How Virgin Media is using the power of its brand to tackle the disability employment crisis

Virgin Media has made a number of changes internally in an attempt to reduce its disability employment gap but admits it still has a job to do to tackle the perceived stigma around disability.

virgin media work with me pledgeVirgin Media is hoping that the “power of its brand” can help raise awareness of the disability employment crisis among businesses and consumers as it looks to help tackle the barriers stopping disabled people getting into the workforce.

According to the Office for National Statistics, there are one million disabled people in the UK who want to work but are not being given the opportunity. And the disability employment gap – the rate at which disabled people are employed compared to non-disabled people – hasn’t changed for more than a decade.

Recent YouGov research reveals that businesses’ attitudes towards employing disabled people are not helping. The survey of 500 HR decision makers found that half believe it is easier to recruit a non-disabled person than a disabled person, while 25% said their company had never interviewed a disabled person.

More than half believe the main reason disabled people are not employed is because they lack the right skills or qualifications. And one in 10 respondents think disabled people should accept lower paid positions, while 25% said disabled people need to adapt better to a business’s culture.

Virgin Media has made reducing this disability gap a core tenet of its brand. It is working with organisations including disability charity Scope, the British Paralympic Association and Valuable 500, which seeks to get disability onto the boardroom agenda of 500 global companies, to highlight the issue.

What brands are doing to be more inclusive for people with disabilities

“We recognised in 2015 that disability was an area that was hugely under-served from a business perspective,” Jeff Dodds, Virgin Media’s chief operating officer, tells Marketing Week. “There was a lot of social and economic value from disabled people that wasn’t being unlocked. And it was a topic people felt very uncomfortable talking about.”

He adds: “[This is] about the Virgin brand and how the Virgin brand is able to use its power and recognition to take on not just business issues but also social issues.”

Improving the experience for people with disabilities

Virgin Media has made a number of internal changes to ensure it is better serving disabled people, both in terms of its customers and employees. On customers, it has trained 8,000 of its frontline staff so they have the language and understanding to help vulnerable and disabled customers and deal with any queries or issues they might have.

It is also working to make its technology, products and services more accessible through updates such as adding audio descriptions to its advertising and installing hearing loops in its retail stores.

On hiring, it now has people with various disabilities working across the business. For example, an employee in Dodds’s team called Josh has cerebral palsy, while someone in the workplace adjustment team has short stature and someone else in its internal comms team is visually impaired.

[This is] about how the Virgin brand is able to use its power and recognition to take on not just business issues but also social issues.

Jeff Dodds, Virgin Media

However, Dodds admits keeping track of whether it is managing to close the disability employment gap at Virgin Media is difficult because the number of those who declare themselves as disabled is very low due to the perceived stigma. Disability also covers a huge range of cases, with more than 20% of the UK population, or almost 14 million people, recorded as having a disability, whether that be physical, mental or a learning difficulty.

“My great challenge is to create an environment of trust where people feel confident declaring [they have a disability] so we can improve the working environment and measure the success of our activities,” he explains.

“We are a little way from that at the moment. Unofficially, yes we have done a better job. Officially, can I tell you exactly how many people in our organisation are disabled? No, I can’t.”

Advertising is another area that also requires work. Dodds says the company had conversations both within its marketing team and with its agency adam&eveDDB ahead of the launch of its latest marketing campaign to discuss representation.

“The reality is our advertising should be reflective of the UK population, it’s as simple as that. We shouldn’t think too hard about that, we should simply think when we use people in our advertising, are they truly representative of the communities and people we are trying to serve. Otherwise I worry you end up with a matrix where you put ticks in boxes, you can over think that. And its disingenuous,” he says.

“If you really want consumers to warm to your brand and associate with your brand, you just need to be representative of them.”

However, he admits it can be difficult to ensure representation, admitting that there are “supply chain issues” with the types of people put forward to appear in ad campaigns. “When you go to recruit people to be in the advertising and only 1% of the people they make available to you are disabled…we have to try to solve the supply chain issue.”

Bringing other businesses on the journey

Dodds believes it is small things that can help make disabled employees’s lives easier at work. For example, it can be changes that are as simple as offering dedicated parking spaces for those that might find walking into the office more difficult; work stations that mean people can work standing up or sitting down; and allowing people to schedule their day so they can work most effectively – which could mean offering people suffering from depression time in the day to focus on their mental wellbeing or more flexible working hours and locations.

“That doesn’t feel like a big thing. It feels like everybody should have the ability to not have their work ability judged by a physical impairment, to be able to have flexibility in their workspace and to be able to choose how they work to get the best out of themselves,” he says.

“These feel like really basic hygiene factors but we know it isn’t commonplace. The sooner as a society we can get to a place where this is commonplace, the sooner we’ll [reduce] the disability gap.”

With that in mind, Virgin Media and Scope launched the #WorkWithMe pledge. It aims to bring businesses together to improve workplace practices by learning from each other and hearing best practice.

The key elements include making a senior leader accountable for disability inclusion, a review of how a company supports disabled people, helping line managers become confident in how to support disabled people, and starting to record progress on disability inclusion. So far, almost 50 companies have signed up including Centrica, Philips and JCB, and Virgin Media is keen that more do so.

Virgin Media has also donated £2m to support the Support to Work website run by Scope that provides information and advice to help disabled people find employment and brands on how to hire them.

Dodds says Virgin’s aim is not make its disability work “a point of differentiation” but to use its brand to raise awareness of the issue and encourage more companies to tackle the gap. While it has won awards for its work on disability, it won’t be using it as “a badge of honour” to attract customers.

“This is something we want to share with as many organisations as we can, so we are very often out talking to other organisations about what we are learning about this journey,” he concludes.

“If you do the right thing by your customers and people, then they tend to do the right thing by you. As a brand, if you are doing the right things with your brand and using your brand for good, then the general public see that and make better-informed choices about who they want to have a relationship with going forward.

“We are saying it is the right thing to do, let’s do it. If we get some credit for that in the future, brilliant, if we don’t we are still doing the right thing.”