The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused business models to pivot in record time. As a result, leaders are facing the challenge of their careers and are juggling more priorities than ever as they navigate their organisations through this crisis.
Despite their busy schedules, it’s never been more important that leaders ensure diversity and inclusion remains high on the agenda as we transition to the next era of work. So today, I’m joined by diversity and inclusion specialist Charlotte Sweeney OBE who is here to share her advice to help leaders do just that, throughout each stage of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
Below is a recording and transcript of the podcast:
(01:13) So as mentioned, I’m Charlotte Sweeney. I specialise in inclusion, diversity and culture change and have done for the last 20 years, supporting companies around the world to really embed inclusion and diversity within their business strategies. I’m also a co-author of the book Inclusive Leadership, and that was published by the Financial Times and shortlisted for management book of the year in 2018.
(01:52) It’s a really interesting area at the moment around diversity and inclusion, across many organisations. One of the big challenges and one of the big areas that’s on many companies’ priority lists is around how they support colleagues through the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly being aware that one size of response does not fit everybody. And the level of diversity within organisations is really bringing to the fore, how companies need to respond differently. I was concerned at the beginning that diversity and inclusion may fall down the agenda a little bit, but with recent issues going on around the world, if we think about the US and other parts of the world around demonstrations and issues of race and equality, they’ve brought the issue of diversity and inclusion right to the fore again, even though we’re tackling the COVID pandemic as well.
(03:03) It’s a really interesting question and I do see this happening in different pockets of different parts of organisations and around the world. So yes, overall, I’m concerned about it. We know that when we had the global crisis back in 2008, it took approximately five years for companies who had decided to drop the diversity and inclusion agenda to get it back to where it previously was. So, if companies were stalling in 2008, we were generally not seeing any positive progress from them until at least around 2013. So, there is a concern here that it could fall off the agenda, fall off the radar in a meaningful way.
If we think about what’s going on at the moment from a pandemic point of view, and when companies are thinking about whether diversity and inclusion is still important to them, I think it shows really how far the company has got on their diversity and inclusion journey. Organisations that have got to the stage where it’s truly embedded into their everyday actions are not seeing this as an issue, because it’s there. It’s companies that still see this as something that’s at the side of the business, something to do in addition to running the business or delivering the business where we’re seeing more challenges and more concerns about it not being front and centre.
(05:22) Again, this is a really interesting one for me because I am seeing a number of mixed responses to this. So, if I think about earlier on within the pandemic, people were talking about how the issues of more flexible, remote working is actually going to be a huge positive for women. However, we’re seeing the societal norms play out while people are working from home as well. So, we’re seeing different issues around who’s leading on childcare, for example, and homeschooling when both parents are working from home.
There was a recent piece of research that showed that men felt that they were taking more of a balanced share of the homeschooling and childcare when they were working from home. And then when they asked women, they were saying they were taking the majority on. So, there was an absolute skew in the perceptions of who was taking that care.
Studies linked to academia have shown us that during the pandemic, in the first stage of lockdown the number of research papers from men increased and the number of research papers from women decreased. So that’s suggesting that, the responsibilities of home and work were landing much more on the shoulders of women. So again, those societal norms and to a varying degree playing out.
So, I think there’s some benefits we can take from this, but I think we also need to be aware that some of the aspects that we might see within the world of work when we’re in an office, we are seeing remotely when people are working at home as well.
(07:03) If I think about how people work, I think we all have different preferences at different times about how we prefer to work. So as an example, I’m an extrovert and I love being around people, but I also love to have the quiet time to get my work done. So, times when I can work from home or in my own office really help me and I can be really productive.
So, this is about supporting people to get the right balance of how they prefer to operate that works for them to be as productive as possible. I think what’s important here for leaders and managers is for them to be able to lead and manage regardless of where their team members are going to be working. And I think having more of an open conversation about how we want to work, where we want to work and when we want to work, will support everybody regardless of some of their preferences of how they want to operate, but also some of the personality types.
(08:10) I think it’s really interesting to see how leaders are changing their style or thinking about the behaviours they need to display more when people are not physically in front of them. And so, I’ve got three suggestions here around advice on how these remote team meetings can run more inclusively.
