“We need to build more diverse HR teams too”

We spoke to a cross-section of people professionals to hear about their lived experiences and how they would improve representation

Lior Locher

As we’ve detailed in this feature, progress has been made around inclusion and diversity in the people profession, but there is still much more that can be done. Figures from the Office for National Statistics put HR broadly in the middle rankings among other sectors including legal; IT; science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM); and sales, media and marketing for its gender, ethnicity and disability diversity, yet there are still other areas, such as LGBTQ+ and socioeconomic background, where data is lacking and the extent of inclusion against these factors is largely unknown.

People Management asked a range of people practitioners to share their experiences – good and bad – of being part of a minority group and working in HR, and what they would like to see happen to improve representation for good.

“HR needs to help stop people making assumptions”

Victoria Bond, former HRD and CEO of Space HR

How did you find opening up about your sexuality at work?

When I started seeing my now-wife (having previously dated men), I kept it secret for a long time because I was trying to get my head around it, but also because it was a big surprise to everyone. It was very different to what they already knew about me. They didn’t have me in that ‘box’, and I guess neither did I. It was unintentionally a big ‘coming out’ thing, just because it was a surprise. I’d been at the company around five years in quite a senior role, and I was established in my career and at the organisation. So I already knew I had some solid ground to work from, and I was confident it wasn’t going to upset anything. It was just a case of managing some of those really awkward conversations.

One of the things people forget about being LGBTQ+ is people think of ‘coming out’ as a single event in someone’s life, and it isn’t like that at all. You’ve got to tell every single person you come across if you want to build any kind of relationship with them. There are also people who will make assumptions, like see my kids and ask about my husband. It can be quite awkward, and we need to get better at making it easy for people to have those conversations in the workplace and not making assumptions. Part of the reset we can do as the HR profession is stop some of those assumptions and try to make it a more inclusive environment.

Do you think the people profession is accessible and welcoming towards those from minority groups?

There’s more to be done and, as a profession, a lot of people will be mortified that people are potentially put off from joining their team, for example. If they sat and thought, ‘what is the profile of my team?’ and considered whether people from minority groups can see themselves reflected in that team, for a lot of teams the answer is probably ‘no’.

What do you think needs to happen for the profession to become more accessible?

It’s about the work a lot of teams are already doing, making organisations safe and inclusive spaces where people feel like they belong. From a talent perspective, it’s fishing in wider pools to make sure we’re capturing talent from all areas and running inclusive recruitment processes where people feel welcome.

And once we’re in there, having a look at the data and making sure we understand how it feels to be LGBTQ+, or a different ethnicity, etc, in our organisation to make sure we understand what the employee experience looks like for each of those people. With this, we can make adjustments as we need to, to make sure we’re keeping those people engaged, that it’s a place they feel like they’re included, and that we’re not at risk of losing great talent because we haven’t created the right space for them. 

Where does the responsibility for good inclusion and diversity lie?

There’s a big argument to say it shouldn’t sit under HR. I’ve seen a trend in the US of I&D roles having their own seat on the board and not in HR. I love that – it gives it a new level of importance and visibility. Having an I&D specialist on your board is powerful and sends a message about how serious you are.

“People don’t always get it right”

Lior Locher, L&D consultant, coach and author (pictured)

How did you find coming out at work?

Although I had come to the realisation that I was non-binary, I wasn’t ‘out’ for quite a while. When I came to work in the UK after spending some time in the US, I joined a company that did a lot of work around authentic leadership, and I thought that would be a good place to be able to bring my whole self to work. It turned out to be a complete and utter disaster. They were entirely unprepared. It was a fairly male-dominated environment, and in theory they were open but didn’t quite have the practice in place yet. 

