Stringent policing of freedom of speech risks thwarting honest and rigorous debate on diversity and inclusion, according to a senior figure from the utilities sector.

Speaking during a recent Utility Week webinar, Will Serle, chief people officer at National Grid, insisted that people are “incredibly nervous” to have open discussions or share different views.

“That’s really dangerous. Whose job is it to set those boundaries of what’s acceptable nowadays and what isn’t? It doesn’t encourage people to be allowed to make mistakes, it doesn’t encourage forgiveness when people have made mistakes,” he said.

Serle added that there is an emerging standard of what is “socially acceptable”, and those who step outside of the perceived boundaries of political correctness are “in danger of being cancelled”.

“I think it’s potentially really damaging to diversity of thought and damaging to the debates that we’re having today where you can encourage colleagues to speak openly, to have different views about things,” he said.

The Diversity: What’s stopping us? event, sponsored by Workday, sought to explore the barriers utilities must tackle to improve diversity and inclusion across the sector.

There was consensus across the panel on the importance of creating safe spaces where employees feel empowered to engage in open and honest discussions.

Julie McGovern, head of people at United Utilities, revealed that the organisation has delivered a “masterclass series” over the last 12 months, inviting external guests from underrepresented groups to help lead discussions in a “relaxed, safe environment”.

McGovern explained that the classes are targeted at leaders within the business because “what they say and do, or don’t say and do, creates the culture” across the workplace.

“That’s been really successful. We’ve built on that and also done some inclusive leadership training; let’s have a safe conversation and then let’s give you some practical skills,” she said.

While leadership teams help to set the tone within a business, the panel questioned whether existing diversity training and education across the sector is adequate.

“I think it’s about training, education and awareness,” McGovern said. “If I look at the journey we’ve been on, the biggest focus for us is actually supporting our senior leaders to start the conversation in a way where they still feel comfortable.”

Embedding conversations around diversity into business as usual is vital to ensure it is prioritised like other critical issues, such as health and safety.

At Thames Water, one of the ways the organisation is putting this into practice is bringing to life stories and experiences across the workforce to give others the opportunity to understand and connect.

“We used to have ‘safety’ moments, we then started moving towards ‘inclusion’ moments. Actually, at the beginning of our meetings now, we talk about ‘values’ moments,” explained Angela Booth, chair of Thames Water Women’s Network.

“It’s not just an ethereal ‘we’ve got values in our company and this is what it stands for’. It’s about ‘how do I put that into practice in my behaviours and why is that important to the people who are impacted by it?’”

Underpinning all discussion around diversity is a need for robust data, which can provide invaluable insight into both existing and prospective employees.

Booth admitted that “data is tricky”, with many people reluctant to share their information and concerned over how it will be used.

“People don’t understand why you want to share it. To me, the answer here is about leadership,” she said. “I think once we’ve got that transparency amongst our leaders, people will be more open to disclosing. It’s a bit chicken and egg – to collect data, to have the data, to show why we need it.”

Serle added that while employees are very likely to share their ethnicity and gender data, they are still very unlikely to share data concerning sexual orientation and also any wellbeing issues they have, especially regarding mental wellbeing.

“It’s actually very difficult to tell and set targets if you have such poor quantities of data that are filed by the employees,” he said.

While diversity data is often prioritised, Serle believes inclusion data could be a powerful tool for utilities by exploring if people feel included and if they feel that their views matter.

“If you’re really interested, and you believe that the answers don’t have to come from the most senior people, which I certainly do, then to have active listening sessions, where you’re not gathering quantitative data, you’re just understanding how people feel in their organisation, what their experiences are – that’s super useful as a data source,” he said.

Concluding the debate, Workday’s director for presales Michelle Dawkins concurred that focusing on inclusion and “listening to our people and the next generation” must be a priority for the sector.

“It’s quite clear that we don’t have all the answers,” she added. “We all know the right thing to do and we have some great ideas and thoughts about how we’re going to get there.

“But it’s changing all the time, so we have to stay flexible in our approach. We can’t just be fixed on our goals and strategy.”