Sophie-Mae Bourne, Brand Manager at EAST VILLAGE., talks DE&I with EAST VILLAGE.’s Director of People & Culture, Hattie D’Souza.

Last week, I was lucky enough to attend the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce’s Future Faces event at the new Shoosmiths offices at 103 Colmore Row, centred all around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I). It was an eye-opening conversation: it was great to see how Shoosmiths has built its business to truly have DE&I at its core – something our small-but-mighty agency EAST VILLAGE. has also dedicated itself to – as well as to hear the challenges that have been faced when facilitating workplace wellbeing for all.

It also opened my own eyes to wider DE&I issues, and it became clear to me that within this space, there is always room for improvement. Whilst the panel for the event was diverse in gender, sexuality, and faith, it seemed to me an oversight that out of seven speakers (including the chair of the panel, the mental health champion, and one of the people responsible for the new office design) there was only one person of colour.

When expressing this thought to another event attendee, I was fascinated to find how different our thoughts were. New to the DE&I conversation, he was impressed with the diversity of the panel, and taken aback by the level of work being put into various Shoosmiths networks to represent the various minorities within the company.

‘How does anyone have time to get their jobs done?!’ he joked, before raising the questions of whether these subjects were spoken about commonly in my workplace, when I was still in education, and if there was a generational difference in our understanding and awareness of DE&I.

This in turn got me thinking about the accessibility of DE&I. Whether due to generation, sector, or the size of a business, it is not surprising that it seems a tall order to expect everyone to have the same approach and level of dedication to improvement. But if we don’t all have it on the agenda, will we ever actually truly create spaces that are fit for all to access?

So, how can we raise awareness of its importance in the right way? At EAST VILLAGE., we love the phrase ‘you only know what you know’, but exactly how many people don’t know, or are being left out, of these conversations?

I decided to talk to our very own Director of People and Culture, Hattie D’Souza, to discuss my questions further.

Hattie, in the corporate world, we hear lots about DE&I, but do you think the conversation is happening widely enough?

I think the world of business – particularly the professional services industries like law, finance, comms, etc. – have got much better at talking about DE&I. That said, we all know that ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk’ are very different things…

While there has definitely been a shift in the last few years to make it a real priority for these sectors, I do think that there’s still lots to be learned. The foundations that a lot of corporate businesses are built on are inherently exclusive – whether that be based on gender, class, race – so now the DE&I focuses are having to retrospectively fix these biases and re-educate people along the journey.

It’s heartening to see businesses having the conversation with their teams, but I do think there’s still a long way to go to get everyone on board. For as long as we see DE&I as a topic that only marginalised people need (or even want) to talk about, rather than making the conversation itself accessible for everyone to take part in, we’re never going to truly move forward.

There are so many different areas within DE&I to be aware of, whether that be to do with race, gender, sexuality, age etc. How can we introduce the topic to people or businesses without it being overwhelming?

I think the key is to just start somewhere.

As you said, it can feel like an overwhelming prospect to “do it all” and to “get it right”. What’s more, as a comms specialist myself, I see all the time that people and businesses are fearful that they are going to say or do something well-meaning and get “cancelled” for it.

However, what I would say is that if it’s fear that’s holding people back, my advice would be to commit to doing the work. Read the work of people with lived experiences, ask (respectful!) questions, and, most importantly, listen to others when they share their perspectives.

I think a lot of the discomfort comes from the idea that people are going to get called out and that the process will be embarrassing or damaging. However, at EV. – following a really insightful DE&I training session with the phenomenal Vanessa Belleau at High Fifteen – we prefer to think of it as “calling each other in”: explaining to each other with sensitivity, openness, consideration, and care why something might not be appropriate and what could be said instead. Taking the defensiveness out of it and making the process itself inclusive has made a huge difference in how we facilitate difficult conversations around DE&I topics to EV.!

It’s fair to say it is a little overwhelming, even for a seasoned policy writer like yourself- let’s say you’re a business that already has a good grasp of DE&I: what policies should you definitely already have?

