Episode 15: How to Build a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace with Woodie's

Cathal Divilly
In the latest episode of The Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by David Nally, Head of HR at Woodie's. A Best Workplace in Ireland this year for the seventh year running, as well as a Best Workplace for Women, Woodie’s have learned how to cultivate a great workplace culture, and David speaks into specifically how they have built a diverse yet also inclusive workforce. He touches on the importance of being reflective of modern Ireland especially in an industry such as retail, and how every organisation can incorporate this from the top down. 


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David Nally

Head of HR


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Cathal Divilly

Great Place to Work Ireland



Cathal Divilly: Welcome, Red Cube listeners, delighted to welcome you all to our latest episode of The Red Cube Podcast and delighted to introduce our guest today, the head of HR, David Nally from Woodie’s. David you're very welcome.  

David Nally: Thanks a million, great to be here. 

Cathal Divilly: How's life, David? 

David Nally: Yeah, it's good. It's busy. Even though the year is heading to a close, it still feels like there's lots to be done. 

Cathal Divilly: There's always lots to be done – I was going to say fortunately or unfortunately, not sure, but there's always lots to be done. David, for our listeners, you might take them through your career history, your role and up to your role at the moment. 

David Nally: Yeah, perfect. So as you mentioned, I'm Head of HR here at Woodie’s. I initially joined the business back in 2015 as internal communications manager. So this is my 6th role within the business in those couple of years. I currently lead the team that supports our 1500 colleagues and managers from recruitment through to retirement. Prior to this role I was previously HR Manager at Woodie’s and spent a number of years prior to that as Head of Engagement leading the team that looked after L&D, Internal Comms and Employee Experience. Previously to Woodie’s my background's slightly different. So it's retail operations, so I led the central operations team at Three Ireland and previous to that I was an area manager and a store manager. 

Cathal Divilly: So David, interesting there, movement from retail operations into HR, people and culture, what was your thinking there? 

David Nally: It was initially chance and fate I guess lined up! So the role at Woodie’s became available, I went for it, and then having had the foot in the door to internal communications I decided to go back to college and study in the evenings and carve out a career path which Woodie's has been very supportive of. 

Cathal Divilly: Very good, David. And I know you said six roles since you joined in 2015. So we know from our work with Woodies, right – and Woodies have been on the Great Place To Work program now for a number of years – when it comes to people and culture, there is so much we could talk about, right? We see Woodie’s as an organisation that's always listening to their people, always improving. But for today David, I think we'll focus in on the area of diversity and inclusion if that's OK. So from Woodie's point of view, diversity and inclusion, David. What's the thinking from a Woodie's point of view? What's the approach? 

David Nally: We've been focused on it for a number of years now, and so I'd say, we really got serious about D&I back in 2018. I suppose up to that point our focus was on the general culture and the general colleague experience of what it was like to work for the business. Once we started to get into a space where we were happy on that journey, then we started to look at the demographic of the workforce and where we needed to improve. So I would say we're hugely supportive of the D&I agenda from the top down. We invest in it both in terms of time resource and financial resource and we have some clearly set out goals that we're constantly reviewing how we're stacking up against that.  

So D&I is quite important for us. We've kind of pulled it back to we need to be representative of modern Ireland and our workforce needs to be representative of modern Ireland so that we’re resonating with the customer base. 

Cathal Divilly: Brilliant David, I like that positioning, representative of modern Ireland. And how do things look currently then in terms of Woodie’s, in terms of demographics and things like that? 

David Nally: Yeah, we've made really good strides in some areas, so I think we're quite similar to some other businesses in terms of the challenges that we're facing around representation of different groups. But if I look at us as the business, we're gender balanced at a company level. Now that depends on the day you pull it; sometimes we're male-led, sometimes we’re female-led but broadly over the last twelve months we’re certainly gender balanced at a company level, we’re gender balanced at the leadership team level and at two other levels within our structure. So there's a bit of work to be done on gender representation within two levels of our structure. But as a whole, we're pretty much there. 

We're representative of national demographics on ethnicity, on age, on sexual orientation and then there's a bit of work to be done on I guess less traditional religions within Ireland and having those colleagues represented in our workforce. And then also one of the big things I'm picking up when I'm chatting to anyone in the HR community is disability representation. So we’ve started to look at how we get better at that. We have done well. We have twice as many disabled colleagues working for us today as we did back in 2019, but it's still not tallying with the census data.  

There's some challenges that we've identified there. We track our diversity data, we encourage our people to fulfill it. And what we've noticed is, there’s a disproportionate amount of our workforce that decide not to fill in the disability status. So that tells us we probably have a higher amount of people, whether it's a hidden or a visible disability, that just don’t want to tell us about it, and we need to do a bit of work on that piece. But then equally I think we need to find the right partnership model so that we're bringing people in that do come from a disability background and that they're supported the right way as they enter our workforce. 

