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Making disability everyone’s business in the workplace

16 Dec 2020 By Katie Buchanan

Katie Buchanan explores the steps Virgin Media has been taking to close the employment gap for disabled people

Over the past five years, Virgin Media has put disability centre stage to help create equality for disabled people. This includes proactively partnering with disability equality charity Scope and The Valuable 500 (an organisation that aims to put disability on the board agenda of 500 global businesses) as well as sponsoring ParalympicsGB and, perhaps most importantly, taking steps to transform our employee and customer experience for disabled people.

When we joined forces with Scope, I don’t think I or anyone at Virgin Media comprehended just how much we would live and breathe all things disability. This includes the hard work that followed as we put ambitious plans in place to create societal change, and the steps needed to make a more disability-confident workforce.

Five years later, I’m proud of everything we have achieved – from supporting a million disabled people with essential employment advice to giving our people the tools and confidence to support our disabled colleagues and customers.

The beginning

Before we began our partnership with Scope, we had relationships with 31 charities. It meant that our work wasn’t focused and we couldn’t make an impact – neither inside our organisation nor in the communities we serve. With a sharp intake of breath and our executive team behind us, we changed our approach. After speaking to our customers and employees, it became clear that we could use our brand, scale, capabilities and connectivity to help disabled people become more independent.

Not long after we started working with the charity, we realised the biggest way we could drive change and create equality for disabled people was to focus on one key issue: unemployment. The UK’s disability employment gap – the rate at which disabled people are unemployed compared to non-disabled people – has remained static for more than a decade, with disabled people’s employment about 30 percentage points behind. Together, we knew this issue needed to be addressed, especially as employment is the key that unlocks opportunities and independence for disabled people.

What we’ve done

We split our work into three areas: supporting disabled jobseekers; transforming how Virgin Media supports its disabled employees and customers; and helping other businesses to become more inclusive employers.

Working with Scope we launched the Support to Work employment service. This service, which offers online resources and a 12-week tailored programme, has now supported more than a million disabled people with the skills and confidence to get and stay in work. 

More than 100 companies have joined our #WorkWithMe forum, which is helping businesses to become more inclusive employers of disabled people. It’s a free platform designed by business for business, with members including the likes of Centrica, Ford and Unilever, where their people and sustainability teams have the practical tools and confidence to put policies in place to better support disabled employees.

Working with our people 

Perhaps the biggest challenge we faced was how we could help all of our people – from our board to our engineers – feel more confident and comfortable about disability. Disability is complex and for many people it can be an awkward subject.

Working with our people, customer and product teams, we reviewed every aspect of our business – from how we recruit and train our people, through to how we serve our customers and the products and services we sell – to see if they were good enough to support disabled people. Being honest, they weren’t – and I don’t think any company has got this right either. As a result, we’ve made changes right across our business to improve things. We’ve rolled out dedicated disability and vulnerability training to 8,500 frontline workers, we are streamlining our workplace adjustment process, we have introduced more accessible products, and we have created guides so our line managers can have more confident conversations about disability. And there’s still work for us to do.

Lessons we’ve learned

We’ve learned a lot over the past five years, and we’ve made some mistakes too.

I know it’s obvious, but communication is key. While our people have become advocates for our partnership with Scope, there have been occasions where they have been unclear on how to articulate our goal. We’re going to learn from this and look more closely at the language we use and stress-test it so our people are clear on what we’re trying to achieve. It has to stack up – not just from a theory of change perspective, but from an engagement perspective, too.

I’m not proud to admit that when we first started working with Scope we had set the wrong goal.  We initially decided to fund technology projects to help disabled people, but we barely scratched the surface. We took a step back, paused our activity and then changed direction, which turned out to be the right decision.

Lastly, we’ve been able to drive change because of the honest conversations we’ve had – whether that’s been asking questions around if we’ve been doing the right thing, not being afraid to challenge ourselves, or being brave by putting our brand on the line for a topic that so many other companies have shied away from. Over the last five years we’ve seen other businesses come forward and we hope more do, too.

The future

Although our partnership with Scope wraps up at the end of the year, there is still a lot of work for us to do to become a more inclusive company. Changing workplace policies, culture and attitudes doesn’t happen overnight.

We’ve made real progress – driven by how all of our teams have rallied together to support our disabled people and customers, coupled with the collaborative, open and honest way we have worked with Scope.

We have ambitious plans for the next five years and we’re going to build on everything we have learned and achieved together. Having sowed the seeds of change, we’re confident our partnership will have a lasting legacy and transform the lives of more disabled people, communities, our people and customers for many years to come.

Katie Buchanan is head of sustainability at Virgin Media

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