Ep. 15: Shining a 'Purple' Light


11 min read

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon, future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.


Toby Mildon: Hello and welcome to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I am Toby Mildon, and today I'm joined by a fabulous guest, her name is Kate Nash. Kate Nash is the Founder and Chief Executive of PurpleSpace and has a fantastic career working in disability, diversity and inclusion. So Kate, welcome to the show.


Kate Nash: Thank you Toby. A real treat to join you today. Thank you so much for the invite.


TM: I've been dying to get you on the show for ages, so I'm really pleased that we've now connected and we're recording this together.


KN: Yeah, same here. Same here. Let's have a blast.


TM: So Kate, can you tell me a bit more about your professional background and what led you to create PurpleSpace? 


KN: Yes, happy to do that. So, I've had a very long career working within disability change. So, back in the day, I worked with a number of NGOs supporting the process in the UK, whereby we secured anti-discrimination legislation for disabled employees. So I'm a lobbyist and I used to eyeball parliamentarians for a living. And I suppose encouraging not just our parliamentary masters, but also employers to recognize that the time was right to see disability as a rights issue and one of talent rather than philanthropy and charity, so yeah. And after we secured the legislation, initially in the mid-90s, I chose to work extensively with the employers community through various organizations and wrote a book, which I know we're gonna talk a bit about, "Secrets & Big News," which then led to the creation of PurpleSpace, which is the world's only network of disabled employee networks and resource groups.


TM: Great. Can you tell me a bit more about PurpleSpace and what you do for the clients that work with you? 


KN: Yes, absolutely. So PurpleSpace is unique, there is no other organization like this in the world. And what we do is to bring together disabled employee network leaders or resource group leaders, not just in the UK, but increasingly across the globe. And these networks, many, many organizations, public and private sector, will have employee networks or resource groups to do two things: One, to drive cultural change, to make it easier for the businesses to develop inclusive workforces, but also in this case, to help disabled employees to bring their authentic selves, to work to build resilience and confidence and lean into their career. So what we do, we estimate that we reach 440,000 disabled people through our membership of 600, and what we deliver is high quality know-how in how you deliver a high-performing network. And the way in which we do that is we break up the year into 12 leadership themes, so we choose different topics each month and we look at that topic from different angles, and we deliver a range of resources, whether that's about governance, whether it's about how to develop your strategy, whether it's about how to build allies programs, whether it's about how to work in concert with your disability champion and through written resources, podcasts, webcasts, coaching, etcetera. So yeah, buckets of delicious know-how, Toby, to help these amazing change agents who are building disability confidence from the inside out.


TM: As you mentioned, employee networks have been around for a while. I think they originated in the States, employees in the States, particularly around inclusion for race and ethnicity. And many organizations, big and small, will have employee resource groups. So, there might be women in leadership, there might be a BAME network, there might be a Muslim network, there's all sorts of networks. And actually, you and I met 'cause I was running the disabled network when I was working at the BBC, and I got a copy of your book, "Secrets & Big News," and you were such a guiding light in helping me to build a really positive, high performing network at the BBC. So, if an employer has a disabled employee network, what kind of return on investment are you seeing those employers getting from having such a network? 


KN: Yeah, there's a range of things Toby, a real range of things in terms of the value of investing in your network or resource group, as you say. Sometimes they're called employee resource groups, sometimes business resource groups. So the three real returns, one is an organization does better in terms of learning directly from its own people. Most businesses will choose now to have a public statement about their story and their strategy when it comes to building inclusive workplaces. And one of the most important ways of doing that is, of course, asking your own people about their views about what you're doing in terms of what I would call top of the shop. And I say the policies, the practices, the procedures, the ways in which we do things around here.


KN: So having an employee resource group is simply a beautifully tidy way, I suppose, of consulting with your own people about what's working and what's not working. And then the other three metrics that many of our networks will use will be one, the data starts to go up. So as we know, a lot of companies will choose to monitor and some don't choose. Sometimes it's mandatory if you're looking at the public sector, and not so in terms of the private sector. And although reputable bodies and government agencies will say that most organizations, of any size, of any type, of any trade, of any geography, of any footprint will have around about 10% of its people will have a disability. And for those who can or choose to monitor, invariably that data will come back as maybe 1%, 2%, 3% maximum. So what often happens as a company introduces a network, is it becomes a great congregation place, I suppose. You start to get better, more sophisticated narrative about how to bring your authentic self to work, and guess what happens over time? That data starts to go up, it starts to creep up. And then the two other key returns, one, people tend to be able to access the workplace adjustment more easily, because as a network gets into its groove, one of its focuses is of course supporting the business to deliver an elegant, easy to use, visible workplace adjustment process with service level agreements.


