What do rainbow flags, whistles, flamboyant dancers on colourful floats, a 17-year-old boy and his mother, and a pair of golden circle tickets have in common with Virgin Money? Newcastle Pride 2014, of course.
“We organised a ‘design a t-shirt for Pride’ competition, giving staff the chance to win tickets we had been given as part of our sponsorship of the event,” says Matt Elliott, the consumer banking group’s people director. “We had never done anything like that around diversity before, so I was keen to find out the story behind the winner of the main prize – the VIP passes – and see if she would share her experiences with her colleagues.”
Elliott discovered that the winner’s teenage son had just come out: “It was a brilliant opportunity for her to tell him that, firstly, they were off to Newcastle Pride, but more importantly that she was proud of him and happy to be open about it at work.”
The blog she wrote afterwards “caught people’s attention and sparked an interest”, says Elliott, becoming the most-read article on the staff intranet that year. Realising they could be on to something, he set about encouraging other employees in Virgin Money’s 3,000-strong team to write about topics that might enlighten colleagues.
Elliott admits that the organisation had previously “struggled to get started” when it came to diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives. “We had perhaps been too reliant on the Virgin brand to talk for us and we weren’t sure how to get the conversation going.” Elliott says he realised they needed to stop over-thinking things and start taking action.
And out of those actions came positive effects it never expected. “I knew we were really getting somewhere – beyond any measurement data – when our people wanted to tell their stories,” he says. “We have had people write about their battles with depression, the realities of Ramadan and what it’s like to be a young Muslim woman. People wanted to come forward – and not always on comfortable topics.”
Sharing these stories helped to break down the wall between work and personal lives, which Elliott says was long overdue. “HR has been partly guilty of erecting that divide in the past. Our job now is to knock it down.”
Another area of diversity that is high on Elliott’s ‘to improve’ list is gender balance. With a high-profile female CEO, it isn’t surprising that the company is keen to reduce its recently published gender pay gap, which currently stands at 32.5 per cent (down from 36 per cent in 2016).
Publicising the gap has prompted the firm to focus on its causes, which, says Elliott, aren’t just about women – they’re about men, too. He attributes the gap not only to the under-representation of women in senior roles, but also the under-representation of men at junior levels: 75 per cent of entry-level staff are female. With an ambitious target of a 50/50 gender split at all levels by 2020, Elliott says the company is “looking at why we are not as attractive to men as we are to women at that level, and why we have a higher leaving rate for men in that group”.
Virgin Money is taking a multi-pronged approach to solving the problem. Both men and women are encouraged to join its ‘gender agenda’ affinity group – it’s deliberately “not the women’s network”, says Elliott – which organises activities that benefit employees, irrespective of gender.
It has also changed its parental leave policies, following the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL) in 2015. “As well as men now being allowed to have that time off, we also match maternity pay,” says Elliott. “We have taken money out of the decision-making process.”
Around 30 men have already taken SPL this year so far, with numbers predicted to reach 40 by the end of 2017. Approximately 80 women have taken maternity leave in the same period. “I think we are running at a pretty impressive rate,” says Elliott. “But we need to work on making men feel comfortable with the idea.” One of the next stories the business is looking to share is from a senior male employee who has just come back from taking SPL.
Moving the dial on diversity is all about having visible role models, and collaborating with other interest groups, Elliott explains: “The LGBT community realised that if it was to be better understood and supported, it needed to engage everybody – and they have done an amazing job. When it comes to other diversity strands, I think we can learn similar lessons from their achievements.”
Ultimately, employers need to take a more fluid and creative approach to D&I, Elliott argues. “If you are too corporate and too planned, those beautiful, unexpected knock-on effects simply won’t happen.”