DEI: Naked Conversations - Podcast episode three
This is the third episode of our podcast, DEI: Naked Conversations, and here Daniel, our Associate Director for Digital and Data, chats to DEI consultant Janet Houlis about his journey with the company and DEI, and how he is always learning.
Please note: transcript has been edited for ease of reading.
Janet: Daniel, it’s great to have you with us today as a guest on DEI Naked Conversations, welcome.
Daniel: It’s great to be here, thanks for having me.
J: So, could you to tell the listeners a little bit about yourself, what attracted you to Waterstons, how you got to where you are now, and something about you that we don’t know?
D: Ok, I’m Daniel Halliday and what attracted me to Waterstons? Well, I could pretend it was a really in-depth thing about our values and all that kind of stuff, but I actually joined Waterstons initially in 2005, quite a different organisation then, and to be honest I kind of fell into it.
I did a mock-interview at university, which happened to be with some people from Waterstons at the time, and they invited me to have another conversation which then led to me doing a placement. And many years later, here I am.
I would love to pretend it was really proactive, but actually I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, and Waterstons has helped give me an idea of something interesting to do.
And something you don’t know about me, since last year I’ve been doing some Brazilian jiu jitsu, which I’ve really enjoyed, bit more unusual, quite painful, but also a great experience for staying humble. Maybe you wouldn’t know that to look at me, but that’s something I enjoy and I’m happy to talk to anyone about it.
It’s sort of empowering, bit different, very positive. Not as violent as you imagine in some ways!
J: [laughing] That’s good to hear. So, what is it like typically in the day of the life of an Associate Director for Digital and Data, and how does your role fit with the company strategy?
D: I suspect this is what a lot of people say and say: “well, there’s no typical day, no day’s the same”; which is true.
My role is about supporting the people that we’ve got in all the departments in digital and data, and elsewhere, and making sure that they’ve got the tools that they need, and the support that, where they want to, we can talk about problems and challenges. Mapping out long-term strategy, and how we change to deliver more for our clients. That’s one part of the role.
Another part of the role is working with my SLT colleagues on some of the wider big questions for the business and how we make those things happen, making sure that we’re joined up.
I’m also wearing a different hat as a client partner for a couple of strategic clients which I’ve worked with for quite a few years, so I obviously work with those clients and make sure that we’re delivering great service for them.
I develop new business; do pre-sales work; occasionally get my hands dirty and do some consulting work too. So, there’s a lot of variety in it. Definitely not the most predictable of roles!
J: So, what’s your understanding of DEI and how important is diversity, equity and inclusion to you?
D: I feel like it’s something that’s quite a broad area, and I guess the more that I have learned over time about DEI, the more I realise that there’s more to learn. And it’s important to continue to try to learn more. That’s the first thing I’d say.
I fundamentally see it as something that is about making sure we can embrace and welcome a truly diverse range of people, and not just welcome, but actually have an environment which keeps them. That is not just the right thing to do, but it’s also beneficial for everybody; the Waterstons business overall in our context.
On a personal level, the idea of no-one ever feeling ‘other-ed’ or not accepted, I think that’s really important to me in particular. But I guess I think how you think about DEI is probably shaped a lot by your circumstances as well.
J: Absolutely. You said some really good points there that resonated with me, I am big on this feeling of belonging and not being other-ed, having been other-ed, then wanting to belong somewhere - it’s human nature, to want to belong, we all want to feel that we belong somewhere, and that people accept us for who we are.
Even after my 33-plus years in HR and dealing with all aspects of HR and DEI, even for me there’s always something to learn, there’s something new, so I’m never at the end, and I don’t come to you thinking well I’ve got all the answers because it’s different from one day to the next.
It’s really good when you can feel that you belong into an organisation and certainly I felt it coming to Waterstons, and everyone that we’ve talked to as well has always talked on feeling that they belong in, that there is that feeling of belonging. Why do you think that is?
D: I think that this has always been a business that’s been values-led, and whilst we have our values (which we go through in inductions and are on our website). We’ve always had them, and there have been re-statements of them over time, and in the beginning we didn’t have them written down – but we still had them.
I think with those things, there’s an implicit buy-in by people to some kind of shared understanding, and maybe there’s room in that understanding for what we’re about as a business, that not everybody has an identical view, but there’s a focus around which it fits. I think people who end up staying at Waterstons feel that they buy into that and therefore belong.
There’s other things as well, about it being a fun place to be and all of the rest of it, but those values probably are the thing, as well as having good relationships with the people you work with, which I think is really important. I feel like I’ve got plenty of friends at work - I think those things are probably the biggest for belonging at Waterstons.
J: You talked about values there, so what are your most important values, and why and how do they then play into the company values?
D: For me personally, I’ll pick two.
The first is honesty, maybe that’s a value for a lot of people, you would hope, but I think that deceit or anything like that is something that really, really frustrates me. Long-term honesty has to be the basis for any relationship, whether it’s at work, at home, with clients, with colleagues - whatever it happens to be.
Making sure that we are honest as a business - we’re not full of liars and dishonest people - as sometimes we do that thing where we’re not necessarily as honest as we should be with each other about things, and that maybe holds us back.
I think that’s certainly something that I try to work on, because I know that it holds me back. It’s really important, and if people aren’t honest it undermines trust and if trust is undermined then everything else, all our other values that we have as a business don’t really function.
The second, I’m going to try and crow-bar in as humility for two reasons. One, is that I am not a big one to stand on ceremony and I hate formality, it sort of makes me want to peel my skin off, so, I think humility’s important because taking yourself too seriously is something I really struggle to do.
At the same time I really struggle with personal criticism, and making sure that your ego doesn’t expand too much is really important. It helps to be surrounded by really, really clever people, who know much more than you about most things – which is definitely the environment at Waterstons.
But I think staying humble, no matter what your place in the organisation is, what your experience is, it’s kind of part of that learning picture, is important. But also, so that we’re not surrounded by overly serious people too, because I think the two things go together.
J: Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. Those are some of the key things that I hear, certainly in the work that I do, that employees also want to see and hear their leaders be, have that integrity and honesty, but also that vulnerability and to be able to know yourself and see yourself, and sometimes be able to think: do you know what, I’m, I haven’t got this, you know, I’m not really sure, I’m still learning, but please bear with me; and that they have a lot more tolerance for that.
Leaders are critical in establishing workplace culture, but we know that often focus on the operational aspects of the business can take over. So how do you keep DEI on your digital and data agenda?
D: I guess the first thing I’d say is that coming from someone with a very operational background, I think you are completely correct that those operational aspects can take over, and going back to honesty, we need to maybe start with being honest about the reality.
Lots of people, including me, will be frequently overwhelmed by some of the challenges that we have, and especially when events with clients or people and circumstances happen, it can be really difficult to make sure that we balance all things DEI, but other things as well – for example the wellbeing of our staff.
For the digital and data group overall, where we are at the moment is trying to establish what DEI means in our context and what are the steps that we can take now; where do we begin.
Not to say that nothing’s ever been done in that area, but one of the things that we’ve recognised is that if we look at DEI as a group, quite a large proportion of our staff start at what would traditionally be a graduate or placement level - indeed I started like that - but one of the side effects is a lack of diversity in candidates, and if we start off like that it means that we’re limiting who we take in.
That’s an area of focus for us, thinking about early careers and what are the alternate routes that we could take candidates in from. That could be things like apprenticeships, people with different backgrounds; it could also be more novel routes in the digital space. We’re looking at those at the moment to think what could we take up that could make a difference.
That’s not the only thing on our agenda but it gives you a flavour of how there there’s probably lots of other things/changes that we need to make, and listening to our staff but coming up with firm steps that we can take that can be started now, I think at the moment’s really important for us.
J: It’s very important that time for talking. We tend to talk a lot around things that happen, now’s the time for action, and so taking those steps and being intentional about them is obviously so important.
