How To Build An Inclusive Workplace

Steve Butler, CEO of Punter Southall Aspire, shares his experience of building an inclusive workplace.

Within my own organisation, we have been on a journey of trial and effort over recent years. It is safe to say we still have a long way to go, and the diversity statistics do not tell the story I would like. But driven by many small changes we have developed an inclusive culture that welcomes new joiners from all backgrounds and supports their ongoing career, built an environment of mutual understanding and respect for one another, and, most importantly, a workplace where we all belong. 

One of our largest challenges was tackling the under-representation of female employees in the management structure. To address this, we replaced the existing executive committee of eight senior male managers with seven operational committees that included representatives from across the business. This led to more diverse, multigenerational teams contributing to the leadership and business strategy, and participation from women at management-level operational committee meetings increased from 0% to 38%. Women taking part in the new style of management meetings say that having their voices heard and valued has opened a door. Many have fed back that being involved in these meetings has increased their confidence and participating in decision-making has broadened their horizons.

Reverse Mentoring Scheme

History has dictated that my senior managers are all male, but in the short term, there is little I can do to change this. So, in January 2021, we set up a reverse mentoring scheme for our male senior managers and more junior female employees. The idea was for them to learn from each other by gaining insight into a different generation/culture and finding out more about practices or ideas from someone outside their typical circle. The pairs meet virtually, every four to six weeks, and come together once a year for all participants to review their experience and set the objectives for further programmes.

Although the gender split of our middle managers is 50/50, our experience has been that middle managers can often inadvertently become a blocker to change, usually through lack of knowledge or not joining the dots on how their actions are perceived. To address this, we have implemented monthly manager networks to discuss and agree on the best practices around our management techniques through a D&I lens. As an example, our managers have proposed changes to our recruitment processes; including moving to a structured interview framework to ensure fair opportunity for all candidates.

It is also important that our culture develops organically from across all areas of the company to ensure it is a true reflection of our people. To support this, we have established a People Strategy Group that meets on a monthly basis. It is made up of a range of staff, in diverse roles and geographies, from across the business. Their objective is to ensure that the business is a place where people love to work, and inclusion and diversity form a key part of achieving this.  They use the Investors in People framework to discuss and focus on the elements of the business which affect employees outside of their day-to-day job roles.

Management and project meetings have changed too. They begin with a sign in where each attendee takes a minute or two to update the others on what’s happening in their life, particularly their personal development and wellbeing. Although there was some hesitance at first, everyone has fully embraced the approach, not least because it signals that our priority as a business is the welfare of our people. Starting the meeting with a personal reflection breaks down reserve and sets the tone for the meeting; then, when you reach the business section, people are much more transparent and responsive, and the meeting is far more productive. It also creates a better understanding of what other pressures people in the team are dealing with in their lives. This can reduce disagreements and tensions, heading potential rifts off at the pass. Knowing what issues they are facing also gives insights into how to manage individuals in that team. It has improved team communication and increased openness and understanding. Critically, it has broken down the macho approach that’s so common in finance businesses, where sales and profit are the beginning, middle and end of meetings.

During the national lockdown, as an alternative to a physical staff conference, the business hosted a daily one-hour online event over the course of a week attended by the whole business. The objective was to open the conversation about all aspects of diversity and inclusion, with each day focused on a different element of diversity awareness including mental health, gender, disability, ethnicity, and age. Each hour included a pre-recorded video of someone’s own lived experience, a presentation about the challenges and issues they have faced, and a panel discussion about how different challenges can be overcome. The week was entirely hosted by staff from within the business involving 30 different employees over the week (out of a business of 150). Despite the restrictions of COVID, the event brought the whole business closer together. Collectively hearing the unedited personal lived experiences of colleagues from a broad cross-section of the group meant we all felt the intimacy of their stories and could not fail to empathise with everyone involved.   

Positive Feedback

Feedback from the week was astonishing with many individuals stating how proud they felt working for a company willing to have these open conversations, how connected they felt to their colleagues and a real passion to embrace an inclusive culture. Participants appreciated the opportunity to have a platform to share their stories and receive acknowledgement from their colleagues about the challenges they have faced. Following the success of the week, the business has continued the interviews and panel discussion in the monthly company presentation, allowing more people to share their stories, covering areas such as working parents, military veterans, LGBTQ+ and returners. Most importantly it has established a culture of inclusion where staff are much more willing to celebrate differences and challenge historical ways of working. 

My final message is that the journey to an inclusive culture is an ongoing one, we are always trying out and learning new things we can do better, and I think we will be for a long time to come. 

About the author: Steve Butler is the CEO of Punter Southall Aspire and author of Inclusive Culture: Leading Change Across Organisations and Industries.

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