In another case, I was bullied out of my job by a senior female co-worker who thought I had betrayed the feminist cause, which of course isn’t true – I still support feminism. After that, I went back into the closet for a couple of years, just for damage control. The second time I came out, I thought ‘there’s two ways I can do this’: either fairly small and where you have to do it a million times with every new interaction, or really big. Given the first time went so horribly wrong, I decided to try a ‘safety in numbers’ approach and make it big and loud, so I came out by running two sessions at two global conferences. The response from my employer was great, and HR was really helpful in navigating changing my details with the company.

What needs to happen to improve inclusion for non-binary people?

People are generally open and willing, but they don’t always get it right. For example, they’ll have a policy around domestic violence and be really proud that it also applies to men, which is obviously great. But then would I just assume I’m part of that? Or would it be helpful to find a better way of phrasing it so literally everyone feels included? Non-binary people aren’t on a lot of radars, so it does need pointing out.

The shift from equality to equity that a lot of firms are doing is also helpful, because I find equality turns it almost into an accounting problem, and people treat it mathematically where you need to figure out everyone’s portion size, distribute it and you’re done. Equity is a bit more constructive, because you look at who’s in the room and what they need at the moment, and you make that happen. It’s a bit more constructive, so I was pleased to see that conversation shift happening. 

People professionals are genuinely good people who are trying to do the right things for the company and for employees. As a function, I would like to think it’s on the more open end of the spectrum, What I find is people don’t think of it [being non-binary] or they don’t take it seriously enough. I occasionally get asked if I’ve ‘decided yet’, and some people, especially in the coaching world, take on an unprompted ‘I need to help this person figure themselves out’ role.

Do you think there’s enough LGBTQ+ representation in the people profession?

Generally, I think representation always needs to get better. Any professional function group tends to not look like the community around them. I’m not sure LGBTQ+ representation is the biggest challenge though – I think ethnic diversity is a much bigger problem, and that’s just from gut feel based on the last industry events I’ve been to, not from having seen any statistics. Obviously not all disabilities are visible, but disability representation is a huge topic too. In terms of trans and non-binary representation, I’d love to see more.

“I just have different strengths to others”

Matthew Cope, HR business partner at Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust

What happened that led to you being diagnosed with dyslexia?

I was awful at school. No matter what I did I couldn’t seem to do any better. I went to college but really struggled with my A levels – I was slower with reading, and struggled with the language element of writing.

After college I went from job to job – I was a labourer, I did bar work, I was a chef, I nearly ended up in the Navy. But I got to a point where my friends were all earning more money and I felt stuck, and my dad suggested I go to night school and do a business degree. I remember my first assignment – out of 12 of us, I was the only one who failed. But I stuck with it. I passed my degree in 2013, but not once did [the college] suggest I had any kind of learning difficulties. I just thought I was lazy.

I managed to get an entry-level position in the NHS because I’d done a lot of in-house recruitment, but the fakeness I’d dealt with over the previous 12 years unfolded, and I couldn’t fake it anymore. If I was having a busy day, I would struggle to take all the information in an email in, and I’d need to be conscious of what I was putting in reports and contracts, and it started getting picked up by some of my managers, but, again, it wasn’t really dealt with.

When I moved into an HR adviser role and started my CIPD qualification, my manager was amazing. She was the one who said ‘I’m starting to notice stuff’ and asked if I’d ever considered I might have dyslexia. It was awful, but when I look back it was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. I was almost 30.

I did sessions with a local education provider on how to manage dyslexia, and my boss said it was all fine and she would help me through it, even suggesting I take a report writing class. She isn’t my boss anymore but is still my mentor.

How can support for neurodivergent people professionals and, by extension, neurodivergent workers generally be improved?

More openness and honesty. When I was in my twenties, if I saw a guy with the same sort of characteristics as me coming out and saying ‘I’m dyslexic – it’s going to take me twice as long to read an email but it doesn’t mean I’m any different in terms of my knowledge’, that would’ve been awesome. There was always a stigma with it.

Do you think the stigma has lessened in recent years?