So how do you encourage employee buy-in and debate around EDI, especially the things that you’re talking about doing in your own area? How do you encourage that discussion and debate?
D: I think that one of the things that we’ve found, so far anyway, is that when we undergo activities to bring DEI issues to light, or to discuss them, that - you used the word debate, which I think is interesting - there’s certainly room for debate to be had, but there’s also a lot of education.
I would say that - and maybe this is a reflection of my own knowledge and it probably extends to plenty of people in Waterstons - people don’t necessarily have opinions about things, or they just don’t know, and I think a lot of our challenge is less about having a huge debate and more about starting with: well, what do people need to know, how can we help people educate themselves; and use that as a firm foundation for them making better decisions together.
If you don’t have a shared understanding of what some of the challenges are, or even just of some of the terms used in the DEI space, it can really get in the way of actually making good decisions.
J: With a lot of these things our employees are looking at leaders to be those role models. So, how does Waterstons ensure leadership has support and creates those safe spaces that can help some of those discussions, conversations and participation?
D: As a member of our Senior Leadership team, and somebody who’s held different senior positions in Waterstons over a period of time, the foundation of that support for leadership starts with mutual trust.
The relationships between the people in those roles, my peers, is really, really important for us all in making things work and something that historically we’ve maybe struggled with.
Perhaps a way of explaining that from my perspective would be, because of our shared values and a really strong sense of what our company values are, in the past we have had plenty of robust and difficult conversations about how we interpret our values in a particular context. That’s been a really positive thing, but what that has meant is that we’ve focused very much on that set of values that we hold in a shared manner, and we don’t necessarily always challenge ourselves about what other things that we aren’t thinking about.
We have a good precedent of having robust and difficult conversations, but it’s about the matters at hand not the people, and that you can walk away from those things and still be friends.
I’d love to talk more with people in the organisation about tricky things, and hopefully people feel safe to do that with their peers as well as the leadership.
J: It is so important to create those safe spaces, and for me treating people with that dignity and respect because we all have different points of view, our beliefs are shaped from our history, who we are, how we’ve grown up, and been influenced by so many things around us. Having that space where somebody can hold for you that is non-judgemental, and can say let’s just have a conversation, we might not always agree on something, but it’s about listening, and accepting that we treat people with dignity and respect is fundamental.
D: If I think about some of the more difficult challenges that I’ve encountered with staff members raising concerns and problems, maybe less about trust, and more about empathy - most frequently when things have come to a head, or there’s been some sort of issue, it’s been due to miscommunication or not understanding what someone else was saying, where they’re coming from, how actions or what someone’s said would be perceived in a different context to their own.
Having good relationships that mean when that does occur, you can talk about it, makes all the difference.
J: With the challenges around recruitment and the shrinking candidate pool that all businesses are facing at the moment, when looking to attract and build diverse teams to reflect communities that you serve, do you think it’s important to be bold and intentional to include under-represented populations, and why?
D: I think there’s two answers to that question.
One, which is the most obvious one, is that it I do believe it’s the right thing to do, to make sure that we proactively take steps to make sure that we represent the communities that we operate in, and that’s going to be different in different geographies and all that kind of thing, because of course we should.
I think a hard-nosed reason would be that, in what is a very difficult candidate marketplace at the moment, we should always be looking for how we should stand out in the marketplace, and that being a welcoming and diverse workplace is under-represented in the business community - why not differentiate ourselves in that way, and get access to people that others are not touching?
We always think about the reasons that why someone would want work at Waterstons: we talk about our values, we talk about our benefits, we talk about the history and legacy of the organisation. Our culture, our approach to inclusion - why can’t that be something that differentiates us and makes us a really compelling place to work in the marketplace? That is something our competitors maybe don’t have.
But ultimately, I think we start with the obvious reason: it’s the right thing to do.
J: Because we touched on benefits and part of the culture, the belonging that Waterstons has, how important do we need to consider the employee as a whole, especially when you’re looking at things like benefits?
D: Personally speaking, I think one of the things that always comes with the benefits, is that I realise I don’t necessarily have a great understanding of what benefits people want, need, or would be important to them, outside of my own needs.
