On the road to greater diversity

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Highways England: On the road to greater diversity

Highways England’s chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, is not just in charge of the nation’s roads network. This summer he also became involved in another sort of network.



Highweays aerial shot

Highways England already had well established staff networks for women, LGBT+ and disabilities but there was no group for its black or ethnic minority staff. Prospect member Dee Garbelotto helped to change that.

“We felt it was important for Highways England to have a platform to celebrate the diversity of our organisation and support its black, Asian, minorities and ethnic staff,” says Dee, who is joint chair of Highways England’s new BAME staff network.

“We launched on 22 June, which was appropriate because that is Windrush Day and we wanted the theme of honouring the Windrush generation.”

A measure of the significance of the new BAME staff network is that its champion and sponsor is the organisation’s boss, Jim O’Sullivan.

The chief executive spoke to Prospect about diversity, why it was important he got involved and how it also makes England’s roads better for everyone.

How diverse is Highways England at the moment?

About a quarter of our people either didn’t provide any information, or said that they preferred not to say, so you're always a little suspicious of the statistics. But in terms of those who did answer, about 9% of our community say that they identify themselves as being from a BAME background.

Are you happy with where it is, or do you think there’s work to be done?

We absolutely think there’s work to be done on this. We are pleased that all of our indicators for BAME are positive. We are recruiting more people from this community and we are promoting more people from this community, year on year.

So, we are improving, but there is much work still to do. We are a good way short of being representative of the population as a whole.

What’s the picture of diversity at a senior management level?

We have a number of people at a senior level in our organisation in the BAME network. I think that is very important.

I’m reminded of the football example. A number of the last generation and the current generation of black footballers were inspired by people like Cyrille Regis.

You can talk as much as you want. But when people see a black person in a Premier League football kit, that’s what inspires you to do it. So getting the first BAME representatives into those senior roles is important.

Why was it important for you, personally, to be a champion and sponsor of the BAME staff network?

I'm very proud of what our staff networks have achieved. They have become a place for people to identify with the company, but they also offer great support to colleagues who are seeking greater understanding of these topics.

The BAME network is the newest, and I felt that if I championed it, it would achieve successes earlier. Anything the chief executive takes an interest in, other people take interest in.

I've never been discriminated against because of the colour of my skin. However, both my parents were immigrants. I came from a working class background in London’s East End. I have some Irish Catholic background. The combination of my role as CEO and my empathy for people who face challenges of exclusion, were both important drivers in me wanting to take up this role.

What are your hopes and aspirations for the network? Will there be targets? Or is it just a place for people to come together and share their experiences?

Somewhere between the two, I think. Targets and quotas are sometimes necessary in a really recalcitrant organisation. But actually, I want it to be much more organic.

I would like to think that the network will make this a more attractive place for people from a BAME background to work. I think it leads us to a more inclusive community.

Any examples of the decisions you’ve made since you’ve been in charge of Highways England that has encouraged or improved diversity?

The first thing that we’ve done is to put the BAME network in front of our board and our executive with their plans and proposals.

We’ve made an effort to start including a BAME candidate on our senior shortlists. That’s not positive discrimination or quotas, it’s simply picking the best BAME candidate from a list and ensuring they get the chance of an interview.

I think it’s very important that nobody is allowed to apply the prejudice of tokenism to anybody they meet. I want to appoint the best people to the right roles. I have a little slogan, which is ‘Fair shout, regardless’.

It’s three words, but it applies whether it’s a disability, sexual orientation or a gender issue. I just think everybody deserves a fair shout regardless. I want to put the best people into each job.

We’re also trying to introduce the BAME community to other communities. For instance, we had the staff BAME network present at the women’s conference, and we’ve put some great information about people’s personal experiences on our portal, which is more general background information for the broader organisation to share.

We’ve talked about Ramadan, we talked about Windrush. We hope this will help all our managers understand that diversity isn’t a rarity, it’s a fact of everyday life.

How do you make sure the message gets across, and it’s not just seen as a high-level thing that the board can spout off about, but it doesn’t affect your employees’ daily working lives?

I think there are a number of different sides to that. The first is the communications, the visibility and the presence. So we need to be conscious that we reflect that in all of our communications, activities and in the way that we talk to each other.

The second is our values: integrity, teamwork, passion and inclusiveness.

