Why everyone should be their true self at work

Victoria Whitehouse is the recently appointed Inclusion Lead at Virgin Trains. Here, she explains why working for Virgin has helped her to see what it means to be your true self at work…

At Virgin Trains, we have a new shared purpose: “Boldly going further to bring everyone closer,” which speaks volumes about what matters most to us – being inclusive is at the heart of why we do what we do. We continue to screw average and create amazing experiences for our customers. However we can only do this if the recipe is right and the main ingredient to a successful Virgin business will always be people.

I started my career with Virgin back in 1997 as a Customer Service Assistant at Virgin Megastores and the experience changed my life. I was working for a company, that despite the fact that the Equality Act hadn’t been passed yet and section 28 (a controversial law banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities and in schools) still in force, I was able to feel that I could bring my true self at work. In fact, I could be myself more at work than at home and the great people who worked at Virgin gave me the strength to come out in 1998 as a gay woman. The support that I got from work colleagues had a massive impression on me and I took the passion I had for working at Virgin Megastores to Virgin Trains in 2001. 

I have always wanted to give back what I was given back in the day as an impressionable 18-year-old starting my first job (which is daunting in itself), and being supported to be who I really was. I believe that the company that you work for should be a reflection of the customers that you serve as only then will you be able to relate as to what the customer really wants from your service and not what you think that they want.

At Virgin Trains we are proud of our diverse workforce and I wanted to give something back to our people in terms of celebrating that diversity, so I got us involved in London Pride in 2015, where we marched alongside other Virgin companies. In 2017, we marched in our first Birmingham Pride event and I knew that our people wanted to go bolder and further this year. I managed to secure funding for Pendolino train to be wrapped as the Pride train and renamed ‘Virgin Pride’. This captured the public’s imagination and we were soon getting requests from Pride events up and down the country for the train to appear at their local station to symbolise the start of the weekend celebrations. We not only had the colourful train, but also quite the atmosphere on board, where our people literally threw a party for our customers.

But it’s not just LGBT diversity that we’re interested in, we want everyone to be able to be their true selves at work. Last year we lifted the ‘ban’ on tattoos under our uniform standards to further our commitment to ensuring that our people are able to bring their true self to work and express their individuality. Two years ago, I presented a business case to be partnered with ENEI (Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion) and we have been working with them to look at our policies and guidelines within this space. 

In 2013 we lit the way with the introduction of the ex-offenders programme and ‘ban the box’, where we were able to employ people that had been released from prison and support them back into the community by employing them.

In 2015, I recognised that we needed more mental health awareness on the route that I was HR Business Partner for and so I went to the Exec with a business case to secure funding for mental health first aid training for the routes leadership team. This is something that helped our leadership team with not just being aware and breaking stigma relating to mental health, but also awareness of each other and their people’s mental health. We have since partnered with two mental health charities, with our current one being Rethink. 

We have run several campaigns internally to break down stigma and demonstrate the support that we can offer our people to look after their mental health and what we can do to keep them supported when their mental health means that they are not well. Our People Team work hard to support our team, including arranging support for our people and customers following traumatic incidents. Last year our MD and Exec Director of HR signed a pledge to support mental health and drive down stigma. We are also working with the Samaritans to reduce suicides across the rail network by training our people on intervention if they see someone that could be contemplating ending their life.

Despite this work, we recognise that there is still some work to do both internally and externally around inclusion and diversity. Following the recent appointments of our new Exec People Director, Natasha Grice, and Head of Responsible Business, Juliet Mountain, they knew that to truly start to break down barriers and screw average, there needed to be someone who’s primary role was focusing on inclusion and diversity. They created the new role of Inclusion Lead, my dream job!

As soon as the role was advertised, I knew I had to go for it. I applied, was given a tricky presentation to do and a tough interview but was over the moon when I was offered the role. What has always been a passion of mine that I did as an aside to my day job of HR Business Partner is now my day job. 

This role is an industry first. It is such an honour to be in such a position and my primary focuses for the next year are going to include engaging with Community Rail Partnerships, Local Authorities and organisations to encourage and enable the use of our stations as places people can connect and access services, encouraging people to explore and experience the amazingly diverse skills development and career opportunities available across the rail industry, ensuring our people and partners are representative of the communities we connect, furthering our focus on social mobility through our apprenticeship, ex-offenders and Red Track programmes encouraging and enabling every section of society to travel by rail, and engaging with our people. This will enable us to boldly go further to bring everyone closer.

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