KN: And although I don't know any organization that can say hand on heart they've landed that, there's always things to improve upon. Nonetheless, we do see over time that a network plays a very important role in supporting people to access that adjustment process quickly. And then thirdly, engagement scores go up. One of the things that we saw from "Secrets & Big News," which of course led to the creation of PurpleSpace. It was a book that came up with lots of ideas, and PurpleSpace was really the summation of those ideas. And it was noticing how hard it is for many disabled people to share personal information. So networks tend to do a fine job of helping people to be who they are in the context of work, and so too then the engagement scores go up.


TM: I'm really glad that you've touched on the data side of things because when I was working as an in-house diversity inclusion manager both at the BBC and Deloitte, one of the challenges, and challenges actually, that I hear from a lot of diversity and inclusion practitioners and HR directors is the disclosure rates around diversity in general. So people sharing information about their ethnicity, LGBT status, et cetera. And disability is one of those areas which sort of remains stubbornly low. So like you say, the average disclosure rates seems to be around a percent, but we know from government data that 16% percent of working age adults have a disability, and organizations probably employ many, many more disabled people than they realise, but people are just not disclosing that information. I know that that big question led to your book, which was "Secrets & Big News," so can you tell us a bit more about your book, what it covers, and a bit more about why you wrote it in the first place? 


KN: Yes. Absolutely, Toby. So the book we wrote about five years age now, had an editorial board from amazing people from, then, BT, GSK, Post Office, Microlink, Shell, et cetera. And Metropolitan Police. And the purpose of the book was really to uncover the challenges that people have in sharing personal information about their disability or experience of ill health, whether that be physical or a mental challenge, is that we wanted to understand what employers can do differently and better to support people to share that experience with their disability, and what makes it easier to do that. So what is it people need in order to start to share that personal data? So we worked with 55 employers, we had a survey out to 2500 disabled people, and through that we collated a raft of really important insights about the process of assimilating, I suppose, or making sense of a life experience that, let's face it, a majority of people would prefer not to have. And although as we know over time, many disabled people, you and I can look back over our life's history and feel, I suppose less discombobulated about our experience with impairment.


KN: As we know for many, it can take years to understand what that means and how to frame it, how to talk about it. So "Secrets & Big News" came up with 15 big ideas for employers to try and 15 big ideas for employees to try. We didn't deliver best practice, that's not what we chose to do, but it was about offering a provocation. A provocation to employers to notice the challenge that we have often when we have an identity change. As we know, 83% of all disabled people are those people who acquire a disability through the course of their working life, which means that they're making sense of a new identity. And that doesn't come easy, it comes with practice, et cetera. So yeah, that's what the book was all about, and the lessons that came out of that book hold true now, Toby. It's a very popular book. Through the Covid crisis, we've chosen to make it freely available on our website, and I know you'll circulate the details. But yeah, we'd be interested to hear if your readers and your listeners enjoy some of the lessons that come out of that.


TM: Yes. It's quite interesting because I was just reflecting on what you just said because I was born with my disability. So I've got a rare neuro-muscular condition that I was diagnosed when I was about one. I suppose my experience of disability is quite different, 'cause like you say, a lot of people acquire their disability later in life and in working age. I entered the workforce with a disability, and that came with it's own challenges and all sorts of discrimination that I faced trying to get into the workplace. But actually a lot of people, they acquire their disability whilst they're at work, and then they have that adjustment period where they're having to adjust to a new way of living. And I know that your book is very mindful of that and so... Can you share with us three things that you recommend in your book for employers and then three things that you recommend for employees, in terms of what you published? 


KN: Yeah, so in terms of... Let's look at the employer's side first. So some of the things that we offered up in terms of the big ideas is one we kept hearing, for example, from companies that said, "Well, we have a BAME network, we have a Gender network, we have an LGBT network, but we don't have any disabled people [chuckle] in the business. And so we've tried and we've failed in terms of setting up a disability network." So one of our big ideas is stay with that. At least 10% of your people will have a disability, whether they have chosen to share that information or not. The more you're able to give out a strong message that you want to build an inclusive workplace and you want to support your people to share information, and that you share the knowledge that you know it's hard to share personal information. So the first big message was, don't throw the baby out with the bath water, spend a bit of time and energy and effort and investment in setting up an employee network, and you will never look back. You will have a rich and permanent group of individuals who will genuinely want to support the business to do differently and better.


