Victoria Whitehouse thinks her two-decade career at Virgin may be down to brainwashing.
“As a kid, I used to buy Virgin records and watch the label go round and round on the turntable and I think it stuck,” laughs Vic, Virgin Trains’ new – and first – Inclusion Lead.
Sitting on her 60ft narrowboat on the Coventry canal, where she lives with her partner, Tré, three cats and Willow the springador, Vic explains that it’s her job to ensure that people who come to work for Virgin Trains are a reflection of the people they are serving – and that Virgin Trains should welcome everyone on board.
Inclusivity is Vic’s passion: she is the woman who brought on track the Virgin Pride train earlier this year, and helped overturn the Virgin Trains uniform ban on staff displaying their tattoos. She also introduced mental health ‘first aiders’ to the company. Vic is now fizzing with new ways to make Virgin Trains even more inclusive for both staff and customers – which is her way to pay back the welcome she received on joining the Virgin family.
At 18, she started her career as a customer service assistant at Virgin Megastores in the West Midlands. She felt that she’d finally found somewhere she could be herself. “It was the first time I’d been at work, and I met a couple of gay colleagues who were so expressive about who they were and nobody was picking up on it. I thought, ‘Nobody cares’,” she says. “I felt I could be more myself as a gay woman at work than I could at home.”
Her colleagues’ support helped her come out at home, and she says that her gratitude for this made her keen to give something back. “I wanted to empower others to be themselves.”
She moved to Virgin Trains in 2001 as a Customer Services Assistant at Birmingham International and then became a Train Manager on the Cross Country routes. In 2004, she was promoted to Customer Service Manager, based at New Street station in Birmingham. She loved the role, but when Virgin lost the franchise in 2007to Arriva Cross Country, she says: “It was one of the worst days of my life – like a funeral.”
She moved to Arriva for four years but missed Virgin Trains. So in 2010, when she saw a Virgin job advert for an Onboard Manager working at Euston station, she grasped the opportunity. Soon she was commuting to London on the 5.05am train from Wolverhampton. “It could be long hours but when you’re travelling at 125mph on a tilting train through some of the most beautiful landscape in the world, it’s pretty special.”
Knowing that she wanted to work in the people department, she went to see the Deputy Head of HR. “I had a lot of experience of our procedures but didn’t have the qualifications. But they took a chance on me to be an HR Business Partner Support for London Euston, dealing with day-to-day employment issues.”
She was seconded to, and then become the permanent HR Business Partner for, the Euston-Birmingham- Wolverhampton route. As an HR Business Partner, Vic was able to have an impact on the whole company, rather than just the teams she led.
After seeing three members of staff have mental health crises in a short period, she went to her bosses with the idea of training the Leadership team in mental health first aid. The funding was agreed the same day and, with the second round of training under way, there will soon be 100 trained mental health aiders in the company. “The training helps them to recognise when someone might be having difficulties, or has had a trauma, and how to find support.” Virgin Trains currently partners with Rethink to deliver the training.
After she and colleagues joined others from the Virgin family to march at Pride in 2015, Vic wanted to do something specifically for Virgin Trains. She rallied the team and they marched in Birmingham in 2017. “The response from the general public was great – people who used the services were made up that we were part of the crowd.”
So this year, wanting to do something even bigger, Vic asked whether a train could be painted with the Pride rainbow. Again, her bosses at Virgin Trains trusted her instinct and the Pride Train was painted and launched within a fortnight. It travelled the country ferrying people to Pride events around the country over the summer.
For all the positive comments about it, Vic says that the few negative tweets or social media messages about the train have made it clear why it was necessary.
“We have to have those difficult conversations with people who are not educated in how other people live,” she says. “But as a company, we’re brave enough to push the boundaries – boldly going further to bring everyone closer.”
She says that the main part of her new role is to bring people closer by going further. This has led her to create an inclusion group on Virgin Trains’ internal Yammer site. Here people can post questions and interactions that they’ve had with the public, and Vic will share some useful advice. She also wants people to contribute to an inclusion panel, which will have a rolling membership (so as not to become an exclusive group) that includes management, frontline staff and customers who have contacted Virgin Trains following accessibility issues using the service.
“There’s nothing more powerful than hearing the story of the person who has been affected,” says Vic. She says this will lead to findings and objectives that can help Virgin Trains to improve further.
“We will ask the questions and gain the knowledge so that we can have a better understanding of each other – it comes back to our ethos of ‘Screw average, create amazing’.”