Interview: Embedding Equality, Diversity & Inclusion and Wellbeing at Unite Students
15 November 2021
Back in March, Unite Students shared ‘Up to uS’, its five sustainability commitments for the future: among them were ‘Enhancing the health and wellbeing of our employees and students’ and ‘Providing opportunities for all’, with a strong focus on moving forward our efforts in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI).
To lead on this vitally important work, we appointed Sam Kingsley as Unite Students’ first EDI and Wellbeing Manager. After her first six months in the business, we caught up with Sam to find out more about her work at Unite so far.
Q: Sam, you joined the business six months ago as our EDI and Wellbeing Manager. Can you talk a bit more about your past experience within EDI and Wellbeing, and how you came to work within this area?
A: My life experiences and lived experience of being a black woman have encouraged me to go further to understand what works really well for my teams, and looking at this from an organisational and departmental perspective. But I’ve always been an activist – so that helps!
If I had to drill into what EDI and Wellbeing is from a work perspective, it’s about being a better human to other humans. I feel very lucky to have found an area of work that marries together my professional experience and activism, and that pays me to do it.
The remit of EDI and Wellbeing is huge – so what does your role entail?
When I joined Unite Students, I was tasked with designing and implementing a strategy that not only demonstrated but embedded our commitment to becoming a diverse business. A few weeks later, I was also asked to include wellbeing within the scope of the role – a natural fit, given that great wellbeing must be inclusive. Although wellbeing is essential for good health, many people are left behind within this area, so we need to work to view wellbeing from different points of view when working towards best practice.
My role covers a number of key areas, such as our legal obligations under the Equality Act 2010, running EDI and wellbeing initiatives both internally and externally, and developing a culture change programme through the Unite Students Talent Academy.
Tell us what you’ve been up to since joining Unite Students, and your first impressions of the business.
I’ve spent some time getting to know the business, travelling to many of our properties across the UK meeting employees and trying to understand the EDI and wellbeing needs of the business. That’s included running sessions that help line managers in Unite to hold conversations around EDI and wellbeing with not only their teams, but also the students in our buildings.
We’re about to launch an initiative that develops our understanding of employees through collecting more comprehensive data on employee demographics – looking at social mobility, caring responsibilities, and a wider understanding of what disability is beyond what is ‘physically visible’ as well as ethnicity and gender. This will inform the full EDI and wellbeing strategy that I’m currently working on for Unite Students, and we’ll be announcing new policies, procedures and targets off the back of it.
There’s a lot of work to do, but that’s my sweet spot – the bigger the challenge, the more I can get stuck in. There’s been support across the whole business, and every building has been really welcoming and enthusiastic about creating a more inclusive space for students and employees. What I wasn’t expecting when I joined was how committed and enthusiastic our executive board would be – they want to make progress on this, but the direction wasn’t clear, and that’s why I’m here. Will it work? I’ll let you know in 10 years!
Unite Students recently launched Culture Matters, an internal employee forum encompassing our employee networks. Could you share a bit about this, and what you’re hoping it will achieve?
The newly formed Culture Matters forum will demonstrate our commitment to direct employee engagement and participation through employee representatives who were democratically elected. There’s inclusive representation from across the business, including a variety of job roles and employee levels, and it will also comprise of representatives from our employee networks.
The aim is to ensure that the employee voice is heard in the boardroom, and to enable this, the forum will be chaired by our Group People Director and deputised by me – really showing the business’s commitment to becoming more inclusive.
How can EDI and Wellbeing being embedded in the business improve students’ accommodation experience? Are there any marginalised communities of students that you’re particularly keen to improve outcomes for?
If we create an environment where all of our employees feel they belong, that will go out to the students and be felt by them in our buildings. We’re working towards understanding our student demographic compared to our employee demographic, as we want our teams to be representative of the student bodies we serve.
We want to do more for students of colour, as after last year it’s clear they have been underserved from an educational perspective. We need to understand the effects of neurodiversity on the Higher Education experience, and in general mental health is a big focus for me – it’s something I feel passionate about, through a lens of diversity. Students and employees from different countries will have different mental health needs and approaches.
We also want to do more to protect trans students. One of the first requests when I joined the business was about putting pronouns in email signatures, and I’m proud to say we’re now at a point at which we can do that: from 22nd November, we’ll be rolling this out within Unite Students. It’s really powerful for people to take ownership of their pronouns, whether they’d like to share them or not, and will create a space of comfort for those that would like to come out and be themselves within the business.
What are some of your priorities over the coming months?
The main focus, of course, is to develop and complete the EDI and wellbeing strategy, and begin to implement it. I’d also like to develop my understanding of what students want in these areas, as well as starting to embed equality, diversity, inclusion and wellbeing into the culture of the business through a learning and development programme.
Social sustainability is hugely important for any organisation and through ‘Up to uS’ – our sustainability commitments – I’m working hard to ensure that this is front and centre of the strategy. Another important part of this is developing diversity leadership programmes within Unite, to support our aims of more equitable gender diversity in leadership by 2023 and greater minority representation in management.
This is important because it brings in under-represented groups, shows them that there’s space for them to achieve here, offers role modelling, and creates diversity of thought and higher productivity. There’s both a moral case and a business case: international management consultancy McKinsey have produced three reports showing the links between diversity and profitability, with the most recent – ‘Diversity wins: Why inclusion matters’ – being published last May.
What aspects of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion are you most passionate about from a personal perspective?
First and foremost, I’m passionate about understanding how great cultural strategies – which prioritise inclusive wellbeing – can positively impact on organisations and create diverse, equitable environments in which everyone can feel they belong. I also have a real passion for collaborative learning and sharing knowledge, both of which help me deconstruct my own unconscious biases.
Sam was a guest on our Accommodation Matters podcast episode on race and inclusion in Higher Education earlier this year – you can listen to the episode below: