John Athanasiou: "We must make sure employees are growing faster inside our company than outside"

HarperCollins UK’s director of people on e-learning, blind recruitment and building more diverse talent pipelines

John Athanasiou: "We must make sure employees are growing faster inside our company than outside"

John Athanasiou has had an eventful decade. As HarperCollins (HC) UK’s director of people, he has worked tirelessly to improve diversity and inclusion across the business, including helping to establish an employee-led inclusivity and diversity forum, HC ALL IN, and a BAME traineeship programme, now in its fourth year. Athanasiou caught up with People Management to discuss what his company has done to recruit, retain and develop more diverse talent.

What have been your highlights from your time at HC so far?

Seeing our people strategy evolve has been a privilege. We work in a creative industry, although viewed by many as quite traditional. We have been through a period of quick change, revolving around the rise of new formats and the associated skill sets. 

One of the key achievements in my time at HC has been the 5 Crucial Conversations programme, which marked the first time HC ran a mandatory leadership across its entire senior management population. This helped embed consistent management language and a feedback culture. 

What have been the best achievements of HC All In to date?

HC All In has had a profound effect on the company since its inception five years ago. It covers all forms of diversity and inclusion and has a clear mission and strategy – to make HC more diverse through positive change and innovation. This also encompasses the books we publish – the HC All In team ran a special project on book jacket design with our designers, that has had a direct and positive effect.

The word has certainly got out – HC All In won the Employee Network Award at Business in the Community’s Race Equality Awards in 2016, and the London Book Fair Inclusivity in Publishing Award last year.

What inspired you to set up a BAME traineeship programme?

Publishing in the UK is not representative of the wider population. It takes time to change the makeup of a workforce, but we have started. We were the first in our sector to work with Creative Access, which helped place BAME interns. However, we realised that, if we tackled this ourselves, we could build up a talent pipeline and have a direct relationship with a broader talent pool. Since 2015, we have employed over 20 employees through the BAME traineeship scheme, alongside others who came in through traditional routes.

Taking action on underrepresentation seems straightforward, but we had to take a lot of legal advice to make sure we got it right. But we are confident it is the right strategy and we want to grow and build on it. 

What inspired you to try blind recruitment?

From November, our hiring managers will see CVs with no age, gender, race or educational establishment listed. Only when they get to interview stage will these details be disclosed. 

Research on how white-sounding names were more likely to get a response from a job application than BAME-sounding names was the initial catalyst. We think going on raw talent alone has to be better than a system that allows us to bring in unconscious biases.

What are the biggest people challenges facing the publishing industry going forward?

We’re now competing for talent in a market broader than our publishing sector. This includes Netflix, Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook and countless other companies, including start-ups, flush with new funding and opportunities. 

We have to make sure employees are learning, growing and progressing faster inside our company than outside. Our mantra at HC is ‘Find talent. Grow talent. Keep talent.’ and we do everything we can to make this a reality. 

Making training resources available to everyone in ways they want them is key. One way we do this is through technology. Our online video-on-demand platform offers bespoke content, including 90-minute, bitesize keynote addresses and skills development programmes. On average, 70 per cent of our employees visit the site at least once a month, and our attrition rate has fallen 36 per cent over the last two years.