Industry Leaders
HR Director

Karen Phillips

In a rapidly evolving business environment, organisations are discovering that the path to success begins with cultivating an inclusive culture that creates a profound sense of belonging among employees. Karen Phillips, HR Director at BDP, has worked to steer her business towards a progressive future. 

Luke James, Co-Host of The Interview, met with Karen to discuss issues, including BDP’s commitments to diversity, the importance of voluntary participation and engagement, and the challenges of promoting diversity and inclusion across multiple locations and cultures.

Karen's Journey

Luke: Can we start with a brief introduction to yourself and your organisation?

I’m the HR Director for BDP. We’re a multidisciplinary design practice comprised of engineers, architects, planners, and urbanists. We work on just about everything in the built environment, from city planning to hospitals, schools, and sports arenas. We’re sixty years old and already looking forward to the next sixty.

Luke: How did you end up in people management? And how did you arrive in your current role?

I’ve always worked in this sector. I started at Arup, working on graduate recruitment and training. I stayed with them for around 20 years, bouncing between several roles in HR. From there, I moved to WS Atkins, working as the HR Director for their Water and Environment Business. At the time, they were moving towards a shared services HR model, and after around four years, I became their HR Services Director for the whole UK. After that, I took a role in HR projects in clinical research before the opportunity arose at BDP. That was about six weeks before the pandemic, and before long, we found ourselves figuring out furlough and getting people ready to work from home. So it took a while to get around to the things I’d come in to do, but since then, we’ve made great progress. 

Luke: BDP has made several commitments to diversity, inclusion, and belonging. What do those initiatives look like in practice?

We have three staff networks — BDP Mind, BDP Life, and BDP Belonging. They all overlap each other in sort of a Venn Diagram. BDP Life is a staff committee that brings together all of our studios. It meets every other month to allow each studio to raise and discuss issues important to staff. It provides an opportunity for the leadership to discuss ideas and hear staff feedback, and it also helps colleagues understand what’s going on in other studios. BDP Mind is all about well-being and staff engagement: as part of that, we have a network of 21 fully-trained mental health first aiders embedded across all of our studios. In construction, many people, especially men, are reluctant to talk about their mental health, so we’ve brought in some external speakers to come in, share their experiences, and show people how to reach out for help. BDP Belonging is our newest network, and its purpose is to look at how we’re delivering on diversity and inclusion and how we can improve. The network is led by Sue Emms, an award-winning architect, and chair of our northern practice, and it meets every month to discuss progress and strategy. Alongside that, we also have several themed project groups, including our Racial Equity Group, a Disability Group, and an LGBT+ Group. In addition to groups for all nine protected characteristics, we’ve also set up a new network dedicated to social mobility. There’s always a lot going on, from events to celebrate Black History and Pride Month to talks about issues like menopause and age in the workplace.

Luke: You are a large organisation with hundreds of staff over many locations. How do you ensure everyone across the business gets involved in inclusion work?

Whenever we need help with one of our groups, we put a call out for people to put their hands up and come forward. It’s about finding volunteers rather than dragging people along. Because we already had ally groups in place, there was already a lot of good work happening in different pockets. So it was a matter of sharing those successes and replicating them across the business. We have 1300 people worldwide, and some things we’ve achieved in the UK can’t be done everywhere. But on the other hand, some of our international branches are ahead of the UK in some areas: for example, we have an office in Toronto with an excellent diversity, equality, and inclusion team. Within all of that, you need to make sure that people get a voice: providing a platform helps to get people engaged.  

Luke: These days, employees are busier than ever. How do you find the time to engage everyone with diversity and inclusion work?

When people join our networks, we remind them it isn’t forever: it’s a side project, not their day job. There will always be times when you get overwhelmed by client demands, and the fee-earning work will always be at the forefront. If someone comes forward and says they don’t have the time anymore, then we let them know that’s totally okay. We’ll put the call out for someone to come and take their place. Because of our ally networks, we’ve never struggled to find people to step up. 

Luke: What steps are you taking to embed a culture of learning and growth across the organisation?

When I first started, we set up a program of unconscious bias training. Everyone likes to think they are open-minded, but everybody has their biases, whether they know it or not. So we carried out several different types of training: one for marketing, one for leadership, one for HR, and one that everyone went through. We’ve also done some training around allyship. If one of our employees sees something wrong, we encourage them to call it out. As part of that, we’ve partnered with an external whistleblowing service that allows employees to report issues anonymously. 

Quick-fire Question

Luke: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received during your career?

Speak up and be brave. I was told that early in my career, when I was working on a difficult project. If I hadn’t stepped out of my comfort zone, I wouldn’t have made an impact. It can mean going out of your comfort zone, but you’ll look back with regret if you keep quiet. 

Curious to see what the future of training looks like?
Luke James
Luke works hand-in-hand with leaders and changemakers in our professional services markets. If you want to join the next series of The Interview, or just learn more about GoodCourse, then get in touch at

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