Leading from the front: a diversity & inclusion podcast series

In the Robert Walters Group Workplace Inclusion podcast series we discuss key learnings and successes with Ireland's leading businesses who are paving the way in diversity inclusion. Over the coming months we will be speaking with industry guests discussing all things diversity & inclusion.

In this episode Suzanne Feeney, Director Robert Walters is joined by Jeanne McDonagh, CEO of Open Doors Initiative. The Open Doors Initiative provide opportunities to some of the marginalised members of our society: refugees, asylum seekers and non-native English speakers, young people under 25 with educational barriers and people with a disability. 

We hear from Jeanne as she speaks passionately about the work of the Open Doors Initiative and provides practical advice to employers, businesses and individuals that are striving to improve their D&I practices.

 

Jeanne McDonagh
CEO Open Doors Initiative 

graduates as an asset to your company

 

Suzanne Feeney
Director
Robert Walters Ireland

Transcript:

Suzanne Feeney:
Welcome to Robert Walters Leading from the Front, Diversity and Inclusion podcast. My name is Suzanne Feeney and I'm a Director within the Robert Walters Irish business. As a recruitment organisation we see first-hand how keen companies are to improve on D&I however, there are many unanswered questions that employers are often unsure who or how to ask. The aim of our podcast series is to help address some of the myths that exists and also to inform employers about the steps they can take to be more inclusive. Today I'm delighted to be joined by Jeanne McDonagh, CEO of the Open Doors Initiative, Jeanne you're very welcome and thank you for taking the time out to join us today. Perhaps you could start with the Open Doors Initiative, can you tell us a little bit more about this and its purpose?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Thank you very much for having me on today. The Open Doors Initiative is a group of over 80 companies and NGOs, and we work with governments to create pathways to employment for marginalised people. With our members we create internships, scholarships, training courses, help entrepreneurs and help people into full or part-time employment, and they're from a range of backgrounds and abilities. The key areas we work in are with refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, people with disabilities and disadvantaged youth and that could include offshoots like people from a traveller background or LGBTQ and so on. With them, we offer online training, mentorships, assisted learning, seminars, in-house training for your existing employees and can also assist with funding for training courses. We have regular get-togethers with the companies and supporting partners we work with to share learnings around D&I and how they can create more inclusion within their organisations. Just as a total add our website is www.opendoorsinitiative.ie and there's a lot more information about what we do and the work we carry out.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic. A lot of the work being done in Ireland at the moment is very much and has been very much around gender and I suppose more recently around ethnic diversity in the workplace. But as you've mentioned there, Open Doors goes beyond this and looks at further marginalised groups such as those with disabilities, migrants and refugees and disadvantaged youth. What's your argument to people who say that we're yet to make enough progress on the more widespread diversity issues before addressing another layer?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Well when you're striving to build an equitable society all boats rise when you have that mindset and you cannot be inclusive of some people and not of others, it's all or nothing. So when you campaign for inclusion, you leave no one out and you have to recognise the fact that some groups face struggles to be on an equitable level with others that may need a little more help. If you visualize three people looking over a wall at a game or something, one or two of them may need a box to see over the wall, and that's what we're about. We're about putting the boxes in place that make it equitable for everyone, and it's all on merit, they get the work on merit and that's really important. All our participants, there a blend of people of all genders, different backgrounds and abilities and all of us succeed when they benefit. So, by helping them up and by helping everyone up, everyone benefits.

Suzanne Feeney:
Jeanne, what from your experience, working with marginalised groups, what do employers commonly get wrong with their behaviour and treatments and accommodation of people from different backgrounds.