Cathal Divilly: So strong data, data-led David, I mean we can see through the diversity and inclusion area within the Great Place To Work survey how strong you are in this area. So could you give us a sense David of I suppose some of the “what”, some of the specific things that you've done or tried within Woodie’s in terms of diversity and inclusion? 

David Nally: Taking a step back, we’ve understood where we are as a business and we did that in 2018. Then we looked outside of ourselves to see what does society look like, and that's the goal, ultimately, to be representative of society and to be representative of the demographics of modern Ireland. And then having those few pieces of insight, we started to look at how do we get there and how do we take a measured approach? You can't eat the elephant all at once, it has to be bite-sized chunks.  

So the first thing we did was to educate the business. So from a leadership team level through to a senior management level and right across the business, why we wanted to focus on this area. We had to refine our messaging, our storytelling … When you start to tell 1500 people that you want to become more diverse, you start to “other” people, so people think when you're talking about diversity, "they’re obviously not talking about white males, they’re not talking about straight males” …  Whatever the view is on that. And so we had to be clear, we want to be representative of the population in general, and that includes people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. 

And then once we set the scene on that we said how do we practically make this happen? So we don't want to be a business that just talks about diversity and inclusion, we want to be a business that actually makes it happen. So the first thing we did was to say, do we have the policies and the procedures and the structures and benefits in place that would facilitate this? So things like do we have gender recognition or gender identity policies and we didn't. So the first time we celebrated Pride we said this is a celebration of pride obviously, we took a colleague-led approach on it. But then practically we used that as an opportunity to introduce different D&I Policies.  

And then once you we had the basics and the foundations in place, then we said we need to start investing in this, we need to start doing a meaningful approach to it. And for that, we then invested in conscious inclusion training for every people leader within the business, and we rolled out E-learnings for our colleagues across the businesses on D&I and what it means and what it means for our colleagues on the customer facing front. 

And then as you’ve alluded to, we started to look at data. So we started to slice our people data with a D&I slant on it. So we started to look at things like our Great Place To Work survey and adding measurements around D and I and how engaged and connected people feel with the organisation, regardless of what walk of life they're coming from. And then that data analysis, looking across the employee life cycle, led us to invest in how we recruit people into the business.  

So we completely swapped our recruitment model in 2020. Historically it was very light touch from a HR perspective. Our role in recruiting people into the business was to post job adverts on job boards and to send the CV's unscreened to our 35 store managers around the country and to our managers in the office and then step back essentially and let them manage the selection process. In 2020 we decided that we needed to change for a number of reasons. So firstly the scale of the business, the volume of recruitment that was happening, it was a draw on the resources of our management population. So we needed to ease that pressure first of all, particularly throughout COVID when our business was extremely busy. 

But equally we saw opportunities on how do we remove the potential for bias within the process. With the best will in the world, we’re all human, no matter how well we're trained or what policies we have in place, there's potential for bias to creep in. So there’s a responsibility on businesses to put the structures and investments in place to offset that and to level the playing field for as many people as possible. So we centralised recruitment into the HR team, we restructured the team, we brought talent acquisition in-house essentially. We introduced artificial intelligence screening, so all first-round interviews for all entry-level colleague roles into our business are now completed by an AI recruitment tool called Sapia. And what Sapia does is it ignores all your personal factors around your background, who you love, where you came from, what the colour of your skin is, and it looks at the answers that you're giving and it also gives you an interview, it guarantees everyone an interview once they hit apply. It looks at your questions and it links them back to our behavioural values, our brand values and our competency framework. And it’s looking to see are you the right fit for this business, and are you able to do the role? And that’s all it’s interested in. And that's also interesting. And then it gives you feedback as well, so every candidate that applies to the store colleague roles gets a two- or three-page interview feedback pack on how their answers stacked up and where their opportunities for improvement are. 

For more senior roles we introduced psychometric profiling and job match profiling. What that does is, once you introduce a human into the process to look at the selection criteria, it gives a measurable set of results, so you're able to look at every candidate in the pool and how they've scored in the interview process, or how they've scored in the job match process. And that gives you an ability to question if those topscoring candidates aren’t making it through the process, what's changing it?  

Also the tool is able to identify with pretty much 99 percent accuracy, the make-up of our applicant pool. So we're able to track through the recruitment funnel the make-up of our applicant pool – who the system recommends that we should consider hiring for the job, and who we ultimately hire when the human recruiters and hiring managers step in. So if there's any disparity we're able to question that in real time, we're able to challenge, we're able to understand if it's right, and equally, we're able to understand if we think there's an issue that needs to be dealt with. 

