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Justin Harris - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Champion 2023

Justin was honoured with the 2023 ITP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Champion of the Year award. His submission left a lasting impression on the judges, outlining a resilient personal journey that commenced with acknowledging his own disability. He has come face to face with real cultural barriers, both within the business divisions and within the needs and perceptions of different groups of employees.  And he’s worked carefully through them to work towards consistent, company-wide approaches. What stands out is his enduring vision—going beyond Openreach to collaboratively define best practices with Openreach's CP customers. This transformative approach extends our notion of 'good' beyond corporate boundaries, contributing insights to other businesses with distinct commercial and staffing dynamics, ultimately enriching our own understanding.

We talked with Justin to delve deeper into his experiences and the significance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) in his professional journey.

"It’s the right thing to do. Simple as that. There’s nothing better than seeing people truly feel part of something. Exclusion is such an awful experience to go through and a heavy burden to carry."

Justin Harris

Firstly, Congratulations on being awarded the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Champion of the Year! What does winning this award mean to you?

Thank you very much.  I am truly honoured and humbled to receive this award.  I have always taken satisfaction from seeing that Able2 has been able help someone, but of course, getting an acknowledgement such as this from an organisation as prestigious as the ITP is a real career highlight.  I very much hope that the award inspires me to do more and inspires others both inside Openreach and across the industry to look at the subject differently.

Why is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion so important to you?

It’s the right thing to do.  Simple as that.  There’s nothing better than seeing people truly feel part of something.  Exclusion is such an awful experience to go through and a heavy burden to carry.  Openreach is an organisation with a very much family feeling to it and we’re all there for each other on our journeys. 

The Able2 Network at Openreach is commendable. Can you share the initial challenges you faced in establishing the Able2 network and how you overcame them?

The challenges really were that the organisation had a wealth of great policies and support mechanisms already in place but arguably people who needed to use them, for a wealth of different reasons, weren’t taking advantage of them.  It didn’t seem as though there was a need for the network.  By talking about disabilities, impairments, health conditions and carers responsibilities openly, a safe space was created and an ever increasing number of our people started speaking-up and sharing their own experiences.  That became the foundations of showing the business where our strengths were and where gaps existed that needed plugging.  Able2 really grew out of our people being brave enough to share their personal circumstances for the learning of others. 

The Able2 network faced resistance initially. How did you convince others of the unique challenges faced by other employees and the need for a separate network?

We were able to build momentum from people who said “Thanks for sharing that.  I thought I was the only person with that condition going through that experience.”  I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t prepared to stand-up and share my situation then how could I expect others to.  I talked openly about my cervical myelopathy and lumbar stenosis as well as the effect it had on my day-to-day life both at home and at work.  A simple business trip means experiencing additional pain on top of the chronic pain I already experience day-to-day. My mobility issues become more pronounced and that means making adjustments to my travel plan, accommodation, participating in meetings, how often I take my medications and so on.  Many people with conditions or carers responsibilities don’t want their career prospects to be impacted so just carry on in silence.  The more I shared, the more others recognised that is was safe for them to do so and they shared their own unique stories which helped build a picture of what daily life was like for so many people who are battling away managing their own conditions.  We learnt about intersectionality and so partnered with the already established Openreach Ethnic Diversity Network, Gender Equality Network, Pride Network and the Neurodiversity Network.  Our Sponsor, Chris Herbert is Openreach Director for Customer Service and has been brilliant.  Chris listened to our position, took learning points himself and helped table discussions at the highest levels of the organisation.  Tammy Lewis was absolutely instrumental in Able2’s success.  Tammy is a D&I Manager in Openreach – truly the best there is – and was able to listen, expand our thinking and help guide our ambitions.  It goes back to what we were saying earlier – It’s the right thing to do; why wouldn’t you do this?  DE&I helps the organisation get stronger, faster by leveraging its greatest asset which is its people and how engaged they are.

Listening sessions were a crucial part of shaping the Able2 network's direction. What were some key insights gained from these sessions, and how did they influence the network's development?

The listening sessions were voluntary participation focus groups.  We had members of our senior leadership teams who were front-&-centre in hosting the focus groups and they were supported by a Facilitator.  This allowed them to hear first hand feedback - both good & not so good.  The listening sessions helped identify key themes; we have great policies and support mechanisms in place but needed to do more to help people leverage the benefit from them; we had some absolute pockets of excellence from leaders and managers who ‘got it’ and understood the massive benefits that our people took from that, but similarly we had examples where we didn’t get it right; we identified cultural differences too whereby some would embrace disabilities, impairments, health conditions and carers whereas others struggled more.  There was also a great conversation around identity amongst people with the same conditions whereby but one identified that as a disability but the other didn’t and that influenced a discussion around declaration and even around language such as ‘passports’ for reasonable adjustments.

The senior leadership team were taken through all of the successes and learning points from the listening sessions and allowed a period of reflection.  We established a fantastic committee of dedicated people consisting of engineers, desk based staff & managers who demonstrated a real passion not only for the subject but also a desire to go on a journey.  Then, together as a team, we used the feedback from the listening sessions along with other sources of input to develop an 18 month strategy to continuously improve on our current position.

How do you envision influencing other organisations in approaching disability, and what outcomes would you like to achieve?

Organisations – or rather the people in organisations – need to better appreciate the communities we serve.  According to the Department for Work and Pensions’ Family Resources Survey, 24% of the total population reported a disability.  There are also studies to suggest that the prevalence of disabilities is more likely to present when we reach our early 50s. 

Instead of me dictating outcomes I’d like to adopt the ‘critical friend’ role here.  I ask every organisation to consider this:

  1. How do your organisation’s declaration rates for disabilities, impairments & health conditions compare to the census figure?  Why is that?  Are you simply not employing people with conditions or are you employing people with conditions but you don’t truly understand their lived experiences?

  2. If the prevalence of disabilities is more likely to present in our 50s, what risk does that present to your organisational knowledge, skill and experience?  At a time when businesses are struggling to recruit, we know that there is a wealth of untapped but experienced talent out there; so what policies and support mechanisms do you have in place to leverage that talent?

  3. How do you assess your organisation’s knowledge, skill and experience when it comes to working with people with disabilities, impairments, health conditions and carers responsibilities?  What are the barriers that exist across your teams and what can you do to break those barriers?

In your opinion, do you think the industry is effectively addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion or is there more to be done?

Well, I believe in continuous improvement and lifelong learning so there is always more to be done as far as I’m concerned; whenever you have achieved your goal then the goal should have changed.  The industry has started the journey and that’s a good thing but I’m not convinced that we’re clear on what the future looks and feels like or how prepared we are for that.  What does good disability, health and carers look like now, in 5 years time and in 10 years time?  Able2 for Openreach doesn’t have that answer but we are prepared to take every step on our journey and that’s why we created ‘Able2 for Industry’ which is a quarterly industry forum for open, good practice sharing and critical thinking on the subject.  We have a few Communications Providers who have already engaged with us and we’re all learning from and helping each other.  Openreach supported one CP with discussions on policies for carers and another CP has offered to share their mental health programme with us.  We’d love others to join us in the discussions so drop an email to get involved.