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Andrew Dodsworth

Airbus UK

Head of Employee Relations

Read more about Andrew Dodsworth

Case study: diversity and dignity at Airbus


Airbus manufactures commercial aeroplanes and operates from sites across Europe; aircraft wings are manufactured in the UK. The organisation is complex, incorporating transnational reporting lines. The company is two years into an ongoing initiative with UK HR and employment law firm Vista to deliver a Dignity at Work and Diversity programme that is proving successful amongst its UK staff.

The challenge

Airbus is a demanding organisation where ‘production is king’, so any Dignity at Work programme was going to require justification: it’s always difficult to get people to take time out of the business when the correlation with the bottom line isn’t obvious. There was the inevitable question: “Why bother with a Dignity at Work programme?” Things were not ostensibly ‘broken’, so the question arose: ‘why fix it?’

But in reality, how could we be sure that things don’t need fixing? Dignity at work is always going to be a challenge in a workforce the size of a small town because of the mixture of people and their own different value sets.

Rather than a programme of remedial action, our approach allowed us to take a more positive and proactive approach. It recognised that dignity and diversity issues are in the work place, the media and beyond – and was an opportunity to take control of those messages.

The commitment

The challenge was to deliver a consistent message, enabling Airbus’s values to resonate across the organisation with its diverse working environments. A demonstrable commitment from the organisation was essential. In developing our approach, our guiding principles were those of credibility, commitment, alignment and perspective.

This commitment was tested by reflecting on the potential implications of starting the diversity and dignity conversation with the workforce. A short- term effect might be to increase the visibility of ‘issues’ as expectations were communicated. If we started something, we needed the commitment to follow it through. So we had an open and honest conversation with the leadership team about dealing meaningfully with employee relations issues as they arise.

The strategy

To ensure stakeholder support, pilot sessions were delivered to a cross section of the organisation – including the trade unions. The views of those who were more sceptical about the programme were important. These sessions provided the opportunity to identify how to get it right, rather than receive endorsement – although crucially we had support from a very senior level to help convince management teams to buy into the idea.

The next important part of the strategy was the ‘top-down approach’. The aim was to be in a position to manage the managers’ performance on dealing with issues. This in turn quickly demonstrated to the attendees that the programme would help them to do their job as part of their development, and enhanced everybody’s commitment to the message.

The tactics

We had previously used a drama sequence approach with success in other initiatives, so we knew that people would participate because their colleagues had recommended it. The drama sequences created a realistic environment for practical learning and development: scenarios needed to be recognisable, so the video clips and examples were chosen carefully to meet the needs of the different audiences – both office and production environments. The key was to trigger legitimate disagreements – rather than obvious dos and don’ts. The debate then became about how an Airbus manager should act in a variety of challenging situations.

The delivery

The programme was delivered in three ways as part of the top-down approach: through leadership, line management, and employee briefings. The two-hour leadership sessions gave senior leaders a preview of the materials that their team would experience. The pitch and duration were important in obtaining their support, which in turn led to them releasing their teams to attend the programme.

The four-hour line management sessions comprised mixed sub-culture groups. Key themes here were positive creation and enforcement of the right environment by having the confidence to act early and informally.

Finally, the employee briefings were shorter and more directive. They explained the standard of behaviour expected of everybody within the organisation and provided the momentum for line managers to tackle issues. They also provided guidance on what to do if an employee had concerns.

The results

I strongly believe that the programme has established a standard amongst managers about what is and isn’t acceptable. Managers say they now feel more confident about tackling some of the difficult situations and conversations, and they also recognise the importance of doing this early on, before situations escalate.

We’ve openly recognised that there are behaviours that exist in the company (as in any community) that are unacceptable. We know we can’t erase them but we have demonstrated a commitment to tackling difficult situations and improving the working environment for all employees.

Some reflections

The feedback obtained included 97% of delegates saying they would be able to put what was learnt into practice. Over 93% viewed the drama sequences as very helpful towards achieving their learning objectives.

Reflecting on the programme, the best advice I can give is to get the right pitch; which means having a message that people can buy into. If the programme does not develop a momentum of its own – stop and take stock. It’s about a positive message, capturing that message and creating a context in which it can resonate in day-to-day situations. The HR conversation is part of the business conversation. In short, we want people to keep talking about ‘banana’ issues: those issues that threaten to cause a serious slip-up.

What’s next?

We are working with Vista on the next stage that will reach every employee across the business, and we will keep this programme rolling on an ongoing basis to ensure that all new managers receive the same training as the first cohort. We are confident that we will deliver a clear message about acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, and ensure that our values remain front-of-mind for everyone.

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Andrew Dodsworth

Head of Employee Relations

Read more from Andrew Dodsworth

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