Delivering diversity?

The Equal Opportunities Commission has suspended its investigation into
alleged harassment at the Royal Mail Group after the company agreed to stamp
out the problem. Simon Kent talks to RMG’s head of diversity about this
ambitious plan

August, the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) announced the suspension of
an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment at Royal Mail Group
(RMG). The announcement followed an agreement with RMG based on the adoption of
a wide-ranging action plan. According to RMG’s director of diversity and
inclusion, Satya Kartara, while the headlines may suggest the plan was a direct
result of the EOC’s investigation, the timeline proves otherwise. The action
plan was, in fact, part of a proactive initiative set in motion more than a
year ago.

"I came to the Royal Mail in May 2002 as part of the ‘Great Place to
Work’ team," she explains. "Our remit was to question and challenge
the way the organisation was operating, and one of the areas we identified was
bullying and harassment." With the full backing of RMG chairman Allan
Leighton, Kartara and her team carried out an in-depth analysis, determining
why the organisation had this problem and what could be done to address it.

What they uncovered was a workplace where unacceptable behaviour went
unchallenged, complaints were not managed effectively and there was low
awareness that this type of behaviour even constituted a problem. Even if
initial incidents of bullying and harassment were minor, lack of management
knowledge and skill created a negative experience for those who did complain,
leading to an adversarial culture in which the company ultimately appeared more
concerned with minimising the financial and reputational damage from tribunal
cases, rather than addressing why these incidents occurred.

"We needed to understand how we got to the point of a tribunal in the
first place," says Kartara. "We had to learn the lessons of this
process and work out how to stop it from happening."

In support of this new learning culture, the team drew up five principles
which would provide the guidelines for their overall action plan. These
principles were to make it easier for employees to complain, support employees
when they made a complaint, provide a clear complaints process and timetable
for any investigation, deliver appropriate penalties to the perpetrators of
bullying and harassment, and take significant steps to change the culture of
the organisation. "Culture change is where the need for awareness training
comes in," says Kartara. "If you can get that change, you can move
towards a self-regulatory system because the employees themselves will start
challenging unacceptable behaviour."

Investing in training

With some 220,000 employees, 120,000 of whom are front-line, RMG needed to
invest heavily in training to initiate the required culture change. The team’s
audit in this area found that little awareness training existed and where it
did, it was unfocused and delivered mixed messages to employees. The company
piloted a number of different diversity training interventions to ensure
maximum impact among the workforce. "We didn’t want to just give one
four-hour session after which no one would think about the issue,"
explains Kartara. "We needed to mainstream the intervention."

For some business units, this meant using their worktime learning and
listening session, a pre-existing half-hour discussion group where a manager
and facilitator would talk about the subject in general with a number of employees.

This was followed by a dedicated two-hour facilitator-led session examining
bullying and harassment in more detail, before a subsequent learning and
listening session was used to identify how to take the issue further in daily
working life and ensure the necessary awareness was embedded in the company’s

Recognising the need to get the appropriate skills and attitudes in place at
the higher levels of the organisation, Kartara established diversity
development centres for senior managers, taking their awareness training to a
day and a half. These interventions are extremely practical, high-lighting the
company’s policy on bullying and harassment, and examining what constitutes
harassment and the effect on the individuals involved. This information is then
pulled down to what the individual manager can do to address issues as they
arise in their own area of responsibility.

While some employees took on new skills within their existing positions,
others took on entirely new roles. From 350 internal applicants, 22 were
selected to become independent investigators into complaints of harassment and
bullying. These employees have undergone rigorous training to ensure they carry
out their tasks fairly and objectively, from asking the right questions to
producing accurate and valuable reports. "Part of the role is to look at
the wider implications of what has happened," says Kartara. "We need
to be sure incidents will not happen again, so the investigation should suggest
what needs to be done to change the culture around that specific process or

Telephone helpline

One of RMG’s flagship programmes is a bullying and harassment telephone
helpline run by an external company, giving employees confidential access to
counsellors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. "We ran a
training and education programme for the advisers so they understand our
internal processes and culture," explains Kartara. "However, it is
completely independent of the organisation." Employees have been given a
card with the helpline contact number to carry at all times.

The helpline is unique within the action plan in that it is provided by an
external organisation and – for obvious reasons – will remain so. While the
company has used external training companies and facilitators to lead staff
through the process, the emphasis has been on getting these skills within the
organisation and creating an atmosphere of self-monitoring. Nearly all internal
training staff have been trained in facilitation techniques, while groups of
personnel and line managers are scheduled to receive the support and skills
necessary for this function. "The selection process for facilitators is
strict," notes Kartara. "You need to be sure you have the right
people to do it."

With the EOC describing the RMG’s action plan as ‘groundbreaking’, the
company has had few companies to look to or learn from in undertaking its
change programme. It’s not just the usual claim of ‘we are a unique business’ –
although clearly no other company has the same challenges of size and
geographical spread – the fact is that if cultural change can be achieved
within an organisation of this kind, it will serve as inspiration for companies
across the UK. "At the beginning of the process we asked if we wanted to
do any benchmarking," says Kartara. "We thought about finding out if
we were any better or worse than other organisations. In the end, we didn’t do
it, because we know we are different from other organisations. We just did what
we needed to do."

Setting targets

But does Kartara know what success will look like? After all, with so many
initiatives in place to break the cycle of ignoring incidents of harassment, it
is likely the number of such incidents reported will increase over the short
term before falling as the effects of cultural change are felt. Kartara agrees:
"We don’t have any formal targets as yet," she says. "We’re at a
very early stage of the process, and while we have very ambitious targets in
general, the fact is we don’t know what we’re dealing with and until we do, it
would be inappropriate to set specific targets."

Until their initiatives provide fresh research material, Kartara’s team will
not have a full picture of how the current RMG culture works or the factors
which lie behind the problems of bullying and harassment. The initiatives put
in place will certainly uncover what happens when an incident occurs, and
suggest measures which can be put into place to deal with and avoid such
incidents in the future. But there may be greater underlying reasons for this
workplace culture, so there is little point in second-guessing what needs to be
changed or how long such a change may take. Kartara therefore suggests data
recorded over the next six or seven months will be gathered and analysed to
give a clear picture of the challenges faced by the organisation. Only then
will targets be set.

"In a culture change programme you need to set a realistic target so
you can praise the managers working towards those targets and encourage them to
continually improve," she says. "If we set targets now they could be
unachievable, and we’d then be setting ourselves up to fail."

This isn’t to say that work towards culture change will proceed without
measure or evaluation. Kartara’s team will closely study all initiatives for
their effectiveness, record the time required for investigations to be
completed and monitor the training and performance of managers to ensure the
various initiatives deliver the effects the great place to work team originally
intended. The EOC has suspended its investigation for the next three years on
condition that the action plan is adhered to. Only time will tell whether this
ambitious project does indeed bring about the cultural change required to
satisfy its concerns.

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