I frequently have a view on the benefits that Waterstons offers and what we should do, but that’s shaped by my own preferences.
Speaking to people and understanding what different people want is really important - and I think our overall benefits are part of the reason people want to work here. It is something we’ve expanded somewhat in recent years; the sort of overall size and depth of our benefits package, the different things that we offer, particularly around things like wellbeing, for example. But I know there’s more that we can do, and that the team’s looking into that at the moment as well.
J: What flexible benefits do you have at the minute that you think stand out, and certainly would stand out to potential candidates?
D: For me, the trust and flexibility that we have.
It’s easy for us to see in the post-Covid world all the remote working and the shift that’s happened, but being trusted to take on work and deliver it, to focus on those outcomes and to deliver that as I see best, has been something that isn’t just because of Covid, that’s something that Waterstons has had as a way of working ever since I’ve started working here.
It’s really hard to put a value on that. It’s not just about where and when you work, it’s not just about flexibility for how much you remote work, it’s the slightly more fundamental thing that you’ve got autonomy to take things that are yours to look after, and with support and all of the rest of it, do those as you see fit and best.
I think that we don’t talk about it because you can’t list it off like dental benefits or private healthcare, which is very useful and I’ve made a use of myself and has been really important - that actually, is a really key benefit for working at Waterstons.
J: When we talk about flexible benefits around your time off and holidays, for example, is it just an open door?
D: We’ve had these benefits for a lot of years, we have unlimited holiday allowance and it does tie into that because it’s part of the same picture.
We often have this conversation when people start working here, and they ask what does unlimited holidays really mean and, for me, it comes back down to relationships. So, we have this holiday benefit, but it’s based around the idea that you understand the people around you, you understand your clients, you understand your colleagues, and basic things. It’s not ‘well, can I just take holiday whenever’; it’s more ‘well if your clients and colleagues are ok with it, then yes’. We don’t put a limit on it, but does that mean you should take 365 days off, probably not, because if we looked at the outcomes of what you’ve achieved, you’d probably struggle to achieve too much in that time.
But it’s an important part of the plan - when people think about whether to take more holiday, or what’s right, it’s useful for me to think about like why do we have this benefit, and why is it flexible.
The example I would give would be something really simple like, you’ve taken some long holidays over the last year, and in a traditional way of accounting for holidays you would have taken say 25 days of holidays. But actually you’ve been working a really tough project and it’s really taken it out of you.
Being realistic you’re not very productive, you might have had some personal circumstances or some difficult things going on - not something that required you to be off work, but something that’s stressful. You know your own mind and you know how you feel, and if you make the judgement that actually on balance, making sure that your colleagues and clients are ok, I need some more holiday to make sure that my wellbeing’s looked after, then do it, you make that decision.
That’s why we have a benefit that’s flexible and it isn’t capped, so people can make good decisions that benefit the person, and they actually benefit our clients, they benefit Waterstons overall. And that’s how I always explain those sorts of benefits.
J: I find that really remarkable, because obviously with the post-Covid world and everything else, I’m very much a traditionalist where so many people are used to 25 days of holidays. But this concept, of uncapped holidays and what that means, it’s treating people like adults.
D: Having worked here many years and seen many people take on this idea and ask questions about it, I gave you how I would explain it to people.
The pitfall, if there is one, is that some people looking outside-in would think about it as “Well what stops someone taking off half the year on holiday?” and actually the reality is that people have a strong sense of responsibility, they know what they’re delivering.
It’s very, very rarely a problem – that someone is not delivering and just not coming to work and being on holiday all the time, that’s very, very rare. What is far more common is people feel that responsibility, and worry about it too much, not their own wellbeing, so they don’t make sensible decisions on taking holiday.
Traditionally, the bigger problem is encouraging employees to make sure that they take sufficient time to look after themselves. It’s ironic that we have this policy but the biggest challenge is making sure people do take the time at the right time and encourage people to look after themselves, which is maybe the opposite of what people would worry about when they think about a policy like that.