(10:24) I think if we reflect on what we’ve seen in the news over the last couple of months, regardless of where we’re based around the world, if we look at the stories we’ve heard and the messages that we’ve seen, it’s a message of potentially being fearful of being out there, being out further than your home environment. So, it’s the fear of the unknown, and it’s also the fear of not being in control of what happens around you.
That fear is absolutely going to be there and fear of the unknown or of the lack of control is a significant issue for many people.
As leaders, what we should do is take the time to acknowledge these feelings and concerns of our colleagues about returning to their place of work and start to really understand where those concerns are coming from and make sure they really feel listened to. And I think that’s a really important point here, because as leaders we generally want to jump into solution mode, get things done and get an answer for people, but actually in times, such as this, and when people have gone through lots of different emotions and experiences, it’s really important as a first step that they feel listened to and that their concerns and their fears are absolutely heard.
(12:05) I think that the way that leaders need to have the conversations with individuals will be pretty consistent, but what comes out of those conversations will absolutely need to be tailored to each individual. As you’ve quite rightly said, we’re all experiencing this differently. So, our requirements are going to be different to the person that sat next to us.
So, I think really making sure that leaders are talking to everybody individually about their own personal circumstances and being respectful of that. And listening to everyone I think is really important. The tailoring for me then comes when you find out what’s really going on for that individual.
For example, for one individual, the issue or the fear for them might be that they’re shielding a family member at the moment, and should they be going out into the workplace or should they be looking to continue to work from home? It might be that some are unable to get to work other than using public transport and their concerns are actually getting onto public transport. For some, it might be that they’ve been alone for weeks and weeks, and they’re just desperate to get back into the workplace to be around other people. So, the responses are going to be very different and that’s where the tailoring absolutely needs to come as a leader.
(13:37) I think that is a great way of organisations really putting their finger on the pulse of what’s going on within their organisations. And I’ve seen a number of companies do some really great work around the types of questions they’re asking their colleagues, as they’re preparing to come back into the workplace. You know, questions around their own personal situations and what they might need, right through to making sure that if people need personal protective equipment that that’s going to be there and that’s going to be ready and trying to allay any fears of what might happen within the workplace.
Some really great organisations that have been focusing on this as well, have really made sure that their cutting the data and the information that they receive by different diversity demography. So, they’re looking at it from an ethnicity point of view, an age point of view or gender disability, et cetera. Are people feeling differently depending on their demography? Because that’s enabling employers and leaders to really think about this tailored approach. What is it that different people in this organisation need? So, I think there’s some really great examples of that, of really listening to all their colleagues.
(15:04) I’m reflecting on some of the communications that I saw right at the very beginning of the pandemic and I was hearing leader’s messages. First of all, they sounded really authentic and concerned about their colleagues and then they would go into a story or an example of how they are experiencing the pandemic. And it felt like they’re one step removed from reality, talking about where they were working, whether it was their own office or an additional room in their garden and not taking any viewpoints of what their colleagues may be experiencing, which might be very different.
So, I think a few things for leaders to consider when they’re communicating across their organisation and to their teams.
(17:29) So the message I would give to leaders is first of all, you will not have all the answers to this, and it’s not expected that you would have all the answers to this. I think what’s really important here and the advice that I would give to leaders is to encourage them to get some of their team members involved in the discussions. This will depend on the size of the team, whether it’s all of the team or whether it’s a sample of the team that can get involved in these types of conversations and discussions, but ask team members to come up with some options of how they could make it work pragmatically and practically to get the jobs done that are required, as well as making sure that people are feeling safe as well.
So, get them involved in the decision-making process, get them to think about some different options that you can then talk about in more detail when people are creating some of the potential solutions with you and they have more of a vested interest in to making sure it works. So, rather than telling people how it’s going to operate, talk to them about the parameters in which you do have to operate around safety, requirements for the role and clients and those sorts of aspects, but give them the space to come up with some different options that you can talk through in more detail.