KN: The second message was about having an easy to use, elegant very visible workplace adjustment process. Again, there was a lot of stop-start in the past with employers choosing to frame the workplace adjustment process as the reasonable adjustment process. Now, and I'm sure all of your listeners know of course, the history and the origins of the concept of reasonable adjustment and when it came into force in the original Disability Discrimination Act of '95, of course, now the Equality Act, it was there for a reason. Yes, it was a compromised piece of legislation. All legislations are a compromise ultimately, but it was good enough and it was fit for purpose. But I think employers didn't brand it, there's no reason why you have to call your workplace adjustment a reasonable adjustment process. Yes, there is a legal requirement and there's a concept of what constitutes reasonableness, but if you name a process or an individual that's responsible for that process, like the reasonable adjustment coordinator, if you badge and brand that concept where you've put the adjective first, I.e. The language of reasonable rather than the noun adjustment, guess what people hear? They just hear the word reasonable.


TM: Yeah, I've had this problem myself when I was working in organizations and with my clients that we talk about reasonable adjustments because it is in the Equality Act, and the first question they ask is, "Well, what's reasonable?" And that there is a definition of what's reasonable, but actually if you then... I suppose the mistake that happens is that managers start to interpret what is reasonable and they get it wrong. So they might decline somebody's workplace adjustment because they don't think it's reasonable when actually it is, according to the letter of the law is reasonable. And that means that disabled employees are left without the support that they need to be high-performing in their role, so I absolutely agree with you on that point.


KN: Yeah, absolutely. And I go around the world now Toby, so it's to encourage employers to use the language of workplace adjustment, normalize it. We would never talk about the reasonable maternity policy, we'd never talk about the reasonable flexible workplace policy, we'd never talk about the reasonable agile working policy, we just take it as a fact that our employers have an understanding about what is proper or what they can do, what they can't do, and that the costs are worked out in the back end. So that was our second recommendation, is to talk about. And then the third was to stop using the language of declaration and disclosure. And of course, as human beings, we will of course, from time to time fall into the trap of using that language, but one of the things that we picked out from our 2,500 respondents to the survey is that we don't enjoy that language. If employers choose to use that language, they're actually making an own goal, they're creating an own goal. Because if you use language that suggests another human being has a secret, I.e. We use the language of disclosure, you're suggesting that that person shouldn't and can't bring their authentic selves to work.


KN: And equally, if you use language of declaration, my goodness! As a woman, I've never been asked to declare my gender, and same with the BAME community, we talk to our contemporaries, they're never asked to declare that aspect of their human difference, that part of their identity. So why is it...


TM: Declaration is something you have to... That's one of those forms that you fill out at the airport.


KN: Exactly.


TM: To get into a country isn't it? What have you got to declare? Any illegal substances in your baggage that kind of thing.


KN: Exactly Toby. I declare that I have three bottles of gin which I shouldn't have have to pay a duty on. So our third was to... To have a bit of fun with this as well, if you treat everything as in such an earnest way people... All you teach is for people not to go near a topic, so one has to be brave enough to think about and play with these concepts, but we absolutely heard loud and clear that the time is now. Well we're beyond the time where it's proper to talk about declaration and disclosure. Let's move it on, let's talk about people sharing personal data about their disability or ill health. And then the third, I suppose the third lesson... Well one more for employers was to make good use of storytelling campaigns. We see organizations make a huge step change when they choose to deliver story-telling campaigns, great examples out there. Whether it's the Fujitsu Be Completely You Campaign, the Shell Be Yourself Campaign, the Barclays This is me campaign, and all of those campaigns built on the messages that came from the book.


KN: Which is about the more able you tap into your people to share their story of difference, the more likely its people within the business will start to share their story and then you give out a very positive external messages that you're real and serious. Messages for us as disabled employees, I think one was to be brave enough to talk about the things that we share, so seemingly on the surface, Toby, some...


KN: To the uneducated, we might have nothing in common. I have an impairment, you have a different impairment, the way in which our impairments interface with the world of work are different and we need different gizmos and we need people to do things differently around us. But scratch the surface a little bit more and as you and I have done over many years, dear friend, dear mentor, who was very helpful to me when we set off with PurpleSpace, so the reality is our stories are very similar, whether it's about sometimes having a moment where we need to improve our level of self-confidence, whether it's about protecting and preserving our brand as high-performing individuals. So there's a lot of similarity, so our recommendation was for different disabled people to talk to each other and learn lessons of our lives, and then lots of others. I won't spend the whole of this podcast, but the book is freely available. We'd love people to download it, circulate it, chat about it, have brown paper bag lunches, virtual lunches about it, and take some of the lessons and apply them in their work.