Cathal Divilly: Wow, David, there's so much in that and maybe just to pick into a couple of those areas. So the Sapia tool, in terms of it being able to give you numbers and stats around the applicant pools from the different diversities. Could you give us an example in terms of data coming back where maybe you wanted more applicants from that particular pool and kind of how you reacted to that information? 

David Nally: Yeah, I suppose in the early days, it was interesting to see the make-up of people that were applying to the business because we’d never had insight of that. And then in 2021, we looked and said how do we slightly change this? There was nothing majorly wrong with the applicant pool, but it just wasn't striking the right balance when we looked at the census data. 

So one of the things we did then was to work with the marketing and digital team and very much update the employer brand, so to make it more representative of the type of applicants that we wanted to see. So to have an employer brand imagery set that was gender diverse, ethnically diverse and resonated with the type of applicants that we wanted to see more of. 

And then we worked very much with our partners, the likes of Indeed, with our external recruitment partners, but also with our own internal digital team on how we place that employer brand out into the market. We did things like geo-targeted campaigns, employer geofencing. So we targeted very specific areas with the imagery and with the job adverts. As well we invested in an augmented writing tool called Textio and we rewrote all job adverts to strip out any language that was unconsciously biased, that was swaying certain types of applicants to apply for the job and not others. 

Cathal Divilly: Well, David, that's really interesting. One of the things we saw as well was this practice around, was it aliens and astronauts it was called? 

David Nally: Yes. So that was part of the setting the scene for D&I at Woodie’s. So if I remember right it was actually 2018-2019 at our annual management conference – so we bring about 120 of our people leaders away at the start of the year to advise them on the strategy, help them understand what each of the functions within the business have as priorities for the year ahead. And there's obviously a bit of networking and fun in there. And with that networking fun piece and then linking it back to the HR strategy at the time we worked with a company called Business Games and they created an engagement activity for us called Aliens and Astronauts. 

So some of the participants were dressed up as aliens, some were dressed up as astronauts. There were rules around what you could and couldn't ask and how you would identify people's backgrounds or their cultural nuances or things that might offend them if you weren’t aware of them, so how you would tease all of that out without explicitly being able to ask a direct question around what's your religion, what’s your preferences, or whatever it was. And it helped people understand then that there's things that we do, and that we may never think of, that cause offense to other people, with the best intention. And it taught people how to be mindful of those and how to think about those different nuances of life and how you might go about understanding if you were doing something that could cause offense without the need to actually, you know, engage or ask somebody and put them in an uncomfortable position. 

Cathal Divilly: So the use of almost gamification David, well live gamification if you like, just to kind of explore the topic and educate leaders. 

David Nally: Exactly, in a fun way. So what I found as part of our storytelling is early on we didn't get it right. So when you're standing in front of a group of people, whatever the business or whatever the environment is, and you're saying things like we need to focus on unconscious bias training … what you're essentially saying is we think you're biased! And while it's in all of us, you have to think about how that resonates. So if you say we're doing unconscious training, that's because we think you need to improve in it. If you flip that and start talking about conscious inclusion, it's a very different conversation that you're having with people. You’re saying, we want everybody to feel included. And then you look at how do you introduce the ways of doing that, so a gamification of business games is a really safe way of helping people understand things they could be doing that could be causing offense to other people. 

Cathal Divilly: Sometimes David, when we talk about the area we always use the language of diversity and inclusion, right, we put them together. But what we can see is in the work we do that the organisation might be diverse but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're doing inclusion well. What's your thoughts on that or what's Woodie’s approach around ensuring we're diverse but also that we're doing inclusion well? 

David Nally: Yeah, it's a really good point, Cathal. It's one of the things that drove us to look at the people data and to look at how different colleagues were feeling about the business, whether that's through the employee engagement survey or whether that’s through the recruitment process, or through the types of cohorts that are leading the business. And I guess our first point in that was to layer on diversity data as an option onto the Great Place To Work survey. So we were able to very quickly and carefully identify that, regardless of personal backgrounds, people tend to feel the same about their experience in the business. So we looked inwards – are we comfortable that across the employee life cycle and across different walks of life, that people are getting the same positive experience of the business?  

And then we started to look at that more closely as we become more diverse. So when we flipped the recruitment process we jumped leaps and bounds in terms of the diversity of our workforce very quickly. So one thing that we supposed was there, potentially unconsciously in the minds of people, are we gonna flip the culture of the business, are we gonna fundamentally change the fabric of what Woodie’s is if we become drastically more diverse than we were at that point in time. And from a HR perspective, we were looking going, if we introduce all this diversity very quickly, is that going to cause tensions in the workforce, that we maybe didn't have with a less diverse workforce. And that became really central to us looking at that those employee experience scores and the attrition rate. Thankfully it's been consistent for the last few years – the more diverse we've become, we've also become slightly more inclusive in those measurements that we have. like humanity. So thankfully it’s not been an issue but it was at the front of mind for a period of time. 