Jeanne McDonagh:
Okay, I wouldn't say they get it wrong, I'd say it's more a misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge. A lot of employers think that the people we work with only have certain skills and are only suitable for certain low grade work, and that just isn't true. We have people with doctorates, we have people with MA’s, from a wide range of disciplines and they have expert training, skills and expertise. We want people to see past their assumptions and bias and assist these people to shine here in Ireland in what they do, and help them overcome any barriers to their goals and to work with their abilities. It's not one size fits all, humans are individuals and each person has a specific skill set and needs, which we try and cater for by working with employers on this. So what is really essential, and what is the key learning is that you take the lead from the person themselves and allow them to tell you what they aspire to, and help them attain that. Sometimes this only requires very minor support to achieve this. Another key thing is career progression, just because you hire someone in one position it doesn't mean they don't aspire to move up the ladder and move within the company. Effort should be made to see what is it they're looking for and how to develop them, same as any other employee or any other member of staff and help them do that. One really important thing to note is there's been countless studies that show that a diverse workforce benefits a company: it helps its existing employees, it helps the person you're working with, it impacts positively on the bottom line, it impacts on the company culture and it leads to the production of very creative and lateral thinking. So it's a benefit for companies and they need to realise that and embrace it.

Suzanne Feeney:
Absolutely and I loved your point earlier about, it has to be all or nothing, you know, inclusion is about everyone. In a time of uncertainty that we're in at the moment and cutbacks which I think you know unfortunately are having an impact in many sectors and industries, what's your message to companies that feel that they might not have the resources to focus on enhancing their D&I practices at the moment. Have you any key message or advice around that?.

Jeanne McDonagh:
Definitely, D&I is not some shiny token you take off the shelf during the good times and parade around and say, look, aren't we brilliant and then put it away the minute there is budget constrictions or a change of personnel or some cause goes out of fashion. D&I is meeting an unmet need, which suffers most in times of recession and D&I should be driven by this need not by what is fashionable or budgets or you know tokenism. It has to be a really consistent, truly held value by the company and a really well embedded practice for all times and not just for the purpose of newspaper columns. The companies who really have it ingrained in their DNA tend to double down on D&I during difficult times, especially for people who've been really affected by the pandemic and by unemployment. It's also, it's a long term practice which has benefits for the companies on many levels, it's not a loss leader but it's a valuable addition to any company's armoury. And also, one thing to remember is, it need not be costly. There's many innovative practices that have come about, and that companies and their employees can get engaged in. For example, volunteering or mentoring and they have minimal costs and really great return and that's something we work at through Open Doors, we create bespoke D&I practices for the companies we work with and we can meet all levels, all sizes, all needs. But just to go back to your original question, D&I is for life, not just for Christmas.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic. Just in terms of some of the innovative practices you mentioned there, I was looking through some of the case studies around some of the programs or employability interventions that your participant companies have supported or been involved in, and there's some really fantastic programs and initiatives there. In relation to those, because there's so many different types of initiatives that can be done, are there any that have stood out for you in particular around being quite simple and easy to implement, while also having exceptional results or have really made a change in those organisations that has been long standing or will continue on for life as you say. Are there any that particularly stand out?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Well I'll talk about the one which started us all off on this journey, and that was a program called Learning for Life which Diageo run and run in a number of companies. It came about, we've been doing it for four years, I've been running the program within Diageo and it came about, that the Supreme Court made the decision to allow refugees to work in certain areas for a certain length of time. So we ran a course, it's training and hospitality and we ran it in Mosney because people couldn't travel, they didn't have the means, child care so on, so forth. We ran it in Mosney and we interviewed 100 people and out of that we chose 22, and it was one of the best courses we've ever run. Everyone was so engaged, so enthusiastic so brilliant within the course and a lot of them went on, they went on in a number of different routes and went into hospitality, some went into further education, they decided no this has given me an in to develop my skills and went on, and some went into totally different jobs, but they wouldn't have had the opportunity before during that training. So, at the graduation, which was just one of the highlights of my time there, Minister David Stanton was there to hand out the certificates and he gave the impetus to scale up, he said, this is really important work, other companies need to be doing that and out of this Open Doors was born. That course continues to this day, it's gone online, it's been rejigged for Covid. But that's only one example, all of our companies are doing really interesting work in a variety of areas, depending on the type of work they do, their interests. Some are helping people into education. Some are helping train people to get job ready, we have over 75 people trained as mentors and they each have a mentee at the moment, that's just started. That's a really valuable resource for people starting out, or looking at what areas they want to work in and they're all from the companies we work with and we will be developing that program further. Another area that's proving really useful, especially at this time is we have numerous online courses and we're encouraging our participants to use them, to use this time to upskill, to explore different areas, different areas of work they may not have come across before, get upskilled. There's some with accreditation so at least when we emerge from this, they have something to take from this time and if they need help with looking at these courses or choosing the courses we have assisted learning in place so we’ll help the people work through what best suits their skills.