(18:55) I think leaders need to be mindful of this because at the end of the day, it’s still one wider team, even though with some of the requirements around social distancing and those sorts of elements may mean that you’ve split the team up in different ways. It’s still important to remember that it’s still one team that need each other to be able to operate effectively. So, for example, if you’re doing a rotation for alternative weeks in the office, you may want to differentiate the team, so you know who’s working within the office when and how. But make sure that you’re not using terminology that might be considered that one team is more superior to the other. It might be that you want to get the team involved in how you differentiate them, or what you call each of the teams, so that everybody’s clear, but also make sure that you’ve got that ability that people can switch between teams depending on personal circumstances or what’s going on for them, so that they have got some flexibility within that as well. So, it’s really important not to create any division between those teams.
And I think the other aspect that’s really important as well is to make sure there continues to be opportunities for the teams to come together and work together so that you’re not creating these silos. So, some people are in the office and some people are not, it may be that some of the discussions or meetings you have, you need to bring people together, both virtually and in person, but look at how you can get those opportunities to bring all of the team together at different stages to make sure you’re not creating those unintended silos.
(21:01) I’ve got a few thoughts on this for leaders to consider when they’re thinking about their team and how they make sure they keep them connected, they keep that team mentality around it.
So first of all, make sure you have regular catch ups with each team member. That’s really important for leaders to take that responsibility, make sure of regular catch ups with each team member and focus on how they are, as well as how they’re doing on the job. So, focus some time on them personally, and focus some time on their performance and their delivery of the job at hand.
The second one is to make sure that you have regular time with each team member and really make sure you’re doing this, and you are as fair as possible on this. So, not just spending time with those that seem to be around you, which can be an easy default for many people to have, especially when we’re very busy. So, make sure you’re spending time with members of your team who are not physically with you as well and review that each week and just reflect on how much time you have spent with each team member. Was it proportionate? Were there some people I was spending more time with and why was that? And did location play a part of it as well?
And I think you also need to make sure that you prioritise getting the team together on a regular basis. And I think in some of the conversations we continue to have, that’s going to be a regular theme about making sure you bring the team together regularly, covering both how they are as well as how they’re doing on the job. And I generally call that focus on the people and the task. I think that’s really important in times such as this
(22:57) So, I think there’s a couple of points on this one and I’ve been reflecting on how the teams that I work with and the companies that I work with have been operating. And what we noticed at the very beginning of the pandemic and people working from home was suddenly everybody wanted to have a social event on zoom, suddenly there were more calls and meetings in the diary than you might have ever had if you were actually within the workplace. And I think there was a phenomenon around people getting, as they called it Zoom fatigue around this, always being in front of the camera talking to their colleagues. I think that’s started to settle down a little bit now, but I think what’s really important is getting the team to think of ideas and ways that you’ve continued to create the culture of the team and you maintain the culture of the team.
So, I’ve got a few examples for you. There was one company, and I think a lot of companies have done this where they’ve had a virtual end of the week drinks. So, everybody would get onto their program of choice, be it Zoom, Microsoft Teams or whichever one it may be, and everybody would bring a drink of their choice whatever they wanted to drink and spend a little bit of downtime virtually with their colleagues. I also heard of a law firm that created their own radio station and have weekly music slots where each colleague can request different music and then they have an hours effectively virtual disco between the lots of them to really listen to the music and share perspectives on chats. And that law firm they’ve averaged around 300 people every single week taking part within that radio session. So, I’d encourage people to get their teams to be creative about how they want to make sure that they continue to create that culture within their teams and much wider across the organisation.
(25:20) I think the first issue here, or the first thing to consider is that everybody around the room or everybody around that team are very clear about who was working, for example, and who wasn’t working. So, rather than have that as something that’s a bit of an elephant in the room that nobody’s really talking about, I would encourage people to share what their experiences of all this was and what was it like for the ones that were working? What was it like for the ones that may not have been working or their ways of working were very different? We can make a lot of assumptions around this so, I think it’s important to have that conversation.
I was talking to one colleague who was assuming that the people that were not working for a period of time, were having a great time in the fact that they didn’t have to go into the office and they didn’t have to check their emails. But in reality, when they spoke to them, it was really unnerving for them because they really enjoyed that interactivity of being around their colleagues, even if it was virtually and by not working, they had lost that. And, it had a real impact on their mental health during those times.
So, let’s not assume what people’s experiences were because they were either working or not working. Have the conversation within a team and make sure that there is no underlying resentment within the team around that. Ask them to talk about their experiences and, I’ve mentioned this earlier, ask them to talk about how this could influence how they work together as a team in the future, because there’s so much learning that we can get from a pretty unique situation we’ve all found ourselves in. There’ll be some really great insights to take from that.
