Julie Dennis: A Diversity and Inclusion Specialist with the Aim of Building an Inclusive Culture
The Most Inspiring Business Women to Watch in 2022
D&I has received a lot of attention at work over the past two years. The effects of COVID made society’s disparities more apparent. We witnessed people who cared for others needing to occasionally distance themselves from the people they loved while juggling their employment and childcare. Additionally, we observed that workers of all ages and those from ethnic minorities, as well as those with impairments, were disproportionately affected by the epidemic. The impact of George Floyd’s passing was also felt throughout the UK, when many began to speak up and share their firsthand accounts of prejudice, they had personally experienced while residing there.
According to Julie Dennis, Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Acas, it is essential to give people the freedom to tell their truth, to be authentic, and to know that doing so won’t prevent them from reaching their own professional objectives. She thinks it’s a positive thing that the younger generation won’t put up with the difficulties her contemporaries encountered in the job.
In order to break down the hurdles that stop individuals from succeeding at work, Julie wants to inspire others and collaborate with UK companies. She asserts, “Be that ensuring they have the key policies in place to educate and remove discrimination in workplaces, through to working with their people to create real positive change. This also includes enabling businesses to understand their workforce from data through to greater employer voice.” For her, this is the real key to creating truly diverse workplaces across the UK.
Becoming a Promising D&I Leader
Julie began her career in the Fire & Rescue Service and has been a D&I practitioner for more than 20 years. She had experienced discrimination in the early 1990s when she lost her job after finding out she was pregnant and then battled to find work again as a single mom. She had also witnessed the workplace discrimination her close friends had to deal with, from racism to homophobia, and how they had to change to “fit in” with the company they worked for.
To climb back up the corporate ladder, Julie had to return to university, and it was then that she discovered the societal mechanisms that restrict people from realising their full potential while pursuing a BA (hons) in Women’s Studies. So, she decided she wanted a career in equal opportunity, and since then she has never looked back.
Working in Acas
Acas is a free-standing public organisation that gets funding from the government. It offers free, objective advice on employment rights, best practises and policies, and resolving disputes in the workplace to employers, employees, and their representatives.
Because Julie is a member of Acas’ senior leadership team, she is in charge of overseeing and giving strategic leadership on all D&I-related issues with the goal of fostering an inclusive culture that fosters participation and, ultimately, performance. This entails creating a plan, along with goals and benchmarks, to help Acas realise its overall strategy and diversity aims, as well as guaranteeing statutory and legal compliance.
Julie has made D&I a shared responsibility across the organisation as well as for the strategic and day-to-day management of Acas’s human resources and service delivery. This has involved developing and executing effective positive action programmes, conducting thorough HR diversity monitoring, increasing the rate of disclosure for sexual orientation, disability, and ethnicity, and providing a variety of D&I training. She shares, “This work also includes supporting several internal diversity staff networks and diversity champions, creating clear governance structures to enable greater employee voice.”
As a strategic leader, along with assisting UK firms in recovering from the effects of COVID 19, Julie also works with external stakeholders from across government and industry to influence the broader government agenda. She also supports employers in implementing inclusive and flexible workplace policies.
She uses the word “authentic” to describe herself. Speaking openly about her challenges, becoming the first member of her family to attend college, parenting her child on her own, and maintaining her own mental health demonstrate to others that she is capable of overcoming whatever obstacles she faces.
Julie is aware of the advantage of her role as Acas’ Head of Diversity and Inclusion, and she does not take for granted the opportunity she has to speak out against workplace inequality. She adds, “Bringing your whole self to work is crucial both for the employee, their fellow employees, and therefore the employer as well. It can also mean that your people will be more likely to open up about their experiences, and it can also mean you can empower others.”
Overcoming Professional Challenges
“D&I is all about challenges, as you are often dealing with individuals who may be in conflict because of their differences, be that due to their identity, i.e., gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, etc., or due to their beliefs or personal views.”
Over the years, Julie has worked with top executives with whom she knows she will need to have a difficult talk or persuade them to choose a different course of action from the one they are suggesting. She says, “We all have individual lived experiences, which can result in us sometimes perceiving certain actions of others in a specific way. Even if the intention of the other person was not to cause upset.”
Finding common ground first, understanding their viewpoint, and outlining why they would choose a different method are the keys, according to Julie. She thinks that explaining the advantages to them, their team, and their business is a fantastic way to overcome obstacles since, occasionally, one must deal with leaders who just cannot understand a problem or policy choice through the lens of D&I.
Boundaries between Professional and Personal Life
As Julie’s mental health deteriorated in 2019, she looked for expert assistance. After receiving a PTSD diagnosis, she began CBT treatments, which helped her refocus and confront some of the ghosts from her past that she had previously kept hidden.
When she came back to work, she asked her boss if she could go to a 4-day compressed workweek so she could achieve a better work-life balance. Thankfully, they agreed. Due to the time, she was able to spend with her grandkids, Julie was able to refocus and stay motivated.
Julie also has an amazing supportive partner, who understands the pressure she may sometimes face at work, and she shares, “He is always there when I need to unload after a busy day.”
In order to inspire her staff and herself, Julie created attainable goals with precise metrics so they could see the positive results of their work. In addition, she provides a safe environment for them to express themselves when they are dealing with pressure or difficulties and collaborates with them to discover answers. She mentions, “Working collaboratively across other teams in Acas also motivates us as a team, as through that you can see real progress and buy-in from others.”
Recognition as a D&I Expert
In Julie’s opinion, the greatest accolade for her is watching talent develop. Her responsibility includes helping members of underrepresented groups grow. She has accomplished this in a number of ways, including by creating and fostering staff networks inside organisations and by directing positive action initiatives that enable employees to see their own potential.
She asserts, “When you have spotted that raw, untapped talent, give them the tools and opportunities to develop. That is the best part of my job. And when you see that person fly and, on occasions, excel above you in the organisational structure, that’s the best recognition.”
Success as a D&I Leader
Everyone’s definition of success is unique, whether it be for a person, a team, or an organisation. When Julie considers what success in D&I looks like, she starts by recognising how D&I can be a crucial tool for every firm, regardless of its size, sector, or stage of development. If your company isn’t already benefiting from everything that diverse and inclusive workplaces have to offer, there are some actions you can take to help improve it or compare it to what you’re already doing. She suggested that the first step would be to offer solid, data-based proof of the need for change. She states, “Make sure you engage stakeholders in gathering and owning that data to ensure you achieve ownership across your business.”
It’s crucial to appeal to both the “head people” and the “heart people,” since the commercial case for D&I might not be enough on its own. She suggests finding a vocabulary and tone for discussing D&I that aligns with the organization’s story and making sure to involve those outside of HR in developing the proper messaging. Showing how D&I supports and is linked with other organisational initiatives, such as values, corporate strategy, and business development, is crucial in her opinion.
Creating a More Inclusive Workspace in the Future
Julie is really happy to work for Acas, especially after witnessing firsthand the outstanding job that all of the company’s employees accomplished during the pandemic to help UK businesses overcome the difficulties brought on by COVID.
Julie’s personal objective is to make sure that establishing inclusive and fair workplaces will be at the core of what Acas does. The company’s strategy lists accepting differences, enhancing inclusion, and fostering fairness as one of its key ambitions. She said that all customers would be able to use the company’s services. It will advocate for inclusion and diversity in British workplaces, and it will also represent the variety and ideals of contemporary Britain.