Suzanne Feeney:
That's fantastic, I think so many different options there as well. Just in relation to employers, what type of resources might they be able to access through Open Doors, if they do really want to get more involved in this area, if they do want to perhaps avail of some of these resources to apply to their own business. Are there employer specific resources that they should be aware of?

Jeanne McDonagh:
In the Open Doors Initiative we take a very collaborative approach. We work with all our different companies and NGO’s and government and supporting partners to bring best practice to the forefront and to share the learnings within the different companies. One company could have done training or another company could have employed someone with a disability and we pool all those learnings, so we're not reinventing the wheel. We're actually working with best practice and developing ideas as they go. There's a number of areas in which we work with companies and we help them create internships, we help them get people on pathways to education through scholarships and so on with some of our academic partners, we help them put training programs in place and they can be specific to what they do or can be a more general training program. We also work with their HR department to make sure they have best practice, say for example in job descriptions that are going out that they are inclusive and use inclusive wording. We also talk to the employees in town halls, or in smaller groups and we tell them about how best to accommodate people from different backgrounds and different abilities. A lot of them have questions, they're unsure of and we create a safe space where we can answer those questions. All our executives have lived experience in one area or another, and we bring that to air on any work we do, or any talks we give, advice we give. We also have a wide range of other programs and projects, as I said earlier, it's all on a bespoke basis, so we work directly with the company and see what best fits for them and help them grow through that.

Suzanne Feeney:
Jeanne, if there were any immediate action points that you could ask of all CEOs or business leaders or, senior leaders who actually have responsibility for change in their organisations. What would be that action that you would recommend or you’d ask of them right now?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Get informed, learn about different backgrounds, different cultures, religions, abilities. Go for coffee with someone who's lived experience and ask them the questions without being intrusive, but build up your own resources so you know more about the various areas. Read and watch material on the history of these groups and their experiences and how it shaped where they are today. Go to seminars by people who have lived experience and hear it from the person itself, it's person centred. I keep saying that and I always will, you have to be guided by the person and really importantly become an ally to people and campaign for equality and equability for all people, don't just have it as a nice to have or in your head thinking, oh, yes, of course, I agree, I should do something. Action it, become really meshed in the different areas of which you're interested in and which you want to support and be proactive in it.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic, I think there's often the, not misconception but understanding that perhaps all of this sits just with senior leaders or management to effect the change, when in actual fact it sits with everybody, each and every one of us. What advice might you give maybe an employee in an organisation who really wants to improve, I would imagine it's the same type of advice that we give, but who might want to improve their behaviour or understanding of diversity and inclusion. Is there anything additional that the individual can do that maybe isn't in a management or leadership position?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Well, one thing is if someone new starts in  a company, be a friend to them, help them. Besides all the usual questions of where do I get a coffee, or where's the bathroom, or how do I get in touch with such and such. Buddy up with them, offer to be a buddy to that person and answer all those questions that all of us have them are starting a new job, or we’re in a new place. Explain the culture, explain how things work, be a real support system to them, and welcome them and make them feel as much at home as you can, especially in the initial stages, stay connected and learn from them as well. There is real issues for some people around disclosure, they may have a physical disability, but they may have a background disability that they don't want to disclose. There's things such as reasonable accommodation passport, but I would go one further and have a disclosure passport, that allows the person, if they're comfortable and if they trust you, that they have someone to talk to and to get help with apart from their boss, because that's a different dynamic, that's a different relationship. But if you have peer support as well, that's really important and can just make the whole process a lot easier and give them a resource they can turn to should they need it. It's human nature, for both people in senior management for employees right across the firm, we all want to make connections, especially when we're starting off a new job, and we're nervous and we're scared to ask what you might consider to be silly questions or whatever. So just make a really generous open space where people can ask the questions where they feel welcomed and it's not highlighting the difference, but actually inviting them into the company and saying, actually you're one of us.

