The Interview UK
Royal Holloway, University of London
HR Director

Helen Ellis-Jones

Building an inclusive staff culture can be a challenging endeavour. Although it’s important ensure structural change to support equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within an organisation, true change comes from individual buy-in and staff participation. 

Helen Ellis-Jones, HR Director at Royal Holloway, University of London, sat down with Interview Co-host Luke James to discuss her journey in HR, the trick to staff involvement, and exciting initiatives on the horizon. 

Luke: Let’s start with a brief introduction to your current role and institution. 

My name is Helen Ellis-Jones; I am the HR Director at Royal Holloway in London. It’s a medium-sized university with a broad range of subjects, roughly 12,000 students, and 1,800 staff — but about 3,000 people overall contribute to the college’s activity. 

Luke: What was your journey to this role?

I started off very indecisive, but after doing a graduate scheme and working, I realised that the common thread was that I loved working with people. Eventually, an opportunity came up to move into HR, which I took — and haven’t looked back! I have now worked at three different institutions and have been at Royal Holloway for about three years, having joined just at the start of the pandemic. 

HR is a people-centric industry and Covid was a people-centric crisis. As tough as dealing with it was, you often find that situations like that bring together a fantastic team spirit. Everybody does their best to reach a place where we can continue delivering services to our students. This brought people together to do the best they could. 

Luke: What main initiatives do you have at Royal Holloway for building inclusion?

There’s quite a lot going on, which is exciting even if I’m very busy. In EDI, we have totally reconfigured our committee and how we think about and manage equality. I think the college was doing a lot of work, but it was happening through separate strands, such as gender or race. We have tried to bring this thinking together to create a more holistic approach. This new committee is great; it has a lot of representation in it, for example, from each of our staff networks, who can directly communicate their own experiences. We also have HR and estate who own the solutions and work out ways to meet different needs. We’re prioritising what we’re committing to, to avoid stifling progress by trying to do too much at once. 

We have created themes around our work, for example equipment, development, inclusivity and belonging, as well as infrastructure and how we can use technology to help people feel that they belong. 

Luke: It can be hard to get busy staff involved in work on these topics; how do you navigate that challenge? 

We are just updating our EDI statement, and one of its key principles is a collective responsibility. We have created more dedicated posts making it formally part of people’s roles, allowing people to have the time to work on these topics. Creating an inclusive environment often comes down to day-to-day decisions and interactions. One of the initiatives we have taken forward is being much clearer through recruitment about wanting people committed to EDI. We ask staff to talk about their commitment to diversity. We celebrate diversity throughout the year with our EDI calendar. We also use training to increase mindfulness and awareness. How we talk about EDI does not need to be separate — it can be integrated. 

Luke: How do you draw the connection between the work around inclusion and well-being at an institution to Royal Holloway’s organisational goals?

There are two parts to it. Fundamentally, the purpose of our college is social, so it’s embedded in our organisation. And then of course you get asked the question about budgets and resources when developing initiatives, what the return on investment will be — but it’s an incredibly competitive recruitment market right now, so it seems nonsensical to only think about limited communities. We are helping ourselves by recruiting and nurturing diverse talent. The richness you get when you bring diverse voices together leads to innovative thinking. Our student body is reasonably diverse, so we need to build better empathy between our staff and students while there currently isn’t a comparable representation of diversity. 

Luke: How do you make topics accessible to different staff, considering they might all be very different?

Interestingly, one of the spaces we have been looking at in terms of our EDI work is protected characteristics. We need to build an appreciation for and understanding of different roles and types across the college. In terms of reaching out to people and engaging, you need to use a variety of approaches. We use the newsletter, fly flags, and have management briefings that give different routes to conversations on these topics. We make it structurally unavoidable. Bringing it to life, surrounding our lives with it, and sharing stories. 

Luke: Looking forward, you mentioned that there is a lot of work being done. What new initiatives do you have planned for inclusion this coming year? 

I am really excited about some work we’re just starting on becoming a values-led organisation. We have values and a great heritage, but the work we want to do is about re-articulating what our values our. What do we stand for in modern society? The plan is that we will do it in a very engaging way with lots of opportunities for our stakeholders to contribute. What do they want for the organisation, and what are their personal values? Then, how can we connect these and create something that really brings an interconnected community genuinely living by its values? This will be a challenge in such a diverse organisation, but it’s an exciting thing to work on. 

Luke: What do you think is the main challenge to making progress in this across the sector? 

How we create the time and confidence for people to engage with this. We need to persuade people that it is worthwhile to engage with it. There is a level of culture change as well that institutions are going through right now. We’re experimenting with how to put ideas out and build them up as concepts together with staff. 

Quick-fire Question
Luke: What is your top tip for developing a culture of learning and growth?

Curiosity is absolutely at the heart of it. The ability to reflect on different scenarios is so important. Stepping into situations not because they have an immediate payback, but for the sake of experience. Being brave and questioning. 

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Luke James
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