Cathal Divilly: At the very start of the chat, David, you referenced the customer – give me a sense of how you see the linkages between the great work you're doing around D&I and then how that feeds into the customer for Woodie’s. 

David Nally: Yeah. So you have to look at it holistically. I guess the danger on a HR team is that you can sometimes feel that you're very inward looking. So you're looking at the people that you're recruiting into the business and what their experience is when they're in the business. One of the things that I really like about Woodie’s is the focus that we put on customer, whether that's internal or external. I guess the slant that we put on it is whatever your role is within the business, ultimately you’re in a customer serving role – and that could be that you’re one or two steps from the frontline customer but the things you do still have an impact.  

From a D&I perspective we've been very conscious; one of the business cases for D&I at Woodies has been, we need to represent the customer base. So we need to implement a diversity strategy that makes sure that our workforce reflects the diversity of our customer base, creates a more relatable, welcoming environment for our customers and then that impacts loyalty and satisfaction. But also it has a couple of other areas that relate to the customer.  

So you look at the types of products and services that we provide. So if you don't understand the needs of the customer base by having a team in place that can resonate with them, then you're missing a trick. So by having employees with varied backgrounds and experiences, we can better tailor our products, the services, our marketing strategies, to cater to a wider range of customer preferences. 

And then equally in terms of instore customer experience – customers are more likely to feel valued, to feel understood, when they see a diverse group of employees that reflect them in our workforce. So all the indications are that leads to a stronger customer loyalty, positive word of mouth, and benefits us in the long run. And then equally, you have diversity of thought. So retail is known for being a rapidly changing business, particularly our business – we're influenced by seasonal trends, by market shifts by external shocks to the economy, consumer behaviours change, and our business is no different. So our diversity strategy needs to be flexible and adaptable, and the best way to be flexible and adaptable and innovative is to have diversity of thought within the workforce. 

Cathal Divilly: David, I'm conscious that many of the listeners sometimes use the podcast as a, you know, a topic that they want to begin or they want to start. So there’ll be listeners that’ll be hearing you today, right. And they'll be thinking, OK, Woodie's are a good bit down the road on their journey in terms of D&I, more to be done but a good bit down the road. Any advice, David just for those listeners that are saying alright, we're going to look at D&I, we're really going to take it seriously. Give us a sense as to how they could start and the sorts of things they need to be thinking about. 

David Nally: I suppose from my own experience one of the things that when I engage with people outside of our business, one of the perceptions is that we've a massively resourced HR function and that it's easy for us to do these types of initiatives or to put these types of strategies in place because of the scale of our business. For context, we have eight people that serve our entire workforce of 1500 colleagues from recruitment through to retirement. So we're not a HR team of 50 or 100 people. So it is possible to achieve the stuff we’ve done on D&I and engagement with a relatively small HR function. 

Now, that function works because we have the support of the business. So we tend to draw in experts from other areas of the business, we tend to draw in resources from time to time, where we need a bit of help with landing bigger initiatives. But the one thing we do consistently, is we look at how do we make this as simple as possible, so don't overengineer our approach. We’ll look at what's important, whether it’s to the customer base or to the colleague base. And we understand that first of all and then we understand what's the most simple and most effective way to implement it. 

And then one thing that we always do is we look at how we do it authentically. So if you look at things like Pride, you won't see Woodie’s doing much externally around Pride and that's very conscious. Because we've said actually our colleagues have lead us in the direction on this and the direction is it needs to feel internal, it needs to feel authentic and it needs to be feel meaningful. So actually when we celebrate pride, we do a big campaign internally, we do re-education around policies and procedures, we may launch new benefits, we may encourage people to share their personal stories within the business. But when you see us talking about Pride on LinkedIn, we do one post, and we don't even mention Gay Pride; we actually say "we're proud of the fact that we’re a diverse business and that we’re an inclusive business”.  

And that simplicity, we point it back to data. We keep it very factual, we point back to our Great Place To Work dataset and how our colleagues score on the D&I questions. So I guess for me to answer that question, it doesn’t have to be big, it doesn’t have to be grandiose, leep it simple and make it effective, make sure that it's meaningful and it’s authentic. It’s easy to update for example with Pride to update the brand colours on LinkedIn and do nothing else but a token gesture … That doesn't resonate with our colleagues and they would see through it very quickly if we tried to do that so. 

Cathal Divilly: And we can certainly vouch from a Great Place To Work point of view David, Woodie’s has a very good listening ear. So the various things that you work on, the listening ear is strong, right? And that allows you to pivot and change and adapt and improve and all of that, we can see that. David, thank you for giving us an inside look into Woodies and this really important area of D&I, David, thank you for your partnership and we appreciate you joining us. 

David Nally: Thanks a million, thanks for the opportunity.