I guess what you’re saying is keep talking to each other and keep listening empathetically.
Yes, absolutely. That is absolutely critical.
(27:49) I think the first element for leaders to consider is really think about the business requirements for the future. And I know that can be a little challenging given that where we have found ourselves and now thinking what will the future of work be? What will the future of their business be? And that can be pretty uncertain at times but think about what might be required for the future and what have we seen as we’ve had to pivot our businesses.
So, when you’re thinking about the organisation, what does the restructure need to look like? Is online, for example, going to be a much stronger element of the business strategy than it was in the past. And if it is, do I need to focus more on different skillset to be able to deliver that? So that’s one thing it’s not jumping into this very quickly but being very mindful of what the differences might be in the future and where the business will be going in the future.
I think the second thing to think about and consider is to really be honest about the challenges and opportunities the business will be facing. So, we are seeing in the press a number of different sectors that are really having issues because of the pandemic. For example, the aviation industry, the holiday industry, hotels and catering and having some real issues at the moment. So, it would seem strange to shy away from having that conversation about it and being really honest about some of the challenges and also some of the opportunities that businesses will be facing.
Talk to your colleagues about it and talk about how the business will need to shift and what this actually may mean. And many people will know that that may mean a restructure, many will know that that may mean changing roles and it may mean losing some roles along the way as well. And if job losses are inevitable, I guess the question is, are there some people that would be happy to move on? Because in restructures and if businesses are pivoting and changing, there may always be some people that decide that that’s not for them. And they want to look for a career role, look for their future elsewhere.
So, there’s always that opportunity to think about, are there people that don’t want to be in this organisation now, or have different priorities within their life that they’d like to focus on? So, I think those areas are really important, thinking about the future of the business, where we’re heading, making sure you’re very honest and open about the challenges and opportunities. And then looking about who are the people that you have in the business and are there some people that want to move on naturally.
(30:49) I think this is critical for leaders to do this in a really inclusive way, as much as they possibly can. I do hear leaders say to me, and a few leaders said this to me earlier on within the pandemic that they were committed to being a more inclusive organisation, but they couldn’t do it while we were going through bad times. They had to wait till the good times. And I found it interesting that leaders were positioning inclusive leadership as we can only do this when we have a positive message or something positive to say. Actually, this is more important when things are not going to plan or there’s some real issues that organisations need to tackle.
So, first of all, from my point of view, this is absolutely critical to be as inclusive and transparent as possible when you’re going through these processes, because it is critical that when you think about the people that might be leaving the organisation, you want them to talk positively about their experience of being in the company and doing this in a really inclusive, thoughtful and transparent way, will give you a better chance of getting that positive outcome of how they talk about the business externally in the future. So, be as transparent as possible, explain why the changes are required and be transparent in the process. So, talk about how the decisions will be made and who will be making the decisions. As human beings, we don’t like uncertainty. So, adding an element of certainty into something that is pretty uncertain will go a very long way to bring your colleagues with you.
(32:44) I think this is a great question because I think there are some really great positives we can take from this. I do think it’s interesting that organisations seem to have become more tolerant or leaders seem to have become more tolerant. The number of leaders that I hear joking when they see somebody’s child suddenly come into the room or there’s a dog or a cat sat on somebody’s knee while they’re doing a video call. I think all of those elements help us give a little bit of a window into people’s personal lives of what they’re willing to share. So, I think that’s great and long may that continue because that does help us accept other people’s personal circumstances a little bit more.
I think the other great thing that’s come from this is the flexible ways of working. So, if I reflect on the number of years, organisations have told me that they could not possibly work from home, that just would not happen. And what we noticed within the pandemic was within four or five weeks of people having to work from home, these companies had got everything sorted. The technology was brilliant, and they were all working remotely. So, I think that shows us two things.
I think one thing that does concern me a little bit with how many organisations are operating right now, is virtual presenteeism that is really kicking in. And I do hear many leaders talk to their colleagues about the fact that given you can’t leave the house or that we’re starting to reduce lockdown in some countries around the world, you’ve got nothing else to do, so you might as well work.