If you ask an ignorant person, you’ll probably get a response that dyslexic people are stupid, but it’s not the case at all. It’s just about having different strengths and, now I know I have that, I use it to my power. When I know I’m getting a complex case or issue, I know I have to spend time on that, and it makes me a better person. Since I’ve recognised that, I’ve had promotion after promotion.

How do you think things might have been different if you’d been diagnosed and supported earlier?

I would’ve gone into a professional field a lot earlier. I love HR; it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I’ve done every job you can think of. I get jealous of my colleagues because they all went to university and joined the NHS much earlier and jumped straight into HR. They’ve got this wealth of knowledge that I missed out on. But I’ve got skills and experience in other ways. My colleagues would say ‘Matt’s a doer – he’s not afraid to jump in’. Working in loads of other jobs has helped me become a better HR person. 

What needs to happen so you see more neurodivergent individuals in HR?

It’s marketing it. One in seven people has a learning difficulty, so why are we not marketing that? Seeing the stories of other neurodivergent people like Richard Branson [who also has dyslexia] is really powerful. In the NHS, we can be very old school in terms of our policies and procedures, but we need to be more neurodivergent, and I think there’s a lot of skilled individuals out there with autism and Asperger’s who can fit into areas of our industry, all while there’s a massive [talent] supply issue at the minute. We need to think more openly around how we find capable people. There needs to be more best practice around successful neurodivergent recruitment campaigns and individual development – there are probably a lot of quality workers in lower-banded roles who want to excel but are fearful of doing so.  

“I was told to hide my illness from colleagues”

Lesley Campbell-Stephens, head of HR policy and employee relations at the UK Health Security Agency

How does your disability affect your day-to-day working life?

I have several long-term health conditions that each impact in different ways. With treatment, my main symptoms are joint pain, fatigue and skin rashes. Two of my conditions are considered rare diseases, which can make it hard for others to understand the impact.

My disabilities are invisible most of the time, but can fluctuate. Some of the medication I take can be nearly as disabling, causing memory loss and other cognitive issues.

My most visible condition is a rare UV light allergy (solar urticaria) that means I cannot work under some fluorescent lighting or in bright sunshine without coming out in an itchy rash. This can be problematic in offices where I can’t control the lighting. Sometimes I have to make colleagues sit in darkness in meetings to stop me from itching.

Most of my adjustments are ‘soft’ – flexible hours being the most valuable, but I also need an ergonomic desk set-up because I have hypermobility, so can easily damage my joints from poor posture or repetitive strain.

Do you feel you’ve ever been denied opportunities because of your disability?

When I returned to work after illness the first time, someone in HR told me I should hide my illness from colleagues as much as possible. People jumped to conclusions about why I’d been off, so I took the decision to be open about my illness instead.

I certainly found it harder to find roles for a while after this and my progression was slower than my peers’, but I also decided that I would rather be open than get ill again and have to explain what was going on when I wasn’t well enough to have those conversations.

So much of this comes down to individual managers. Strangely, the two managers I’ve worked for who were outwardly hostile towards my disability and who were unwilling to make adjustments were actually two people who had their own impairments, but were of the school of thought that you just need to get on with it and shouldn’t ask for help. They strongly believed that all staff should be treated the same to ensure fairness.

When you have an unsupportive manager, it makes you doubt everything and perform worse, reinforcing their beliefs that people with long-term illness or disabilities are just lazy or not trying hard enough.

Alternatively, have there been times where you’ve been supported well?

The Civil Service is the first employer I’ve worked for where I can be completely open about my health issues and where they are accepted as a strength, not a weakness. I am also much more confident about asking for adjustments, which comes mainly from the workplace adjustment passport process. The process isn’t perfect, but having a passport does make a big difference when you move roles or jobs and need to agree your needs with a new manager.

What needs to happen to improve representation of disabled people within the people profession?