Thanks to legislation like the Equality Act 2010, the Employment Rights Act 1996, and the Maternity and Parental Leave etc. Regulations 1999, every business operating in the UK has to have key policies in writing that ensure employees with protected characteristics are properly safeguarded.

However, I do think that a good employer will always be thinking beyond what is required by law to think about what actually matters to its people, and how they can put them in place. At EV., we really try and focus on the “E” in DE&I – Equity – and how we can ensure that our diverse team are given access to opportunities that benefit us all.

For example, we are a business that has had a focus on flexible working since day one; however, we officially put it in to policy in 2019 when one of our team returned from maternity leave and wanted to flex her work hours to be able to make bath-time in the evening (and make the most of being up at the crack of dawn…). It was the first time anyone in the company had wanted to explore official flexible working so we set out to create a policy that met not just the needs of our new working mama, but anyone in the team – present or future – who had paternal duties, other caring responsibilities, or just the desire to work in a different way!

And what is an added extra policy you’re focusing on implementing at the moment?

It’s an exciting time for us at EV. as we’ve welcomed some fresh faces on board and have also set our sights on some ambitious growth in the next few months, so updating (and creating new…) policies that truly uphold our commitment to being an agency for a modern workforce is top of my agenda.

From the introduction of menstruation and menopause policies to help anyone with a uterus work in more comfortable (and therefore productive!) ways; to updating our maternity and paternity policies to be better than the state-standard – it’s all on there.  

It seems to me that DE&I, especially in a society that is increasingly aware of wellness, inclusion, and cancel-culture, could be a ride you never get off once you’re on it. Is there a point of no return when it comes to policy writing? Can all people ever feel happy, represented, and included in the workplace? Does it ever become ‘a step too far’?

It’s an interesting question and – as I said earlier – the idea of trying to ‘do it all’ can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. That said, I truly believe that if you aren’t at least trying to make life at work as enjoyable, inclusive, and psychologically safe as possible for your teams, you probably shouldn’t be in the business of ‘people’.

It’s worth remembering that you’re never going to please them all (trust me, we’ve tried!) and the nature of work does mean that sometimes you are going to have to give constructive feedback, have difficult conversations, or have set-backs that bring no-one joy… TeamEV know that, by signing up to work in a fast-paced and dynamic PR agency, they are sometimes going to have to hit lofty KPIs, work events in the evenings and weekends, and have some journalists turn around and ask “And why do I care?”. I can’t fix that: but, the things I can help with, I always will.

And finally, something key I wanted to ask off the back of the talk at Shoosmiths was on the topic of consistency with your DE&I policies and strategy. We’re just around the corner from Black History Month, as an example, so how can we implement DE&I in a way that feels consistently representative and important, and not like a token day/week/month of the year? How does it become more meaningful?

I am so glad you’ve asked this! It’s my absolute pet peeve when companies performatively celebrate a ‘day’, but then when you then look under the bonnet of their business, they don’t actually back it up with any policies or initiatives to make life better for their teams.

This is how I felt back in 2020, when the murder of George Floyd resulted in ‘Blackout Tuesday’ – where people posted black squares on social media to mark solidarity in the fight for racial justice. While I totally understand the point that people wanted to show their allyship, it didn’t sit well with me that people thought that posting a black square was *all* they needed to do (rather than actually ‘do the work’ we talked about earlier).

Instead, after a lengthy conversation with our MD Tara, who felt similarly to me that there was more to be done, we created the TeamEV Charter. As we said then, it was our way of committing to our belief that the values of a business lie in its values as a business. Above and beyond a CSR initiative or one-off promise, the TeamEV Charter was our way of standing for something and living by it; building it into the fabric of our day-to-day actions. From diversity and inclusion to charitable commitments, we put pledges against our policy to hold both ourselves, and each other, to account. The TeamEV Charter is about creating, protecting, and extending lasting opportunities, that incite change from today and every day thereafter.

It’s one of the things I’m most proud of helping to bring to life at EV. in the eight years I’ve been here and I’m still so excited by the impact it has!

The TeamEV Charter is available to read on our website at www.eastvillageagency.com

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