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#OpenUpTheWorkforce With Payal Sahni, Chief People Experience Officer and Executive Vice President at Pfizer

Written by Ellen Zhang on January 10, 2024
4 min read

Presented by Symba, #OpenUpTheWorkforce interviews feature executives advancing inclusion, diversity, and equity for the future of work. In these short audio-only episodes, host Ahva Sadeghi speaks with top leaders about what it takes to develop and implement inclusive processes. 

In this episode of #OpenUpTheWorkforce, Ahva speaks to Payal Sahni, Chief People Experience Officer and Executive Vice President at Pfizer. Payal lays out why companies need to invest in early careers, sharing how she started out as an intern at Pfizer and zig-zagged her way up to her current executive role. She highlights the groundbreaking Pfizer Refugee Leadership Initiative and the importance of opening doors for talent from all walks of life. Payal also speaks to why she thinks a return to the office is now overdue, and more. Listen to the whole episode here:

Payal’s Career Journey at Pfizer

While Payal was working on her graduate degree in psychology, a professor suggested she explore human resources as a potential career path. She landed a summer internship opportunity at Pfizer, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that her psychology background and skills were invaluable in HR. For example, intake interviews as a counselor are not dissimilar to job interviews and assessing candidates. After acing her internship, Pfizer offered her a job, and she’s stayed with the company ever since. Over the 20+ years that Payal has been at Pfizer, she has supported various departments and functions as an HR Business Partner, recruiter, and more, allowing her to gain diverse perspectives on the company's operations.  

Investing in Early Careers and Advice for Interns

Given her own experience as an intern at Pfizer, Payal is passionate about early careers. Pfizer continues to make significant efforts to enhance its talent pipelines by investing more resources in its early career programs, not just monetarily but also with time and mentorship. Mentors play a crucial role by offering guidance and providing opportunities to learn various aspects of a job. 

Pfizer runs targeted recruitment programs focused on specific areas like science, digital skills, and commercial fields. These programs aim to align individuals with their passions while providing diverse experiences. Payal is a shining example of how a positive internship experience can bring win-win outcomes to companies and talent. She advises interns not to put excessive pressure on themselves to quickly reach higher roles but to learn and experience as much as they can. She also encourages interns to explore various functions, even within the same company, to identify what they're passionate about.

The Pfizer Refugee Leadership Initiative

“With everything that’s happening in the world, we saw an opportunity to say: it’s personal.”

Pfizer launched its Refugee Leadership Initiative in 2021 to help refugees rebuild their lives and careers. Pfizer initially committed to hiring 100 refugees and mentoring 150 refugees, a target which the company quickly achieved in 2022. The company has set a new aspirational goal of hiring 500 refugees and mentoring 300 refugees through 2025. The initiative, run in partnership with Tent and, not only helps refugees and their families but also brings outstanding talent into Pfizer’s workforce. An Afghan immigrant refugee herself, Payal understands the importance of having access to opportunities and has made it her legacy to pay it forward and open doors for others.

Return-to-Office and Fostering Productivity and Inclusivity

Employers are facing pushback against a return to the office, as workers have become accustomed to the flexibility of working from home. Payal acknowledges that while individual employees were still productive working remotely, there was a decrease in collective productivity due to lack of spontaneous interactions that naturally occur in an office setting. 

At Pfizer, they’ve discovered that two to three days a week in the office is the best of both worlds, enhancing in-person collaboration, camaraderie, and a culture of brainstorming while enabling employees to still manage their personal lives. She also touches on how being in the office is important for early careers so that interns and other early talent can get the mentorship they need and shadow senior employees.

How Pfizer is Encouraging STEM Careers

Pfizer runs several programs aimed at encouraging diverse individuals, especially women, to pursue careers in STEM fields. These initiatives include targeted internship programs in areas such as research and development. The company also runs a program for middle and high school students called the Pfizer School of Science. Students get to learn from a teacher on staff and engage in fun hands-on activities, igniting an interest in science-related careers. Outside of the early talent pipeline, Pfizer also encourages existing employees to diversify their careers by moving or “zig-zagging” between departments to broaden their skills base. While this might be more challenging at higher levels, Pfizer has seen success in encouraging these lateral moves. 

How to Open Up the Workforce

Payal believes leaders can create meaningful change by giving opportunities to individuals from diverse backgrounds—be it refugees, promising graduates, or those from non-traditional paths. By broadening the scope of where they look for talent, leaders can find exceptional potential that might have otherwise been overlooked.

Granting these opportunities doesn't just impact the individual, Payal asserts, it extends to their families, friends, and their entire community. It's more than just offering a job—it's about providing a chance for wealth creation and creating a more equitable and inclusive society.

About Payal

Payal Sahni is Executive Vice President, Chief People Experience Officer, responsible for Pfizer’s diversity and inclusion, employee benefits, global talent strategy, internal communications, and workplace solutions & services.

In her prior role, Payal was the Senior Vice President, Human Resources, for Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, leading the HR strategy for seven business units, as well as for the Corporate Affairs, Legal, Compliance and Chief Business Office functions.

Payal joined Pfizer Human Resources in 1997. Since then, she has held a number of Regional and Global HR Business Partner roles supporting the business around the world and has led the Talent Organization for Pfizer Global Supply. In addition, Payal has spearheaded numerous transformations as Pfizer evolved its business structure and has been instrumental in managing HR strategy for several mergers and acquisitions.

Payal holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Rider University and a Master of Arts in Psychology from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She can be found on LinkedIn at

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Ellen Zhang

Ellen is the Chief Marketing Officer at Symba. Prior to Symba, Ellen worked in the cybersecurity industry, marketing data loss prevention (DLP) and cyber insurance solutions. She graduated from Boston College with a degree focused on Marketing and Information Systems.

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