So, for some, it feels like they may be in a bit of a real challenge that while they’re at home and they have the equipment to work at home, that suddenly they are expected to be on virtually all the time. So that’s a concern for me that we really do need to tackle.
Thank you for that. I would actually add that I for one have really enjoyed virtually meeting so many of my colleagues’ children and pets. If anything, it’s made me feel quite a lot more connected to them despite working so far apart, geographically.
It’s brilliant, isn’t it? I personally love to see it.
Yes, I do as well.
(35:46) I think there are a couple of aspects here because I think we’re seeing this in a lot of different areas of life. So, right at the very beginning of the pandemic, I shared some perspectives about how leaders were showing themselves at that particular time, was their true leadership style and people would take a lot from that either positively or negatively. I think organisations that have had a very clear purpose about what their business is there to do and how they want to create change within society, I think they’re really stepping up now and really taking a charge on what’s really important in the world and how they want to support people. So, it’s great to see that.
For people that are thinking about what this means for them and their career and where they actually want to take that, I think what leaders can actually do is be really clear on the purpose of their organisation, their leadership style and what’s really important. Is it our people, is it profit or is it something else? And I also think that leaders have a responsibility to be really clear with all their colleagues about the role they individually play in helping the company deliver their purpose. And I think that makes a more transparent conversation and thought process for people to really think about, do I want to continue my career in this organisation or do I want to go somewhere else? It’s really important for people to understand how what they do, helps deliver the purpose of the organisation.
(37:46) So, there’s a few areas to consider here. First of all, it’s when people have been hiring in the past, has that process been fit for purpose or were there some aspects that they could do a little bit differently? Because if they think about that first, you can more or less move a lot of those different ways of how you hired into more virtual means. So, if people ran panel sessions and panel interviews or different sorts of breakout conversations, they can still all be done virtually, but it’s thinking about what is it that we valued from our previous hiring process that we want to bring into more virtual means.
One of the areas that I think is really important when people are looking to hire, and sometimes this gets missed a little bit, is thinking about three different elements and we can bring this into the virtual means as well, but three different elements of deciding how we hire and who we hire.
(40:01) So again, this is an element for them to consider about their previous hiring processes. How did they eradicate or mitigate bias from that hiring process and be very aware that this is also going to happen via remote or virtual means? So, for example, just as you did, when you were hiring face-to-face, you will have made some assumptions about people as soon as you saw them walk through the door. You will do exactly the same as soon as you see their face on a video screen, or as soon as you hear their voice. So, don’t make the assumptions related to what you’re actually seeing and your first view of them.
Another important point on that, given that so many of us are working on video now is trying not to make any assumptions related to what’s in the background when you’re interviewing them. So many people are using virtual backgrounds now, as part of that video experience and it may be that they don’t want people to see what’s behind them, where they live or their personal circumstances. It’s really important for us not to try to make assumptions and let our bias run wild when we’re seeing anything in the background as to what might be going on. And that’s really important for us to consider.
As with other recruitment processes, make sure that you have a diverse panel that is absolutely playing a part across all the recruitment process. That’s absolutely critical to make sure you’re mitigating the bias of one particular view throughout the whole process and make sure the process is consistent for all candidates, making sure that reasonable adjustments are available for people that may struggle or may have issues with using some of the virtual technology as well. So, making sure we’re still doing much of the same as we have in the past, but really changing that ever so slightly to make sure it’s working from a virtual point of view.
The final bit that I just wanted to mention on this around eradicating bias, the critical element here as well is also the final conversation that those involved in the interviewing and recruitment process have to discuss and decide who they’re going to offer the roles too, that’s a critical aspect of the recruitment process and something that must not be forgotten about as we’re hiring remotely.
(42:37) Yes, because usually when people start in a team, we usually take them around the office, meet everyone, maybe go out for lunch and have some social time with each other and who knows when that opportunity is going to arise. So, I think the critical aspects or the principles of this still stay the same.
So first of all, it’s meet the team as soon as possible. Get those team sessions and the one to one sessions in the diary with different members of the team as quickly as possible, as well as any of the stakeholders or people they need to meet to be able to do their job effectively.