Having heard some truly awful comments from fellow HR professionals about the need to provide reasonable adjustments being ‘too much of a burden’ or ‘unfair on those who have to pick up the slack’, I am sadly not at all surprised that other HR colleagues may be reluctant to share their own disabilities. I think I’ve only become more confident being ‘out’ about my disability as I’ve become more senior and recognise the opportunity I have to be a role model and supporter of others who feel less confident to speak up.

There is definitely better representation in the EDI specialism of HR, but I think this can sometimes be counterproductive to changing attitudes because people start to see these fields as the niche of the minority, even if lived experience can absolutely make you a better professional in these areas.

To improve representation, we need to actually follow through with what our policies say we do to support people with disabilities and we need to look after our own, as well as the business. Too often, HR people sacrifice their own needs over those of others and I’ve been guilty of this in my career, not speaking up soon enough when adjustments haven’t been made and not putting my own health first when I’ve started to get ill.

The Disability Confident guaranteed interview scheme is a good example of where policy says one thing but behaviours show another. I’ve been in sifting meetings where line managers have suggested marking someone down when they found out they had ticked the box and were guaranteed an interview because they didn’t want to have to interview too many people at once. Because of my openness about my own disabilities, I was able to speak up and convince them they needed to honour the scheme and interview the candidates, but I know other HR colleagues may not have felt confident doing this.

“So often, it’s about having the right connections and who your parents know”  

Jessica George-McGowan, senior HR adviser at City of Bristol College

How has having a lower socioeconomic background affected your career aspirations and progression?

I grew up in a single-parent family – it was just me, my mum and my brother, and my mum didn’t work, so from a financial point of view it was quite a struggle. I had free school meals and everything along those lines. But I was always really determined that I didn’t want that for my life. From a very early age I wanted to go to university, and I was the first person in my family to do so. I’ve always been really determined that I wanted to have a career, a disposable income and to enjoy life and have holidays and things that I wasn’t really able to do when I was a young child.

Looking back to when I was 17 and applying to universities but having no one in the family who had gone to university, there was no one who could help me with my applications and personal statement. Then when I graduated and was looking for my first HR job, I didn’t really have any contacts in the professional world, so it was just down to me to do my own research. Fortunately I stumbled across Careers Wales, an organisation that supports school leavers and graduates who perhaps don’t have the contacts into careers. I went on their Graduate Academy scheme and was given a three-week work placement, and that was my first taste of HR. I was lucky to be placed in a top 100 law firm, and after a week they offered me a full-time, permanent administrator role, so that really helped me get my foot in the door. I often think, had I not gone onto the Careers Wales scheme, would I have ever made that leap into HR? So often, it’s about connections, who your parents know – things like that.

Do you think social mobility and opportunities for people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds have improved in recent years?

I think things have improved since I was younger. Since I was a teenager and starting on my educational path, I definitely think things have changed for the better. There’s a lot more financial support out there now, and a lot more awareness. But I also think it’s what’s put on you from an early age by family, friends and society that makes you think ‘I can’t go to university because my friends aren’t’, or ‘I can’t go to university because my family hasn’t’. There may be a lot of support out there from a financial, organisational point of view, but it’s really just changing these attitudes, and getting to the 12 and 13-year-olds and telling them they can go to university, or do an apprenticeship, or whatever they want to be successful and happy.

Do you think there’s enough representation of people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the people profession?

I think a lot of people have happened to fall into HR, either from a recruitment job or from a more general office manager-type role, rather than any kind of specific qualifications. But from the people I know from education or work who have wanted to work in HR and done their CIPD qualifications, I don’t know anyone who has disclosed that their background is similar to mine. So I’d say it’s fairly rare.

What needs to happen to improve social mobility and representation of those with lower socioeconomic backgrounds in the workforce?

There are so many interval points where you could go in. For one thing, having more organisations like Careers Wales – and the equivalent for the other devolved nations – where they’re going into schools, particularly  in some of the most deprived areas, and making it clear that it doesn’t matter what school’s told you, or what your parents have told you, or what society’s told you, you can go to university, you can have a profession, and having an honest and frank conversation and improving their knowledge that boundaries can be smashed.