And then the third is our metrics. When we do our performance-related pay, for instance, we have a forced distribution. And not a lot of people like forced distribution because there tends to be a bias towards putting people towards the top of the curve.

However, one of the things about forced distribution is we are able to check and make sure that women, the BAME community and others have been treated fairly and that they’re not all towards the bottom, or the top of the graph.

Have you been made aware of any internal dissent about all these different staff networks?

I’m very proud of the staff networks because they're not forcing it down people's throats. Our BAME community, in particular, are very forgiving of people who use the wrong language. They see part of their role is to educate.

We don't have in any of our networks any sort “adversarial activist” approach to life, where it's about stamping out opposition. Our networks are about helping people to understand and to move towards, and to work with, rather than divisiveness. It takes a lot for an organisation to have a culture that is that way. So I am really pleased that that’s what it is.

We had one anonymous case. A woman here in her 50s whose nephew told her he was gay. She was the only person he told and she had no idea how to deal with it.

She talked to our LGBT+ network. They had a conversation about how the nephew might be feeling, how she felt about it and how the parents were likely to react. They talked through the challenges he’ll face and how other people have coped.

That sort of help and support is terrific, as opposed to denigrating her ignorance.

For me, personally, being involved with the BAME network is increasing my understanding of how they feel and how they think. One individual said to me that it was easier to talk about sexual orientation or gender orientation in this company, than it was to talk about race.

That surprised me because I felt that race was an issue that was very much on the table and one was able to have an open and constructive dialogue about it. Then I was advised that it’s not just Highways England, but more broadly. Race has become a taboo issue and they find that very unhelpful.

Just to play devil’s advocate: how does diversity improve England's roads?

I don’t think that’s a devil's advocate question at all.

The first thing is, in terms of the business, I want the best people in the best jobs. If you exclude populations of people from that process, then you do not have the best people in the best jobs.

The second is that when we have a broken down car, with an Asian family or black family on board, the cultural understanding of our organisation is higher if we have more members from those communities in our workforce.

It’s obvious that lack of diversity is going to be bad for your business.

Encouraging greater diversity now is great – but it’s also a tool for attracting future generations and talent. Is that part of your thinking as well?

Absolutely. If you look at women’s journey over the past 20-30 years, we’ve learnt that this is painfully slow. But we’ve also learnt that it’s about having people in different grades in the organisation that you can draw on for promotion. So getting future talent into the organisation is probably the most effective way of solving this challenge.

Do you have any personal highlights or good experiences from the staff networks so far or anything that you're looking forward to?

Because I am white, male and stale, I didn't feel that I was the appropriate person to champion the BAME network. But one of our senior managers, who happens to be Asian, said: “You have two things going for you that mean you should do this. The first is that as chief executive, what you do, other people will follow your lead. So that’s important in itself. And secondly, your Irish background is different enough that you will be able to empathise and understand the challenges these people face.”

I found it humbling and enlightening that they thought enough of me to ask me to champion the network. And when I felt I wasn’t the right person, they were willing to have the conversation, explore the topic and explain to me why they felt I was. That first experience has been very helpful to me.

We have had a number of what I would call ‘safe space discussions’. If I am clumsy with my words, or if I am slightly ignorant about how things are, the conversations are supportive and informative, rather than chiding and negative. And the fact that they want to get us to the best possible place, as opposed to just demonstrating how wrong and prejudiced we all are, I think is hugely helpful to them and to the company.

We’re all still learning?

I think so. And if somebody supports your learning, as opposed to highlighting your ignorance, they are making the world a better place.

What gives you optimism that improvements can be made at Highways England?

You look at the women’s group, you look at the LGBT+ group, and you look at the impact they're having on the company, how they are positive and good for our culture and our performance.

I think the BAME network, having met the people involved, is going to develop into the same thing. I feel this fills a gap in our staff networks and that they will follow the same track and have the same positive contribution as the other networks.

How important has the contribution of Prospect members at Highways England been to this staff network?

I'm a big fan of unions, and the support they can offer to staff. So, looking to the future, I think Prospect members and, in particular Prospect officials, can make a huge contribution to the success of the company. I'm not sure that we have any BAME union reps at a senior level, which I think is an interesting observation. So maybe that’s a challenge to the union.

Highways England’s BAME staff network is eager to interact and build relationships with other BAME staff networks across government and the public sector. They can be contacted on: BAME.StaffNetwork@highwaysengland.co.uk