TM: I was gonna say this could easily turn into a five-hour podcast, if we go through all of the amazing recommendations in your book. So probably the best thing to do is download the book and at the end of the podcast we'll share details on how you can get your hands on a copy of Kate's book. I mean so if an organisation does have an employee network, what does a high-performing network look like? And are you seeing an impact of the current coronavirus on network performance? 


KN: Yes, a high-performing network, well, let me quickly rattle off some indicators or some criterion. One, they would have a very well-thought through purpose. Now, we see a lot of networks sometimes struggle when trying to do too much and trying to spread themselves too thinly and trying to maybe recover some of the gaps within an organisation. But a high-performing network would recognise, ultimately, they are a group of individuals who have a job to do, I'm talking about the committee here. They have what I call a proper job [chuckle] dare I say it, and they are doing this on the side of their desk, therefore thinking deeply about what the purpose is of the network vis-a-vis in helping the organisation to improve performance as well as helping people to bring their authentic selves to work.


KN: I think the second criterion or indicator of a high-performing network is that they spend what I would call equitable time on some of the business drivers, so the policy, the practise, procedure, make sure that they are a consulting vehicle, if the organisation is going through a deep dive on a particular policy, and return to work through COVID is a classic case now. But also equitable time or what I would call the self-actualisation things that we need to do. So where are the coaching programmes, where are the mentoring programmes, where are the personal development programmes? All of these are fairly usual programmes that you would see in terms of gender and BAME community, but we are a little bit behind the curve, if you look at the maturity model of networks. So a high-performing network tends to do two things, helps the organisation and helps its audience.


KN: And then thirdly, well, two other things, one is the strategy is aligned to business need. There is a strong line of sight between what the D&I team are choosing to do and how helpful the network would be to support the business to deliver against its strategy. And then lastly, speaking truth to power. We see that, we live in a troubled age, and sometimes the spotlight on human difference is acute and it can be devastating for us. Look at, for example, the huge distress that has come from all of us as allies, all the BAME community around Black Lives Matter. And so networks feeling able to speak truth to power from time to time is an essential component of an organisation, hearing sometimes very difficult information about what it needs to do.


KN: In terms of how, I suppose ERGs, BRGs are pivoting around COVID, we've seen huge insights and that's still work in motion for us. So we're likely to have an impact report, an insight report later in the summer that will be freely available. But, again, there are number of things on our minds. One, we're all now living and working in a supercharged digital world. And while it was acute and distressing and difficult for all of us to move from Zoom to Microsoft Teams to Skype to... We've all learnt and relearnt some of the methodologies and companies are choosing to make very brave decisions around their procurement policies, which is great. And so networks have had a massively important opportunity to actually increase their membership. If I had a pound or a dollar for every time I've heard of a network that has just increased their membership because they can now deliver virtually even though they had the technology to start with is just incredible.


KN: And then as we... Different countries are going through the lockdown, the easing of lockdown in different time zones, different time frames, forgive me, and I'm not a fan of us talking about the new normal, but of course, most of us know enough to know that we will be living with the pandemic for some time yet, and therefore, employers who... Very different employers have to think very deeply about how they support individuals with different health needs in terms of that return to work. So learning the best features about blended work would be important. I heard the other day it's not so much that we are all working from home, it's that we're all sleeping at the office now.


[laughter]


KN: So that blended life that brings intensity, but if we can learn the best features of that to take that forward and again, stronger insights coming from the ERGs, but mostly it's a good news story, Toby, I would say.


TM: No, it's really good. This is, of course, the Inclusive Growth Show, Kate, and I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about what inclusive growth means for the clients that you work with because you work with major brands, major global organisations. So yeah, so what are your thoughts on that? 


KN: Well, reflecting on the work that you have done, Toby, and your book and your brand, and just noticing the principles within your book, those seven core principles. I think for me, inclusive growth means a number of things, but let me focus on two quickly before we close. One is around collaboration. One is about employers collaborating with their networks and resource groups in order to build a better working world, so that rich collaboration can be a fantastic instrument to improve business performance, but also to support people to self-actualise, and feel good about themselves, feel able to ask for the workplace adjustments that they might need, feel good about sharing their personal stories, maybe to support other maybe non-disabled people who may be, through COVID, experiencing an acute phase of situational depression.


