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"People don’t need fixing... processes do"

Published February 17, 2021

A conversation with Mark Lomas, Head of EDI @ HS2

HS2 are the widely recognised as one of the UK's most inclusive employers, and are the only organisation in the UK to have achieved the Clear Assured Platinum Standard Accreditation for Equality & Diversity, which they were awarded in February 2021. I recently met with Mark to chat about all things EDI and ask him how he has helped HS2 on their journey.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you came to work in EDI?

What are your personal views / values on EDI?

I had a rather interesting journey into the world of EDI. All my education was in music. I attended the Juilliard school of music and graduated at 19 ready to start my musical career. I moved from New York to London after Juilliard and quickly found out the classical music industry in the UK, particularly at that time, was heavily based on network. As a 19 year old, who was used to auditioning for gigs and being successful at it I had no clue where to start.

In addition to that, the networks were full of people very different to me who had a long history together. I found it very difficult to break into these networks. Partly through youthful arrogance and a belief in meritocracy – if you are good enough you will get the gig, and partly because the power of networks wasn’t obvious to me at that time. After getting very frustrated I decided to go home to Bermuda for 3 weeks. I landed at 6:35 pm and had a number of job offers immediately. That experience got me thinking about how people perceive value. Nothing had changed about me or my skills, but my value was interpreted very differently. When I returned to the UK, I worked for a Disability Charity called Shaw Trust. I gave regular feedback to my then manager who thought I should go and share my views with the National EDI Group. She recognised something in the way I thought about things that would be useful to that group. Now, here I am today, with what I consider to be one of the most interesting EDI roles in the country. My manager spotted a bit of talent/potential and opened up an opportunity for me. I like to think that I have taken that opportunity and tried to make the most of it!

HS2 are the only company in the UK to be Platinum accredited – how have you achieved this?

Achieving Platinum level on the Clear Assured Accreditation standard required a team effort across the whole organisation and relies on EDI being embedded across the entire business in addition to a cycle of continuous improvement. The values of HS2 underpin our approach to EDI and this is fully embedded in the work we do around employee engagement, culture, HR practices, the supply chain, engaging with communities, the design of HS2 assets such as trains and stations and into our Health and Safety practices on site.

One of the ways I like to describe the HS2 approach to EDI is like solving an engineering problem. We find the point of failure and change it. This is only achieved by having a robust evidence base, both quantitative and qualitative.

Achieving Platinum is a tremendous achievement but there is always more to do and we are committed to continual improvement.

HS2 is a fairly young business - what was the driving factor in hiring you and leading this transformation in 2016?

EDI touches a number of the strategic goals of HS2. One of our strategic goals is to be “an exemplar of EDI practice” The driving factor for my role was to ensure we realise our strategic goals and legacy ambitions. What excited me about the role in 2016 was the opportunity to develop an inclusive culture from a starting position. As the organisation has matured this has become a whole organisational effort including our Board, Executive Team, Senior leadership teams, workplace forum, staff networks and colleagues across HS2 Ltd and the wider HS2 supply chain family.

Can you give me some examples of some of the key things you have implemented that have worked?

There are a number of areas where we have made some tangible impact. Firstly, our inclusive procurement model is widely recognised as best practice. This is important for a project like HS2 which has a large supply chain. Embedding EDI across the supply chain and watching as EDI practice continues to mature is something we can be proud of. 75% of our Main Works contractors have achieved an externally verified EDI standard and the diversity of the HS2 programme workforce continues to exceed industry benchmarks.

Our approach to reasonable adjustments and disability disclosure also stands out. Like many organisations we found that staff didn’t necessarily want to declare disability. We changed the conversation. We brought in a tool called Clear Talents and changed the emphasis to focus on adjustments and not declaring disability. The percentage of staff with moderate and substantive workplace adjustments (26%) far exceeds the percentage that have formally clicked the disability box in our HR systems (5%).

These are just two examples of many across HS2.

What in your opinion are things that don’t work and that businesses or HR professionals waste their time on?

Sometimes there is an emphasis on fixing the people rather than fixing the systems of evaluation. Programmes specifically aimed at diverse groups have been in place for a long time but they aren’t delivering the change in demography within organisations, specifically in leadership level roles. Unconscious bias training is often rolled out to key groups of staff, but the processes which underpin the data and trends haven’t been changed.

Disrupting the decision making processes and ensuring the evaluation criteria and processes are robust from an EDI perspective is far more effective. The people don’t need fixing. The processes do.

What is the difference at HS2 – how have you created buy in from the top down?

Because EDI is embedded into our strategic goals we have buy-in from senior levels. They show this by being accountable for EDI progress. Senior leaders have KPIs linked to our performance management approach relating to EDI. This is a visible commitment to EDI. RESPECT is one of the HS2 values and we place a lot of emphasis on the importance of our values. Our staff and leaders understand this. In our recent survey 97% of our employees understood our values well.

How have you been successful, and what have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

Being successful in this space takes persistence, resilience and pragmatism. There are always challenges related to the priorities of the day but the key to our success is keeping EDI relevant to the delivery of the HS2 project and linked to the deliverables for every part of the business. We have a culture of participation. We want people to speak up. You can’t be afraid of bad news. Getting feedback about what isn’t working for people is very important. A continuous improvement culture means this feedback is valuable and the lessons are learned.

In our staff survey this year, we had an 82% response rate. We asked our staff, in free form, to pick 3 words which described the HS2 Ltd. company culture. “Inclusive” was the most used word and by some distance. This is a real testament to the HS2 values of Safety, Leadership, Integrity and Respect being lived within the organisation.

How do you articulate the link between Inclusion and Commercial impact?

There are many links between inclusion and commercial impact. Increasing customer bases, reducing turnover, brand impact and reputation and of course avoiding costly legal issues such as tribunal judgements or judicial reviews. Put simply; EDI is just good business.

What would be your piece of advice to anyone embarking on a ED&I strategy?

I’d suggest the following as key parts in the process:

Identify your strategic goals and their link to the business objectives and organisational values

Develop a narrative that speaks to all parts of the organisation about why EDI is important to them

Engage with senior leaders, explore their motivations, objectives, pressures and support needs

Engage with you staff to understand how far from your intended goals you currently are

Use data to underpin and define your start and end points

Build in a cycle of analysis, implementation and continuous improvement

Circumstances change, the business and economic environment changes and therefore your strategy should be defined enough to allow you to pursue your strategic goals and flexible enough that you can apply pragmatism when needed.

I think I’ll end on two key thoughts.

1) You should be measuring the impact and effectiveness of what you do not how much activity you have going on.

2) There will always be a point when things are challenging.

In tough moments I remember what my grandma used to say to me, “It can’t be sunshine all the time. Sometimes there must be a little rain.” It always gives me the motivation to persist.

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