where health insurance is linked to your business contract. In the U.S., you can be dismissed very quickly and lose all your health insurance. This is one of the big reasons why people are hiding it,” he says.

Publicis’ commitment actually offers sick people more job security.

“If you’re sick, you can talk freely because we will take care of you,” he adds.

A competitive advantage

This is the latest initiative in a series of progressive steps Publicis has taken for employees. It paid an exceptional bonus to 35,000 staff in February last year as a thanks for their work during the pandemic. Then in October, it gave 45,000 staff a “cost-of-living” bonus, which cost the company about £43 million and equated to an extra week’s pay for the beneficiaries. It has policies that allow staff to work flexibly and for up to six weeks abroad. Sadoun says Publicis has fired fewer people than competitors during the pandemic because they were able to find them alternative roles using its AI platform Marcel.

As the recession kicks in and leaders are feeling the financial pressure, there is concern that many companies’ people-focused initiatives will be seen as an unnecessary cost. Sadoun is resolute that looking after employees is not only the right thing to do from a moral perspective, but is a competitive advantage that has a direct, positive impact on the bottom line. Publicis Groupe’s most recent results (for Q3 2022) surpassed analysts’ expectations, with organic growth above 10% for the third quarter in a row. The group raised its annual forecast for the second time in a year.

“Today, we are leading our industry by outperforming our competitors on every KPI thanks to two things. The first is the investments we have made in data and technology. The second is because we consider that taking care of our people is our first priority. They are our biggest asset and it will have an impact on the entire business,” he says.

As cancer affects everyone, whether you receive a diagnosis, or whether someone close to you does, he believes initiatives like Working for Cancer are critical for future workplaces.

“As a manager, who is responsible for the value of the company, this is something I need to address. This initiative for me is going to be a big part of our ESG strategy – the ‘S’. Cancer is something we need to live with, we need to work with and is a stigma that needs to be erased,” Sadoun says.

He adds: “If you do the maths, it means I have today, one person out of 10 [in my workforce] that has cancer and I don’t know it. From a human standpoint and after what I’ve been through as a CEO, I will never accept that again.”

This article originally appeared on Campaign sister title Management Today


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