KN: I've heard so many stories of how networks are supporting individuals who have never had... Maybe a little rainfall in their lives and now it's pouring, so that richness of collaboration is hugely important but also from organisation to organisation. There's always commercial sensitivities, why a company may not share what it's doing vis-a-vis disability, but what I see is a huge generosity of spirit. And so employer-to-employer collaboration in order to build a better working world is important to me. And then last, it's about celebration. Toby, we lead the Purple Light Up, which is our way of marking, with respect, the International Day of Persons with Disabilities on the third of December. And for us, the Purple Light Up is a celebration, and it's a celebration of the thousands and thousands and thousands of disabled employees who deliver to the economies around the world, so it's a celebration of the economic contribution of disabled people.


KN: Our story is often about narrative, about not getting in, not getting on, it's about deficit, it's about welfare reform, it's about not having the kit that we need or the housing that we might need, or the healthcare, or the social care, and I don't want to minimise those stories if I do everything I can to amplify those stories. But if we keep doing that, we do that at our own cost, and we have to call out some of the positivity because we're doing, not just non-disabled people a huge disservice and not sharing the fun and the giggles and the irony and the humour that we have along the way, but we're doing a huge disservice to those people who come behind us, so for me, inclusive growth includes us making space for, and time for a celebration of disabled talent across the world.


TM: I'm glad you've touched on it because the final chapter of my book is actually called Celebration, which is all about how employers can celebrate diversity and inclusion and create their inclusive employer brand, so that they can attract talent going forwards. I mean you're one of the busiest people that I know, but you're not just busy, you actually get so much done and you make such a big impact in the world, and Purple Light Up is just one of the projects or campaigns that you do alongside PurpleSpace. How can people get involved in the Purple Light Up this year? And how can people get in touch with you if they want to know more about how PurpleSpace can help them, how they can build high-performing disabled employee networks, that kind of thing? 


KN: Yeah. So Purple Light Up is a digital movement that we've lost control of beautifully, Toby.


TM: In a good way, of course.


KN: In a good way.


TM: You've lost control in a good way.


KN: Yeah. In the early days, we badged it as a campaign. It's not a campaign, a campaign has a start, and a middle, and an end whereas a movement has no boundaries. So this is a digital global movement. As I say, it's our way of marking with respect, International Day of Persons with Disabilities. What we're choosing to do this year is likely to have a 24-hour virtual summit across the world, so we will start in Australia and we will finish in California and it will be freely available, people can rock up according to their time zone and hear amazing people talk about what employers have done over time. So to get involved, all you have to do is to make a commitment to celebrate disabled talent to do it digitally. It's not about purple light bulbs, so some companies will use the existing purple light bulbs they have to flag that they are allies and champions, but it's about action. It's like, "What are you going to do?" So most of our members, most of the employers get involved, will share something that they've done through the course of the year, something that they're going to do in the next year, or an opportunity to say, "I'm an ally, I'm a supporter, I am a champion." So get on Twitter, for sure, get on Facebook, wear a purple t-shirt or some earrings or what have you, and share your personal story, why you want us as a community to celebrate human difference.


TM: Brilliant and purple is such a nice colour anyway. [chuckle] I remember when I came to your launch event, everyone had to wear purple and there was a purple cake, which made me particularly happy. Just as we come to a close, I've thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you today. As we come to a close, you mentioned the "Secrets & Big News" book, which is, in my opinion, a must-read for anybody who is thinking of setting up a disabled employee network or already has a network but wants to make sure that it's a high-performing network, how can the person listening to this conversation get their hands on your book? 


KN: Well, it's freely available on our website, so just go straight to our website, which is www.purplespace.org, and then click onto the membership page. You don't have to be a member, but you see the copy of the book and you can download that, you can circulate it freely, you can pass it on to people within your company or beyond your company. And then in our resources section, too, we have an impact report so that's, again, a freely available report that summarises the impact that disabled employee resource groups are having across the world, so do take a look, plunder, and if we can help, then reach out, and we would love to support and help you. So thank you, Toby, for today.


TM: Brilliant. Thanks, Kate, I mean, thank you, Kate, ever so much, for joining me on this episode, as always. I love talking to you. Full of wisdom and knowledge and loads of useful strategies for business. And thank you for listening to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I hope you've enjoyed my conversation with Kate today and I look forward to seeing you tune into one of the upcoming episodes of the show later on. Until then, thanks very much and goodbye.


[music]


Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.