How to implement a diversity and inclusion strategy with West Midlands Combined Authority

Winner of inclusion and diversity category at the HRD Distinction Awards 2017, West Midlands Combined Authority’s Equalities and Diversity Manager, Anna Sirmoglou joined HRD Connect. She discussed the success of the ‘neurodiversity campaign’ and also offered advice on how organisations can promote inclusivity of those with disabilities.

As part of your HR strategy, you offer job interviews to disabled candidates who meet the minimum criteria – what can organisations do to promote inclusivity of those with disabilities?

From our perspective, employees need to feel confident that the organisation they work for is inclusive of everyone, regardless of the background. They need to feel that it focuses on their abilities not on their disabilities and that their disability does not affect how they are perceived or viewed in the organisation.

What organisations need to do is to make sure they offer people the support they need to grow and develop their career.

A lot of it also has to do with communication of key messages to the broader business, for example, policy statements related to non-discrimination and inclusion of people with disabilities.

It is also about making conscious effort to dispel stereotypes and myths around disabilities and what it means to have a disability. For example, here in the WMCA, we have run a number of internal campaigns around mental health also involving senior managers who have had mental health difficulties in the past. We have broken some of the stereotypes about what it means to have mental health issues and how far you can progress within the organisation. It’s important to have inclusive policies and practices as these have a positive impact, not just on disabled employees but on everyone in the business. For example here we have flexible working policies and agile working practices, that will empower everyone. But it is also likely to have a significantly positive impact on employees with disabilities.

What did the neurodiversity campaign consist of, and how did it improve talent retention?

Some disabilities we know are visible and are well known, others are less visible but they are very prevalent in the workplace and are under-reported. I’m not sure many people know what we mean when we are talking about neo-diversity, we are essentially talking about conditions such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD – so it is an umbrella term referring to these conditions.

We share common features, specifically differences in how people learn and process information. Initially, within our organisation, nobody had reported that they had dyslexia or any other conditions. However, this was quite unlikely given the prevalence of these conditions in the population as well as in the working population. We thought that there may be people who were reluctant to disclose that they had dyslexia, or that they had dyslexia and it did not affect them in major ways so they did not feel the need to report.  We also know that many have not been diagnosed as children, and so we just wanted to create general awareness. We developed a number of resources on each of these conditions explaining what each of them are and focusing on the strengths. We tried to make them quite interactive and easy to understand, making reference to famous people with this condition as well. Within the resources we have tips for managers, self-help strategies and information support available. This was communicated more widely to the organisation in a number of ways.

Following the campaign, what we did see was an increase in the number of people who reported that they have one or more of these conditions, in some cases where it was required and requested support was offered from HR and our occupational health provider. We felt that this had an impact in terms of improving overall health and wellbeing and also in improving awareness and in terms of providing one-to-one support to individuals who came forward and disclosed that they have one of these conditions that they need some additional support.

Where can organisations start when implementing a diversity & inclusion strategy?

It depends on how you interpret and understand diversity and inclusion.  The initiative needs to be tailored to the specific industry and the organisation areas of weakness. However, there are some basics for any strategy to be successful.  Leadership buy-in is crucial. Senior leaders need to not only support the strategy, but need to be role models themselves and they need to be part of the process leading the agenda, they need to be active, committed and visible. They also need to be actively involved in key decisions early on.

Another key element is communication. In our organisation, being inclusive is one of our four core values. So key messages around this core value are communicated to employees all the time. It is also important to give employees the opportunity to participate in the process from the outside and to enable them to become agents of change rather than just passive participants of the whole process. We try to involve all employees in a number of different initiatives and campaigns throughout the year. It’s also important to ensure that an inclusion strategy is aligned with and supports the wider business strategy and the wider business plan. So it is crucial to practically demonstrate how diversity and inclusion will advise to the organisation’s wider objectives and stakeholders, otherwise you won’t get the buy-in and you won’t get the resources.

Finally there is quite a lot of focus in many organisations on expanding the diversity, even though this is really important, as a starting point it is important to work towards building broader and inclusive culture first. Then next improving the basic values of respect and fairness and ensuring that policies and practices encourage diversity and inclusion.

What is quite important is to do some research at the implementation stage. Get some ideas from others on what they are doing, what works for them and what does not.

How do you make sure cultural Inclusion is integrally linked to the organization’s strategic direction?

Cultural inclusion can be understood in different ways, for me, cultural inclusion is about people from any culture or other background being able to express who they are, to be respected and have equal opportunities for participation within the workplace. It is also to feel safe from any form of discrimination and inclusion.

To ensure cultural inclusion is fully integrated within the business, any equality strategies need to be supported and championed by leadership, and they need to be aligned with the business strategy. We remind people of our inclusive value principles and behaviour in a number of ways.  We try to challenge people’s thinking, often in subtle ways, through a number of campaigns. Eventually our focus is not just about increasing demographics or being legally compliant but it is about creating a broader culture of inclusion where people feel safe to express their views and where people are challenged regularly to face their own unconscious biases as well.

In addition to this, we have a range of customers, so what we want to ensure is that our services are inclusive of their cultural needs. That is a priority for us to achieve that engagement and consultation is a key area of focus for us. The intelligence we get from these interactions helps us develop inclusive and effective strategies across the board to deliver inclusive and effective services to meet their needs.

What communication channels do you have for all of your employees to raise concerns or ask questions and how has this worked so far?

I like to think we have quite a relaxed, non-hierarchical culture within the organisation where people feel they can raise concerns or ask questions without feeling that they would be victimised or penalised.

We have an open-door policy and again that supports communication, you can go and speak to a director about an issue that you have. Concerns can also be raised with one-on-ones with managers which are very regular and if necessary, through HR.

In terms of other mechanisms, we have an equality and inclusion group and WMCA Ambassadors, that are all a point of reference for any issues, concerns and ideas around equality related issues.

What we also do is very regularly consult with employees on policy changes. So if we wanted to make a change we would consult employees at an early stage. We also have organised focus groups, around a month ago we ran mental health and wellbeing workshops to get ideas of what works and what does not work and what we could be doing going forward. We also have regular leadership briefing sessions where people have the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. I think this works reasonably well and we will try to make sure that if we do consult, then we offer feedback of what we did as a result, and what people said. If something was not achievable we need to explain why. There is always follow up from any sort of formal or informal consultation and engagement with employees.

 

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