“It’s easy to have a strong rhetoric on inclusion – it’s hard to actually embed it in everything you do.”

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Ben Firth, UK Communications and Engagement Leader at EY
Ben Firth, UK Communications and Engagement Leader at EY

Meet Ben Firth, UK Communications and Engagement Leader in EY’s financial services business.

Ben’s career has spanned PR, stakeholder communications, change communications and even corporate affairs for Sydney Opera House. Now, having found his niche in internal communications, Ben jokingly refers to himself as Chief Storyteller and works closely with senior leaders to bring EY’s purpose to life and drive advocacy among the firm’s 17,000 UK employees.

Ben is passionate about inclusion and equality in the workplace; something he harnesses in his roles as co-chair of Unity, EY’s LGBTQ+ network, and a board trustee of MindOut, an LGBTQ Mental Health Service.

We spoke to Ben about what it takes to build truly inclusive cultures, how to connect employees to your company’s purpose, and who inspires him.

 

You’re a man with many hats! In addition to being a senior comms pro in EY, you’re also co-chair of Unity and a trustee at MindOut. What have you learnt from the combination of these roles?

The main thing I’ve learnt from my role with Unity is to not assume that everyone’s experience is the same as yours – both in an organisation and in life. My experience at work has been relatively positive in many respects, and I don’t feel as though I’ve been a victim of homophobia in the workplace or been overlooked for any opportunities because of my sexuality – but I recognise that’s not the case for everyone.

Being involved in LGBT+ activism and inclusion more widely has given me a much better understanding of the different experiences people have, particularly those within minority groups, and has helped me to recognise that people can be faced with multiple levels of oppression.    

And as a trustee for MindOut, I’ve been able to gain huge insight into mental health issues within the LGBT+ community, which is something I’m really dedicated to understanding even further. One of my core aims is to support those suffering by helping to ensure we break down the stigmas, have the right resources available and create a community where people look out for each other.

I’ve also learnt not to underestimate how much of an impact you can make by offering your time and mind to the charity sector. I’m able to bring experience from my corporate role and leverage skills that offer a different perspective. For instance, how to build a corporate strategy that takes people who work for the charity with you on the journey. Or other communications and engagement insights to help with the brand or fundraising.

Ultimately, the combination of my current roles has given me a breadth of insight I wouldn’t otherwise have. It fuels my commitment to inclusion and diversity and drives me to continue to make change happen.

 

How can employee resource groups help people feel connected to a firm?

I first started getting involved with workplace inclusion when I joined the Financial Conduct Authority. I’d reached a point where I felt like I wanted to be out in all aspects of my life and it felt like the right time to give back. I’m believe that sharing your story can give others the confidence to share theirs. It could become part of someone’s survival guide.

Employee resource groups are critical to building a sense of community; they help bring together like minded people and give individuals a shared sense of understanding around the issues they’re going through.

My co-chair and I really try to foster that sense of community so that people feel connected with what we’re doing.

It’s been particularly important during lockdown. We know that the LGBT+ community are statistically more likely to suffer from mental health issues, and that in some cases people may have had to isolate with others who are homophobic, bi-phobic or transphobic. The network or Employee Resource Group may be the only safe space they have.

We’ve been very clear in asking our members to look out for each other during this time, and we know that’s something that has been received really well – and has had a real impact.  

 

Lots of companies talk about wanting to create an environment where employees can bring their whole selves to work. What does it take for organisations to truly embed that sense of belonging and what advice would you give to organisations who are early on in that journey?

The first thing I’d say is that it’s very easy to have a really strong rhetoric on this – but it’s really hard to actually embed it in everything that you do. Communications and leadership are two sides of the same coin. So central communications teams need to work closely with leaders to create an environment where people feel they belong.

The corporate focus on anti-racism over the last few months has showed us all that understanding lived experience is critical. Of course, targets and big-ticket initiatives around inclusion and diversity are important because they provide a due north. They’re brilliant for setting commitments which are scrutinised and encouraging the right direction of travel for the future of a firm and its people, and they provide useful measurement.

But if a company has a really strong narrative around inclusion, and an employee’s experience doesn’t reflect that, then their time with the firm is going to be short-lived – they’re not going to give their best and firms will lose out on true diversity.

If companies are serious about fostering a sense of inclusion and belonging, leaders need to engage and inform themselves around the issues minority groups face, be confident in discussing it openly – and be confident in admitting when they don’t have all the answers and they need to learn more.

People are watching leaders closely to see how they behave in this space – and employees will follow suit. And that’s what it’s all about for me – it’s the combination of the tiny little actions every day, that everyone can do, to make others feel comfortable and to help them feel like they belong in the firm they’re in.

 

What’s the secret to uniting employees around a company’s purpose?

If your purpose is clear and your people are truly living it, that can be a real differentiator for your firm against the competition. Uniting employees around a purpose is all about exploring what it is they care about and showing how your ambitions are aligned.

The way you do that is through stories. They help you to create an emotional connection that resonates. And it’s about more than just celebrating those moments – it’s also about using them to inspire people to do something differently themselves.

It’s something we’re really proud of at EY. We have a clear purpose – building a better working world – and it’s central to how we communicate. But we’re also very aware that our purpose needs to be shared authentically, so that people can see it, believe it, articulate it and believe that it’s a cornerstone of their role.

We want them to feel proud of the contribution we’re making to the world, both as individuals and as a firm. That’s why we’ve launched initiatives like Minds made for financial services and why we celebrate the best examples of our people, by bringing our purpose to life through our annual ‘Story Slam’ competition.

It matters even more in times of change and crisis – during COVID-19 we really challenged ourselves to make sure what we were communicating would ultimately make our people feel proud and like they belong in the firms’ community. We worked hard to shine a light on the stories that demonstrated how we were looking after each other, our clients and our communities. At the end of a recent internal webcast, we played a video of people talking about how we’ve helped the UK respond toCOVID-19, placing our purpose at the heart of the messaging. People were writing to our leaders saying, “I have never felt so proud to work for this company”. This shows how strong purpose can be when it resonates.

 

Where is your happy place?

On a beach, late afternoon with the sun shimmering across the water

 

What are you reading at the moment?

Taming Your Gremlin by Rick Carson.

 

And finally, who inspires you?

Ruth Hunt – she was the Chief Executive of Stonewall up until last year. She’s an awesome storyteller and has a way of speaking that puts fire in your belly and encourages you to drive change. You can’t leave a conversation with her without feeling empowered and enthused and ready to go and do something amazing.