Building trust through inclusion with Marks & Spencer

Diversity and inclusion should be embedded in a company’s core values and implemented in everything from the recruitment process to marketing.

Here, we speak with Cleo Thompson, group head of diversity and inclusion at Marks & Spencer about the importance of inclusion in building trust with colleagues, customers and suppliers.

Cleo Thompson

How will your background influence your work at Marks & Spencer (M&S)?

I’ve worked in the fields of inclusion and diversity (I&D) for nearly 20 years and I joined M&S in 2020 to create and lead on an approach to I&D which includes our 70,000+ colleagues, our millions of customers and the communities in which our stores are located. This wrap around approach means that my team and I work to apply an inclusive lens to everything that we make, sell and do here at M&S: it’s an amazing job!  

On a personal level, I am a long serving Mental Health First Aider, a trained Dementia Friend, an executive coach and have lived and worked in Australia, Singapore, the USA, Canada and Ireland as well as the UK – so I try to bring a truly global awareness of I&D to my work. 

I have recently been appointed as the UK Government Disability & Access Ambassador for the Retail Industry, which is a huge honour and one which I take extremely seriously.

I am determined to do everything that I can to work to make retail a more inclusive and accessible space for everyone, whatever their level or type of disability.

As a company, why does inclusion and diversity matter to Marks & Spencer?

We aim to be an inclusive organisation our colleagues, customers and suppliers will trust and with whom they will want to do business.  As an iconic retailer, a household name not only in Britain but all over the world, I believe that we have a duty to lead by example and to always strive to be inclusive whilst we’re delivering our renowned customer service.  M&S has been famous for a long time for taking great care of our people and our vision is to keep that legacy alive and ensure that everyone feels that they belong here and are respected and valued. From a business point of view, we know that diversity of thought drives innovation and that inclusive companies are eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes: So, I&D just makes sense, however you look at it. 

M&S was one of the initial signatories to the 2019 Valuable 500 pledge to make disability a key part of its I&D strategy and we are a Level 2 Disability Confident Employer, working towards achieving Level 3.  Our charity partners through our Sparks programme, where customers can choose a charity to whom we make a donation every time they shop include Scope, Guide Dogs, Mind, Dementia UK and the British Heart Foundation – as well as others with whom we partner as part of our support for other aspects of the I&D agenda (including The Black Curriculum, the Albert Kennedy Trust, the Royal British Legion and Macmillan Cancer Support). 

M&S Nothing Neutral About It campaign

How has Marks & Spencer put inclusion and diversity on the agenda in the past through products, marketing and in stores?

We’re always exploring new ways of building I&D into our product ranges, from featuring Halal and kosher ranges in our food halls and celebrating a wide range of different cultural holidays throughout the year (Lunar New Year, Passover, Eid and many others) to creating bras suitable for mastectomy patients and designing our adaptive childrenswear ranges to make life easier for children with disabilities.  We’ve recently won praise for our new inclusive lingerie range and campaign, “Nothing Neutral About It” which features inclusive product colours suitable for every skin tone and stars a diverse range of models.  Much of the work of this campaign was done in consultation with our colleague networks, who are also providing advice and guidance on other forthcoming inclusive product ranges – watch this space!

We were the first retailer to introduce the Sunflower lanyards, indicating non-visible disabilities and, in another first, we’ve recently brought in mandatory training on how to welcome and support customers and their assistance dogs, which has been rolled out across our stores network.  We also offer quiet shopping hours in some stores, where the lights are dimmed, the background music is muted and tannoy announcements are turned off, to offer a more peaceful experience to people who can experience sensory overload in a busy, noisy and over stimulating store environment. 

What policies and strategies does the company currently have in place to ensure it is promoting inclusion and diversity? 

We have seven colleague I&D networks to provide advice, guidance and peer support to everyone at M&S.  They are an integral part of life in the company and we encourage everyone to join, either as a member of the community or as an Ally.

Our new I&D strategy has the inclusive colleague and customer experience at its heart and all of our inclusive policies and guides are published with input from the networks.

Early in 2021, we published a new guide on Ramadan and Eid and this was incredibly well received by our Muslim colleagues, as well as by those who work alongside them and who wanted to know how to best provide support those fasting during Ramadan and then celebrating Eid.  And our wellbeing guides provide lots of support and education on topics such as neuro-diversity, mental health, vision and audio impairment, non-visible disabilities and so much more. We know there’s so much more we can do and we’re always open to receiving advice and suggestions as to what people would find helpful and really make a difference. 

What future plans does the company have to create an inclusive environment and ensure campaigns reflect people in society? 

I think some of the campaigns that we’ve launched in recent months reflect that we are completely committed to creating that inclusive environment at M&S and that we’ll always strive to be reflective of our customers and their communities. We recently welcomed our second cohort of new colleagues through the Kickstart campaign; 8% of those who applied self-declared a disability and all of them were hired and have been doing really well in our stores.

We have a large number of colleagues with disabilities who work in a wide range of roles in our stores and distribution centres, including a group of hearing impaired employees who joined us in our Castle Donington site a number of years ago through our partnership with the Prince’s Trust. We want to continue to do more to attract and retain more colleagues who want to be part of the M&S family.  

In what ways does Marks & Spencer ensure their employment strategies are welcoming and inclusive of the disabled community? 

As one of Britain’s major employers, this is a key focus for us and one where we always try to do as much as we can when it comes to the phrase “reasonable adjustments”.  We are clear about what this could mean and how it can work in all of our recruitment materials and we build accessibility in to everything that we do, including employing an accessibility team to apply that lens to our stores, offices and distribution centres.  We also partner with organisations such as Evenbreak, a highly regarded jobs board which actively seeks to hire those with a disability and ensure that they are not excluded from the workplace.

The example provided earlier for Kickstart indicates that, when we build I&D into our processes, we can attract and hire people with a disability and we want to continue to do even more.  Our Marks & Start programme has always had inclusive employment at its heart and that’s why it’s a very important programme for us.  And of course, we’ll continue to work with our Buddy Network – that’s the name for our colleague network who provide peer support and guidance to everyone here who lives with a visible or non-visible disability. 

How would you like to see other major brands become more inclusive of disabled people?

One in five people in the UK have a disability, often acquired during their lifetime rather than at birth and yet this community is so often overlooked when companies are thinking about inclusion and building their I&D strategies. This is so wrong and so far from being truly inclusive that it is a huge missed opportunity for major brands to reach a broader customer base.  For example, M&S has an amazing reputation for lingerie and is the UK’s largest retailer of bras and knickers: mostly because our range is super inclusive in terms of size, cut, fit and colour – and because our colleagues are welcoming to everyone.

If all major brands took a similarly inclusive approach to customers with a disability, the rewards and the loyalty that this would build would be amazing. So, I’d urge everyone to really think about this often overlooked group of people and consider: what can we all do to be more inclusive of 20% of our community?

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