A lot of companies nowadays also automatically ask for someone to have a degree. I think they’re cutting off so many people who either haven’t wanted to go to university, or people who haven’t had the opportunity to. So those organisations need to think ‘does this role really warrant a degree?’ instead of just putting it in as a blanket requirement, because that’s definitely a barrier.

“I haven’t been discriminated against, but I’ve definitely felt a difference”  

Idris Arshad, people and inclusion partner at St Christopher’s Hospice

Have there been instances where you feel you’ve been denied an opportunity for progression or experienced barriers in another way because of your ethnicity?

A few years ago when I worked at another organisation, an internal secondment came up to step up as head of HR operations for a year, and it was between me and another colleague. When the job was advertised, the deputy director called me into her office, and I remember her words quite clearly. She said: ‘You know I’m a really difficult person to work with? Because the position is reporting into me.’ My only response was to say ‘OK...’ and I didn’t think anything more of it at the time, although it wasn’t the best comment someone could have made. My colleague got the job, and I just accepted it and moved on. I don’t think it was based on gender, but there was something there. I wouldn’t say that to someone when I knew they were going to apply for a job – it’s like trying to put someone off. It’s hard to say that I wasn’t selected because of that comment, but it really stuck with me.

On another occasion, when I was leaving a role to go and work for another organisation, I told my line manager I was resigning and he said: ‘Yeah, I’ve seen in the last six months that your heart hasn’t been in it.’ For me, that was big. He could probably have questioned the quality of my work sometimes, but he couldn’t have questioned my commitment. When I’m asked in an interview about the most difficult feedback I’ve ever had, that’s the one I use. It was hard for me to get over because I gave a lot. And it may have only been a one-off comment, but it just made me think ‘interesting’. 

Another place I worked would always just use interims and consultants, no matter how many times I tried to put myself forward and say I was happy to take on more work or help out when people left. ‘Discrimination’ is a strong word, and I’ve never felt discriminated against outside of an airport, but I’ve definitely felt a difference. There’s been differences in what people have said to me or how they’ve treated me, compared to what I would’ve done. I’m very conscious that I don’t ever want to come across as just playing the victim when I’ve got no basis for saying it, but I can definitely point to examples where things could have been better. Unfortunately, there are so many people who have been discriminated against and treated very badly.

On the other hand, as a Muslim I’ve had positive experiences where dedicated prayer spaces have been made available.  Going to the mosque on Friday lunchtimes is also very important to me, and I’ve always been allowed to do this.

What do you think can be done to make sure the people profession is as diverse as possible?

I’d love to see an HR A level. To my knowledge one doesn’t exist yet, but that would be a very good starting point to catch people early. Nowadays, there are so many career avenues and ways to go. Going beyond education, I’d like to see the CIPD run a steering group or committee looking at membership as a whole. To try and say we should focus on one specific demographic is tough, because it leaves others out, but my general thinking is to start with a generic approach and get everyone in. We talk a lot about building diverse workforces, but I think we also need a focus on building diverse HR teams as well. We’ve become a bit numb because we’re in HR, so we don’t look inwardly and think we’ve got a diversity problem. The challenge of better diversity is never going to end at 5pm on a Friday, but we need to keep monitoring progress, address anything that’s dipping, and keep building momentum. The more we keep up the momentum, the more people are going to think ‘this is now common’. HR is unfortunately there to take the fall organisationally, but I do hope we can use our collective strength to push this forward.

Do you think there has been progress on diversity since you began your career? 

I definitely see more people who look like me in the profession now, although of course there will be variances by sector. In international organisations I’ve worked for there’s naturally more diversity, but one UK-based organisation, for example, was still very white, particularly at a leadership level. But there’s so much diversity around, you can sometimes miss it. It’s easy to look just physically and say ‘that person’s like me’, but how often do we think ‘that person’s got the same mindset as me’?