J: I absolutely agree and I think that is something to really talk about and make a big deal about, but it’s like leaving home and having the responsibility of living on your own, having to fend for yourself and make so many different decisions - you now are responsible and accountable for things. It’s how you then decide on what is best for you, your clients, your different responsibilities.
I’m sure that you’ve been involved in the hiring process, what things does Waterstons do well, and what are some of the things that need to be improved upon, when thinking about DEI?
D: There are certain things that we’ve, I would like to think, always done quite well. Being very flexible around how we interview candidates, the timing and so on, we tend to be very, very flexible, so that we do not exclude people because of personal circumstances or their current work situation. It’s just as a very basic one but is actually important in getting a diverse set of people into the organisation.
There are things that we can improve on when we are reviewing candidates and making sure that we’re not following unconscious biases. But I would say the number one thing - which I made some reference to when I talked about our early careers - is doing a much better job of actually sourcing candidates from a diverse range of places.
It’s most notable in that early careers/graduate end because there’s certain routes we take which tend to produce similar candidates. We have taken candidates from many places in early careers, but we have certain institutions, for example certain universities, where we take a lot of people from, so we get a candidate pool, and therefore employees, that are clearly from that institution, which isn’t necessarily representative of our communities or wider inclusion.
That also extends to our experienced recruitment, to a certain degree, and there are things that we don’t necessarily understand about the different communities in the areas around our offices and whether or not we actually represent them. I don’t think we necessarily know enough about where we should engage to get a more diverse range of candidates that is representative of the local area.
I’m not saying that’s our biggest DEI challenge, but I think in the hiring process there’s a very basic idea that if we don’t even get applications from people, we definitely are not being fair, so how do we do that?
J: That’s a big one, and certainly an area that quite a few have spoken about. From a recruitment perspective, the conversations have certainly been about: how do we engage more, how do we look over the fence and see what else is there, who else is around us, what other pools can we tap into that we’ve never gone into before. If you fish where you’ve always fished, you get the same type of fish that you’ve always got.
It’s so important that those needs are considered around being very much more diverse in where we’re looking.
So, the Waterstons DEI journey, how do you think it’s going so far? And do you feel the organisation can view DEI as more than an HR initiative?
D: Tackling that last point first, there’s always a risk that something like this can be viewed as a P&C/HR responsibility, but what I would say is that I think the biggest thing is that it’s been accelerated to be a board-level concern.
This is not something that’s new to the radar, but really it’s been elevated to be part of our key strategic plans, to improve our DEI as an organisation.
This is not a job for People and Culture, or HR, it’s a job for everyone in the organisation, and our whole extended leadership team has this as a shared challenge that we need to take on. There’s lots of concrete steps we’ve taken so far, but raising it to that level and making sure that it stays there, is the single most important step. In the same way we judge ourselves on things like how we financially perform, the progress that we make in DEI is something that we also need to judge ourselves on for success.
J: I can see there’s lots of different initiatives going on, and the board is definitely on board as well, but it is about keeping that momentum when there are just so many other things snapping at your heels as well.
If there’s only one thing you hope our listeners do as a result of our conversation, what would it be?
D: I think if there was one thing - I guess I’ll try and embrace one of my important values of humility - is understanding that there’re lots of things you don’t know, or that maybe you have opinions that you hold that you don’t even realise. Challenge yourself, learn something new, try and understand a subject area in the DEI space more, and see whether you change your mind.
I think learning is about being open to having new ideas and changing your mind, and that’s not something other people can do for you.
J: I’m always saying at the end of these podcasts, how important it is for us to be brave in our conversations, and to embrace diversity and inclusion to remain relevant in an ever-changing marketplace.
DEI is such a broad and deep subject, and from today’s session I’m hoping it will provide you with lots of food for thought on the role you play on the DEI journey, knowing that it’s not a sprint, it’s absolutely a marathon. And as Daniel said, to challenge yourself to learn something new, anything that stands out for yourself, put yourself out there and give it a whirl.