· Features

Case study: Disability diversity at Virgin Media

The firm used a charity partnership to bring internal focus to disability diversity, and is hoping to inspire others

The company

Virgin Media provides fixed and mobile telephone, television and broadband internet services to businesses and consumers across the UK. It has been a subsidiary of Liberty Global, an international television and telecommunications company, since June 2013. The company employs around 25,000 people, 14,000 of whom are permanent staff.

The problem

Many companies partner with charities to lend their often much-needed financial backing. But Virgin Media was determined when it forged a partnership with disability charity Scope at the start of 2017, that the alliance would be much more far-reaching and profound.

A key aspect of the Work With Me joint campaign is Virgin Media funding Scope’s new digital employment support service, with an ambition to provide one million disabled people with employment information and support by the end of 2020. But Virgin Media was also keen to use the partnership as an opportunity to launch a thorough review of its own internal approach to employees with disabilities.

The company already had a sharp focus around catering for customers with disabilities, explains chief people officer Catherine Lynch. “It’s small things like on our remote control the colours are inverted… We’re building more accessibility into our TV boxes…” she says. “If a disabled customer rings it’s making sure we know how to support them better. We also have branches where the font size is increased on the signage.”

The audit with Scope of how good Virgin Media was as an employer on inclusivity was well under way when Lynch joined the company in January 2017. “It was the findings of that assessment that led us to say ‘these are the things we can do better’,” she says.

A key discovery concerned line manager capability. “There’s been a lack of line management confidence in handling the inclusion agenda,” says Lynch. “That’s across the whole diversity agenda. There’s a fear of getting this wrong so people tend to push it away.”

The method

It was important to break down this reticence by creating a more open culture. “We’ve done a lot of internal communications to encourage open questions,” says Lynch. “It’s letting people know that no question is wrong.”

Tackling people’s fears around broaching the subject of disability was done in a way very in keeping with the brand’s wider tone, she says: “We don’t want to sanitise everything for fear of political correctness. It’s getting an engaging tone that resonates with people.

“We’ve done a fantastic video that starts exploding the myths around disability,” Lynch adds, explaining that a key focus of these communications is to “show disabled people in a different light” to emphasise that many disabilities are invisible. The comms show that “this is someone who to all intents and purposes looks the same as you, but maybe has some challenges to overcome,” says Lynch.

“For example I recently had an instance of an employee needing support with incontinence,” she adds. “You wouldn’t necessarily think of that as a disability, but it is debilitating.”

Unconscious bias training for managers has been key to opening people’s eyes to the range of disabilities that exist, and dispelling misconceptions about what individuals with disabilities are capable of.

Another focus has been pragmatic advice for managers. “If you have an applicant who needs to be interviewed in a different way it’s having the support,” says Lynch. “So we’ve been able to give advice to line managers around, for example, how you interview someone who’s deaf. You might not have sign language capability so how do you get hold of someone who has?”

Educating and empowering managers means the company has been able to roll out ‘reasonable adjustments’ tailored to exactly what’s needed in each individual case. “In some of our stores we have people who are hearing impaired so we’ve given them pagers for if the fire alarm goes off – small things make a big difference,” says Lynch.

“We’ve got bigger screens for the visually impaired, for dyslexic employees we have a different font that can be downloaded. We’ve got Braille on all our signage,” she continues. “It’s making it quite practical. We don’t want quotas but we do want to encourage shortlists that have disabled people on as part of our hiring process.”

She adds: “We want a simpler way of managing reasonable adjustment requests. It’s not money that’s the issue in many instances. For example, it’s allowing someone to start and finish an hour earlier so they’re not making their way home in rush hour.”

While many adjustments will be inexpensive, it’s still important to ensure internal change is well funded, says Lynch. Senior buy-in is also critical. “I bring it to my exec committee: I’ve done several inclusion updates and got the whole team on board,” she adds.

Virgin Media has also brought in experts to help. Scope seconded several staff members over to Virgin, and Lynch has appointed new people director of employee experience Heather Andrews.

“She joined from the Olympics’ Games Maker team,” reports Lynch. “When I interviewed Heather I was so impressed with how they’d reached wider pockets of the community we just weren’t reaching.”

The result

Though the company has yet to review exactly how many employees with disabilities have been supported in a way they wouldn’t have been in the past, and how many disabled hires have been made since the project began, Lynch is confident the message is getting through.

“We have just made an adjustment downstairs for a physically disabled new hire,” she says, in reference to the company’s Hammersmith office. “He’s absolutely amazing. And we’d never have found him if we hadn’t opened up our advertising and put the position on the Scope website.”

A real win for Lynch concerns perceptions among the wider workforce. “In a recent engagement survey one of the highest scores was around the question ‘I consider Virgin Media to be an inclusive employer’; that has gone up,” she says. “In our contact centres we have a very large Millennial population who want to see barriers broken down.”

Virgin Media can’t afford not to be engaging with as wide a cross-section of the UK population as possible, Lynch points out: “The war for talent is increasingly tough… so I don’t think we can afford to be exclusive about areas of the community that are perhaps untapped talent.” She adds: “We also know there’s a high level of engagement, retention and loyalty among disabled employees.”

But there’s still much work to be done. It will take a while of constant campaigning and normalising of disability before all employees feel comfortable disclosing a hidden disability, such as a mental health issue, feels Lynch.

This year will see Virgin Media ramp things up around the third strand of its campaign: creating a wider movement. “We’re doing our bit but we can’t do it on our own,” says Lynch. “So we’d like to start building links with partners.”

The company is already sharing best practice with the wider Virgin Group and is hosting a roundtable this year for other firms on closing the disability gap. It’s also producing a toolkit with Scope for other businesses.

Suppliers are an important area of focus, says Lynch. “If you think about some of our massive contracts… if we can get them on board we can really reach a large part of the UK.

“So I would encourage other people to check out the Work With Me campaign and get in touch with us.”