Suzanne Feeney:
That sounds like great advice to create that truly inclusive environment, I have to say I really love that idea of a disclosure passport, I think that's really, really important. Jeanne you mentioned reasonable accommodation, can you talk us through this a little bit more, a lot of employers may not necessarily understand this properly, so can you just talk us through it?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Sure. A lot of employers presume they know what people need as opposed to asking the person and rather than knocking walls and buying unnecessary equipment or assuming the need for certain practices, I think it's really key that you talk to the person and ask them what enables them to perform best. That means getting it right before the interview process, from the job application to the interview process and using facilities as we talked about such as a reasonable accommodation passport, that clearly lays out what the person's needs are and you can both work together to arrive at the best accommodation for the person. A buddy system is really important there because it helps the person integrate, it helps the person in the first few nervous weeks in any place, that we all have. I think that should be something that's a given, when someone gets a position that a buddy is nominated to support them and help them in the first while. This can cover a lot of different areas, for example, asking a person if they need a prayer room or if they observe certain religious tenets like Ramadan where they're fasting all day and so obviously you don't want them to be forced to sit in the canteen where people are having food and drink and so on, and they may have certain clothing restrictions and how best to make it work. Dublin Bus are really good example of this, because they've worked that the breaks between travelling, that drivers who observe certain religious and tenets can work in their prayer time and I think that's a really good example of being very flexible in the work and allowing more people into work and being respectful of their beliefs. Another example might be a person with autism, talk to them about what environment and working practices best suit them, because it's not one size fits all, everyone is an individual, everyone is different. The key thing is to keep the person front and centre in all decision making about them, because they know best what they need.

Suzanne Feeney:
Thanks Jeanne, that sounds like really good advice. So keep the individual front and centre and allow them to be involved in what you're doing for them. Jeanne, what's your vision for progress in this space for 2021?

Jeanne McDonagh:
Well the stats are against people from disadvantage. Pre-Covid, only 26.2% of people with a disability that they were overt about were employed and that just strikes me as crazy because there are people with real skill sets, real skills. I think Covid has taught us that we can adapt and we can change. Remote working is very suitable for some people with disabilities, you don't require reasonable accommodation because they have it all in their own homes, or if you're living in a direct provision centre, you mightn’t be able, they tend to be quite a distance away from major urban centres, so you mightn’t be able to travel or you mightn’t have if you're from a disadvantage background, the tools like the computer and broadband and the means to buy lunch every day or wear the right clothes, all of those things. They seem small but they're all barriers, and they will amplify difference, so I would hope that we learn the lessons from Covid, we use the new technologies and the new learnings to benefit everyone. A lot of assistive technology has gone on to benefit the wider population, for example, that's been originally developed for people with disabilities. So, you know, we've benefited, so we should be inclusive in that benefit and create and the workspaces of the future that enable more people to get involved, to get jobs. Look at jobs, maybe they don't have to be full time, they can be part time which will allow people to work in different ways, and just be a lot more agile in our thinking around work and how best we can accommodate people, how best we can bring that creative lateral mix into our workplaces, because it benefits the company, it benefits the employees and it benefits the work. It’s really, as far as I'm concerned, a no brainer, the more inclusion we can get into these spaces, the better. So that's my hope.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic, and I think hopefully more of that change will come about this year. I think certainly the pandemic, while it has been a very anxious frightening time on so many levels it has certainly catapulted a level of change around working environments and work practices. Which, as you say, hopefully allows for more inclusive organisations and settings, so hopefully we see a lot more of this over the course of this year.

Jeanne, thank you so much for sharing all of that information and insights today and examples of different programs that you've been involved in, and that are seeing great results at the moment. Just before we conclude, could you share the website again, just for those listening that might be interested in accessing some of the resources that are available.

Jeanne McDonagh:
Sure, our website is www.opendoorsinitiative.ie and we'd welcome any queries or any questions you may have to follow up.

Suzanne Feeney:
Fantastic, thanks so much Jeanne and the very best of luck to you all at Open Doors this year, and all the great work that you doing. Thanks for joining us today, it's been great, much appreciated.

Jeanne McDonagh:
Thank you very much. Thank you. Bye.

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