According to Henry Jones, listening is one of the key skills that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) professionals need to succeed in their roles. He’s been all ears since becoming Group Head of Inclusion at Legal & General.
When he joined the financial services provider in 2020, he set up what he describes as “a really expansive listening project.” It involved one-to-one anonymous discussions with different people from around the company.
“We listened to how people were feeling about working at Legal & General; what’s going on in their lives and their lived experience of the firm,” Jones explains. “That was such a valuable piece of insight that it has framed our focus areas for the last 18 months.
“We’ve also been listening to our employee networks, strengthening them with new leadership and continuing to tell stories to the wider organisation about lived experience.”
At the same time, there has been an emphasis placed on refreshing and re-establishing governance. Jones says: “It’s what I call ‘the machinery’ we need to deliver our diversity ambition—ensuring we have critical commercial ownership for the group-wide agenda around building a more diverse workforce and a more inclusive workplace.
“This involves having clear priorities we all sign up to as part of that commercial ownership and building action plans that speak to the needs of our divisions and global locations. Next is working with our senior leadership team to ensure adequate, front-footed ownership of those plans. It’s the ‘plumbing’ that we need to be successful.”
Getting the governance right
Jones argues that, while governance is not viewed as “inspiring or sexy”, it is important to get it right as it profoundly impacts diversity, equity and inclusion. Refreshing the governance at L&G means there are now high levels of accountability at the top, linking DEI with the organisation’s commercial objectives.
“I speak to our chairman, our non-execs and our group board regularly about the progress we are making and any shifts in the data we see in our organisation,” he reveals. “And that scrutiny is fantastic. Making our workforce more diverse means facing head-on structural, societal and any individual challenges we may have.”
In listening to people, Jones found that he needed to balance their energy and enthusiasm for specific topics important to them with the need to focus on a small list of things that can be achieved collectively. Expanding on this, he says: “I never want to stifle that energy that comes from frontline teams, employee resource groups or people that care deeply about DEI issues. But we want to avoid a situation where we end up with nine million small things that don’t necessarily link up to help us make changes that we need to attack systematically. Balancing those two things sometimes means saying no to stuff which is really, really hard.”
Ability, not disability
Employees have responded well to the listening approach. For example, Jones points to an Inclusion Week that included a series of drop-in sessions where people could discuss specific topics. One of the sessions covered ability, not disability and attracted 120 people.
“We had an amazing conversation,” he recalls. “People were connecting, in some cases, with this being the first time they were able to talk about a long-term health condition or disability. We now have a programme led by our Ability working group, looking at how we can make Legal & General the most inclusive employer for those with long-term health conditions and disabilities. And we’ve got an employee network to share stories, support one another and shape the agenda.”
The positivity had spread to other areas of DEI and encouraged employees to roll up their sleeves. At the same time, the group’s executives have a proportion of their variable pay ascribed to their impact on creating an inclusive culture. There’s also an annual culture review with the divisional leadership teams on their diversity and inclusion efforts.
However, one area where there was room for improvement was collecting data to support DEI decisions. Jones explains: “It’s quite challenging because a lot of the data needed is volunteered by our people. So, we need to engage them in a conversation about what we do with it, how we protect it and why it’s important.”
Currently, 36% of the company’s board members are women, against a target of 40% by 2025. There are goals for race and ethnicity made possible because of having the right data. However, the lack of data for other protected characteristics has made it difficult to set representation targets for those groups.
Collection and better use of data will continue to support Legal & General’s journey towards being more diverse and inclusive. An independent review of the company’s recruitment process – covering 80-85% of UK hiring – identified almost 100 recommendations for change. As a result, the company is transforming the way it recruits. It also plans to do more to support people through the organisation, including sponsorship, mentoring and educating line managers.
Jones argues that the lack of data, plus not having the maturity to use it, has created a double whammy. This has slowed progress on DEI for organisations in general, even where companies viewed it as a strategic issue.
“I’ve heard senior leaders saying they would hire diverse candidates, but they didn’t exist in the market,” he says. “When asked where’s the evidence, the response would be there’s no data. When would you ever say in a commercial context this can’t be done and not back it up with any data but, somehow, with DEI, we’re allowed to do it?
DEI is everyone’s job
“The other thing I sometimes see is the mentality that DEI is someone else’s job. At Legal & General, we’ve started getting people to recognise that agreement, in principle, isn’t good enough. You’ve got to challenge how you’re hiring, looking at promotions, and mentoring individuals through the organisation. You’ve got to broaden your network and talk to new people. That all takes time and effort, so you have to engage with the fact that it’s your job, whether you’re a senior leader or an employee.”
Regarding training for DEI professionals, Jones is unsure if there is sufficient support and believes there is always more to learn. For employees, he points to the important shift from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion training.
He adds: “Too often I get frustrated when people just band around unconscious bias. Whilst biases are profoundly important, it is the ‘how do I deliberately step into a space where I’m conscious of those biases and do stuff differently’ that’s the real value for me. So, there’s more we can do as leaders in the DEI space to educate our peers, ourselves, businesses and colleagues around that shift.”
As well as listening and learning, DEI professionals needed to look after themselves as their roles involved challenging issues deeply ingrained in organisations and society. Says Jones: “One has to bring a combination of smarts and empathy and compassion and humanity to complex challenges, so being able to look after yourself is profound. Nobody wants a strung-out DEI lead.”
To sum up, the three things that DEI professionals need to be effective are listening, learning and looking after themselves.