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Focus On: HR Specialists – Satya Kartara, Director of Diversity at Royal Mail


By Annie Hayes, HRZone Editor

When Royal Mail started to lose a million pounds a day and bullying issues escalated beyond control, Chairman Allan Leighton recognised that a change programme was the only way to turn failing fortunes around; Satya Kartara as Director of Diversity for the organisation put diversity management at the heart of the renewal strategy.

Career history

Kartara’s first degree was in education. Her ambition was to be a teacher and following graduation she started her training. She soon came to realize, however, that teaching wasn’t for her.

Undeterred by this early career blow she set about using the competencies she had gained.

“I started working with adults – setting up training opportunities to improve access to education. The level of disadvantage really hit me but I knew I had to do something to help the people I was working with. I loved the job.”

She became one of the founding members of the ‘Oxford women’s training scheme’ a programme designed to assist women returners get back into the workplace.

Helping disadvantaged groups to improve their deal in the workplace was the driving force behind Kartara’s decision to head back to University. She completed a Masters degree in Politics and Organisational Change and landed a job as a best-value adviser at Oxford City Council. This was to be the springboard to a job in diversity management.

By 1999, Kartara decided she needed to broaden her horizons and do a stint in the private sector. The Ford motor company was at the time ‘having many difficulties in the area of diversity’.

“Ford was one of the first companies to have an equal opportunities policy. It failed, however, to have the desired impact on what was going on at its plants. I was made Diversity Manager and my remit was to improve employee involvement and engagement. The job was fantastic but it just didn’t fit in with my lifestyle I have children but I was expected to work long-hours and do a lot of travelling.”

Putting her work/life balance first, Kartara looked for a more suitable opening and was soon offered a broader role working for British Home Stores (BHS) as their Change Director. She joined the business just as entrepreneur Philip Green stepped in following his take-over bid.

“BHS was on the verge of going out of business. Green came in and literally turned the business around.”

Kartara worked tirelessly putting in place the change process and when the programme was complete Chairman Allan Leighton asked Kartara to move to Royal Mail to manage the ‘Great place to work programme’.

Business turnaround at Royal Mail

Royal Mail had hit a brick wall. The business was losing money fast and claims of bullying and harassment were clouding progress. Leighton referred to the issues as a ‘blight’ and blamed the macho culture on demobbing after the Second World War, when military personnel drifted into the Post office. It was clear to him a company-wide culture change was needed.

Royal Mail is the largest single employer in the UK with 200,000 staff. As Director of Diversity, Kartara is tasked with stamping out bullying, fostering a culture of diversity and improving respect between colleagues.

Central to the ‘culture’ renewal strategy is a four-point plan:

  • Raising awareness of issues

  • Taking complaints seriously

  • Resolving complaints

  • Improving the culture

The ‘Great place to work’ programme helps to stamp out bullying and change the culture of the organisation – the tenet is that if people enjoy their working environment, then they will help the business get everything else right.

“Nineteen per cent of the workforce are women. The business is quite macho and male and clearly we have quite a lot of work to do to get the balance right. We do, however, have a fabulous platform to work from with our ethnic minorities’ representation of which there are 11% across the group. They tend to be at the front-end of the business, however, and we are trying to progress them further into the business into more senior roles.”

The key bullying issue has been a huge obstacle for Royal Mail and Kartara and her team have adopted a zero-tolerance approach putting awareness and complaints channels in place.

“When I arrived there was very little awareness of the extent of the problem. There has always been lots of banter in the front-end mail centres and delivery offices and of course there is merit in having fun in the workplace but the way people treat each other can be damaging,” says Kartara.

The diversity team started by getting a better understanding of what was going on. A monthly survey tests workers’ perceptions of the day-to-day issues.

“It’s a great measure of culture and raises awareness with senior people about the extent of the issues. For any change to occur people need to recognise a problem exists,” she admits.

A free helpline is now in place to support staff with complaints.

“We don’t want people to suffer in silence. The helpline is open seven days a week, 365 days of the year. It has been received very well. We get around 300 calls a month and there has been a slight increase in the numbers of complaints. We’re hoping they will go down, however, as more people are satisfied with the way things are being dealt with.”

Why diversity?

Reflecting on why she finds diversity management so rewarding, Kartara tells me: “I love the challenge of changing behaviours.”

Deep-seated cultures are most certainly not easy to alter and as for the rewards when a change programme is successful, Kartara says: “I’ve had emails from members of staff who say their lives have been transformed through what we’ve done with raising awareness of bullying, putting in place the call centre and channelling complaints appropriately.”

Why not diversity?

Kartara does admit, however, that getting from A to B is a tough challenge.

“You are constantly battling. Every decision we make goes towards transforming our culture.”

The fruits of success can also be slow to come as the yardsticks are hard to measure.

Diversity issues are also hugely influenced by changes in the external world. Kartara is particularly fearful of the American ways that are creeping into British corporate life.

“As a country we seem to be taking on the American work ethos but we’ve got to remember we are different, with different demographics and values. So actually if we’re going to be successful as a nation we need to show flexibility towards staff and the way we work.”

Routes in

Kartara side-stepped into diversity by using key skills she had gained in the early years as a trainee teacher. She advises would-be diversity managers to get a grounding in HR, however, together with some solid experience of how businesses work.

“You almost need to be an all-rounder. You have to understand how businesses and organisations work.”

Katara adds that diversity is not an issue that will disappear with time: “There may be more opportunities to specialise in diversity in the future as more and more businesses recognise it’s a business critical issue. In a climate of high employment, we need to look more widely for talent and as our customers become increasingly diverse we need workforces to match that, understand the needs and values of a variety of cultures.”

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One Response

  1. It’s great to see progress being made
    I wish Satya all the best and hope that she will really be able to make all the changes she hopes for. I left the Royal Mail in 2000 after 12 years working as a senior manager. It was only after I left that I came to realise how severe the bullying culture was within the business. It pervades every encounter and every communication within Royal Mail at every level. Leadership is threat centred and with the pressure to reduce costs and increase profit on you all the times there is an ever present risk of redundancy. This results in lack of accountability and a blame culture.
    Satya’s role is absolutely enormous – it crosses everything that goes on within the business. Most people (like I used to be) are so used to this way of working that they think it is normal. It will be extremely difficult to change.
    I’m so happy to be out of that bullying environment!!
    Linda Verby

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