European financial services firm Societe Generale embarked on a quest that many organisations grapple with today: transforming inclusion from an HR-centric notion into an ingrained aspect of daily corporate life. Ben Higgins, Societe Generale managing director and UK head of HR and workplace culture agency Byrne Dean explain how this was achieved
Societe Generale, a European leader in financial services, has a UK platform that is home to over 2,000 employees. With diversity, equity and inclusion becoming more and more of a business priority, the firm faced a challenge that many within financial services (and beyond) are currently experiencing on their journey: evolving inclusion from being an ‘HR topic’ to something that was genuinely embodied across daily life at the firm; with education, accountability and engagement embedded across the board and people leaders feeling particularly empowered to be catalysts of positive change.
The end goal of this being a culture of conscious inclusion where people would feel fully able to bring their authentic self to work, in order to maximise their potential. Simple in theory, but slightly more difficult in practice.
On top of the clear moral imperative for this the leaders at Societe Generale in the UK saw that doing this would make their people more productive, improve employee retention and be a vital component of their wider risk management strategy.
After all, how well you communicate with your manager, and how safe and included you feel with them, is the key to any risk management approach.
They therefore set out to encourage their London workforce to connect with inclusion on an emotional level and empower the bank’s own people leaders to eventually take the lead and begin facilitating their own conversations about inclusion at work.
What Societe Generale did
The bank partnered with workplace culture and behaviour consultancy Byrne Dean to deliver targeted training. Over four months 89% of the entire London team took part in face-to-face sessions, known as Phase 1, designed to help them connect with inclusion in their own way, and to feel more confident to talk about aspects of their identity and lived experience at work.
Three cohorts were identified in this work: inclusion leaders (senior influencers and obvious agents of potential change), managers and other employees.
Each cohort had its own high-energy sessions, adapted in real time based on the valuable input received. Through explaining behaviour models, group discussions and experiential, actor-based learning they looked at what bringing your authentic self to work actually means, how to create opportunities without barriers and how to deal with microaggressions.
The behaviour models were explained in relation to two real-life possible scenarios. One involved a work allocation decision, the other a micro-aggression.
Both scenarios were relatable and authentic within a workplace context, presented either by live actors or on video, helping to develop participants’ understanding of each scenario and guide their possible responses if found in that situation themselves. Two of these models were particularly effective. These were:
The ‘shadow’ focus and the impact your decision-making and behaviour can have on others.
The Actor-Receiver-Observer language, and the duty to proactively improve the environment we work in.
As Phase 1 developed, an online learning platform was built using the material generated, including a step-by-step guide on how to lead inclusive conversations - so that the team could access and re-review the content in the flow of their work when they needed it most.
Finally, the inclusion leaders were then briefed face-to-face as they embarked on Phase 2 –facilitating their own conversations at work.
Overall, the training was received with enthusiasm and high levels of engagement and continues to objectively move the needle for inclusion at the company.
The company measured, at the beginning and end of the sessions, how comfortable each participant felt at engaging in inclusion conversations with their colleagues, which showed a significant, marked improvement. Phase 2 is now being rolled out by the inclusion leaders.
The business has also seen improvement in statistics around productivity and retention rates. As part of its standard exit-interview process all leavers are asked how they would rate their working relationship with their managers. It has seen a 6% increase over the last year from those who say it’s ‘excellent’.
Ben Higgins, managing director and UK head of HR at Societe Generale, says: “Diversity, equity and inclusion is a strategic priority for the business, and we’re delighted that this initiative continues to play a key part in promoting a fully inclusive culture that empowers everyone to be themselves at work and achieve their potential.
“By creating an environment that enables our people to feel comfortable to share their lived experiences through open, inclusive conversations, we’re helping to make a difference to the cultural and behavioural shift”.
Reflecting on what worked particularly well in the face of a huge challenge – delivering company-wide training across such a large team on a sensitive topic – the team noted the importance of engaging every layer of the firm. This helps reinforce the valid and crucial message that inclusion is a collective effort – and that we are all in this together.
Another driver of success was the speed at which the training was rolled out, meaning that everyone experienced it within a similar timeframe. This meant that there was a collective consciousness building in real-time around inclusion at the company, sparking organic conversations about it around the office that the team felt helped to normalise the topic further and ensure genuine cultural change.
Beyond the training with Byrne Dean, there are other ways in which Societe Generale’s London team is making progress towards conscious inclusion.
One big focus for the UK firm is the use of targets and scorecards. The business has a goal of 35% of its senior leaders being female by 2028; one it regularly reviews and is currently on-track to achieving. Meanwhile, everyone in the business has mandatory objectives around inclusion, matched to their level of seniority. For senior leaders, this includes a mandate to conduct open conversations with their direct reports - that promote the psychological safety needed to share lived experiences and promote inclusive behaviours.
Meanwhile, it has a quarterly sub-committee that discusses its DEI strategy, roadmap and investment. This roadmap includes a string of initiatives, such as open days for female undergraduates to learn more about the financial industry, a reverse mentoring programme where employees from minority groups mentor senior leaders, and apprenticeship programmes designed to attract talent from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. The organisation continues its journey to this day.