I think another aspect that is increasingly important, given that from a physical point of view, we’re not necessarily going to be with each other, as we’re working in the office, is talk about how that new person coming into the organisation likes to work and how does that either support or challenge how the team works at the moment because there maybe some different areas around thinking about how the team can work effectively together with that new member being there. It’s important not to purely think, well the teams always worked this way, you’re going to have to try and fit in that. It’s have the conversation about how the team could work differently and what might be required, bringing a new team member in.
I think the final thing that I’d mentioned here that is always helpful, but even more helpful when somebody will be working virtually and just starting in the organisation, is either get somebody to act as their buddy within the team or alternate that on a weekly basis, so they get to know other people within the team far more effectively, but also they’ve got a go-to person if they’re struggling with anything, they have a question or just want a bit of connectivity with somebody during the working day. Those buddy systems and alternating that across the team can work really effectively when we’re in this virtual space at the moment and especially trying to bring somebody new into the team too
(45:02) Every organisation, and every leader will need to reassess which roles and skills are going to be really important within their business and if any organisation is looking to restructure or potentially lose roles within their company, this thought process around the roles and skills needed for the future is absolutely the first step as I mentioned earlier. But when we think about how we operate in a hybrid world, many leaders I’ve seen in the past have looked at performance by the way of, can I see you? Are you at your desk? I assume; therefore, you’re working. That will be a thing of the past for us.
So, I think what’s really important for leaders is to be far more transparent and really clear on the deliverables and the metrics for each of the roles. So really clear on the objectives, what the role is there to deliver, the targets around what that role needs to deliver in a specific period of time. And also, really clear on how that will be measured.
So many organisations have great performance management tools, and a lot of them are not used to their full capacity either. So, I think as we’re working in a more virtual or hybrid world, it’s going to be much more important for leaders to be having the conversations with their teams about what are they there to deliver? What are their objectives and how are they going to measure effective performance?
(46:55) I think it’s absolutely critical for leaders to be doing this now. If they haven’t already started to do this, I would recommend that leaders really focus on how do they develop their inclusive leadership style, what is it for them and how are they going to go about it? I mean, there’s a huge amount of research out there. I’ve also written a book around inclusive leadership, but there’s research from organisations such as McKinsey and Deloitte that talk about inclusive leadership traits.
I think what’s really helpful for a leader at the moment is to get some feedback from colleagues of the last couple of months, what did they do that was really great and what was it that they could have done more effectively for their colleagues? And by getting some of that feedback that will help them identify where some of their strengths are and some of the areas that they may need to develop further, but I would recommend any leader to start to really think about if they haven’t already, what are the inclusive leadership traits that are important for their business or for them, and how can they develop them or enhance the ones that they’ve already got.
(48:22) So there’s three qualities that I’m going to share, I do not think have really changed. I think they’re qualities of great leaders and great leaders learn how to adapt them in the different scenarios that they face, whether it’s a pandemic or whether it’s the next era of work. So, the three key areas for me:
Who would have thought back in November 2019, that we would be where we are today? And it takes leaders who can harness that ambiguity, that uncertainty, take it and as you mentioned earlier, pivot and do something different. So, I think great leaders for now and in the next era of work will have that ability to be really flexible, to shift their thinking, to pivot where needed and to shift their mindset.
Charlotte Sweeney OBE has specialised in Inclusion & Diversity (I&D) for over 20 years and was recognised by The Economist and The Daily Telegraph as one of the Top 10 I&D Professional Consultancies in the world. She runs a consultancy specialising in I&D strategy and their effective and sustainable implementation. Her clients include many well-known global companies from many sectors and gained much of her global experience leading I&D in a number of companies in both Retail and Investment Banking.
In 2014 she authored an independent review for the UK Government Secretary of State Dr. Vince Cable on Women on Boards and Executive Search Firms and is the co-author of the Financial Times published book ‘Inclusive Leadership – the definitive guide to developing and executing an impactful Diversity and Inclusion Strategy, locally and globally’, which was shortlisted for Management Book of the Year by The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) in 2018.
She has held a number of Non-Executive Director roles on a number of boards, including 4 years as a Deputy Chair of an NHS Acute Trust with responsibility of over £500m annual spend.
She was recognised in the New Year’s Honours 2017 list with an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to Women and Equalities.
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