Margot Slattery is a determined optimist. Addressing the third event in the Firm Talks series in the RDS on January 14th, she recounted a story from her youth in Limerick. “One Christmas Eve my mother, my brother and I went to midnight mass. My father didn’t go to the mass because he would have been tired after a long day and may have had a drink or two. When we got back from mass, there was a horse standing in the field outside the house, and the front door was wide open. I said, ‘Oh look, Santa has come and brought me a horse!’ My brother said ‘No, we’ve been broken into!’ and some other things as well. That shows you how much of an optimist I am.”

She carried that positive outlook into her career in the hospitality industry. Her view was coloured by memories of excellent experiences in hotels as a young girl. Her mother had worked in the industry before being forced to give up her career when she got married, but when she visited hotels with her family in subsequent years, her former colleagues made sure they got VIP treatment.

“My mother had worked in hotel management, and I grew up hearing stories about her adventures in the hospitality industry.”

That career began in the 1980s when she studied at GMIT before moving on to stints in a number of hotels and restaurants in Ireland, the UK and Europe. She returned to Ireland in 1991 to join a company later acquired by Sodexo; a move which would see Margot make a sharp change in career direction, swapping her kitchen whites and knife wallet for the suits and briefcase of the c-suite.

Introducing Margot, Micheline Corr, Director of The Firm, said she has been a passionate advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace for many years. “She currently sits on Sodexo’s Global LGBT leadership team and has been influential in ensuring LGBT considerations are included in Sodexo’s global diversity and inclusion strategy. She progressed through several roles in the company and became country president for Ireland in 2015. In that role she oversaw all operations for the organisation which employs 4,000 people on the island of Ireland.

“Margot has won many senior management awards in Ireland, including the Business Leader Award at the 2018 WXN 25 ‘Most Powerful Women in Ireland’ Awards. For her work in promoting diversity and inclusion as well as women in business, she was honoured by the French Ambassador to Ireland in 2017, and she is incoming President of the French Chamber of Commerce in Ireland.”

Revealing the findings of an industry survey carried out by The Firm, she said inclusion and diversity are now critical drivers and extremely important when it comes to attracting talent. “Having an equal opportunities employer tag outside your door is not enough,” Micheline Corr added. “In the war for talent, strong culture and inclusion and diversity wins out in candidate choices.”

Opening her address, Margot asked the audience to look around the walls of the room. “All the pictures are of men apart from one woman. I’ve nothing against men, it’s just the way the world has been. We need to open up our thinking. We need to see the changes in the country and the lived reality of different ethnicities and different genders and reflect that in our industry.”

She spoke movingly about various aspects of the reality of her own lived experience as a gay woman in Ireland. “If there is one thing that held me back in my career, it was my lack of honesty and ability to be myself for a long time,” she said. “I couldn’t authentically be myself. Being gay in Ireland back in the early 1990s meant doing everything secretly. I went to the library to research places I could go in Dublin; I couldn’t ask anyone.”

Most tellingly, she said she had a fear of being fired if anyone in her workplace found out about her sexuality. “I certainly didn’t mention being gay back in Limerick. Those fears stymied me. Whenever you try to hide part of yourself, you lose so much of yourself. People only knew half of me, and I look back at that time as a time of lack.”

But Ireland has changed greatly since that time. “I have seen tremendous change in the country since then,” she said. “I began to feel a sense of acceptance and safety over time, and I started telling people, and I found out that most of them already knew anyway. Next to the day I got married, the day of the Equal Marriage Referendum back in 2015 was the most amazing day of my life. When I went to the count centre and saw the votes coming out of the boxes marked yes, yes, yes… Free at last.”

She encouraged people to think about how that referendum result made people feel and to build on that with their choice of candidates in the forthcoming election. “Europe has become a dangerous place to be gay, and my partner and I have to be careful about where we go. We have been attacked. I hope people think about that in the election on February 8th.”

There are still other areas where progress is required, however. “The number of times I have arrived at a hotel reception desk in Ireland with my partner Sarah where we haven’t been recognised as a couple. Where they have given us a twin room instead of a double, and we have to spell it out for them that we are a couple. I certainly don’t feel included in those places and definitely won’t return. Wedding brochures in Ireland are the same. They are mostly his and hers, but that means there is another 10 per cent of the population that doesn’t fit in.”

“Look at how we treat people with disabilities,” she continued. “Irish activist Sinead Burke speaks about the negative experiences she has as a small person with door handles being too high and so on. We tend not to think about wheelchair users beyond the ramp at the front door. We need to think about the width of doorways and so on. And having handicapped rooms in hotels… how insulting is that?”

This is not just bad for the people affected, it also harms the businesses involved, Margot explained. She pointed out that genuinely diverse organisations are more profitable, enjoy better employee retention and engagement, and outperform their competitors across a range of other measures.

“Hospitality is an industry in disruption. Where people stay and what they call accommodation has changed vastly, as has how people procure food and how our customers eat and where they eat. I visited one of our sites in the UK recently; a university where we have to try to provide meals for 19,000 people every day. At the same time, we are seeing Deliveroo and Just Eat and other services coming along. There is something new coming along every day to disrupt us, and we have to change and adapt to that.”

Failure to change and adapt to this new world will have serious consequences. “It’s all about the experience. Look at influencers on platforms like TikTok. They will tell the world within two minutes if they have had a bad experience in a hotel or workplace. That’s generation Z, and they are going to be our customers and employees in future. We have to ask ourselves if we are able to compete in the hunt for talent. There is so much choice now; we have to be able to go out and compete and look at how we can create an environment where everyone feels truly welcome and where they belong.”

Sodexo’s journey to creating that environment began 18 years ago following the creation of the role of Global Chief Diversity Officer and the appointment of Dr Rohini Anand to take it on. “She is a wonderful lady from India who did the job for 17 years and advised President Obama and other leaders on diversity issues during that time. I was honoured to take over the position last year. We have 480,000 employees in 80 countries around the world, and I am responsible for driving strategy and everything we do around diversity and inclusion.”

She pointed to a survey carried out for recruitment site as a reason for the rest of the industry to sit up and take notice of diversity. That survey found that generation Z students wanted to work in places alongside colleagues with the broadest possible mix of backgrounds. “The survey found that having a workplace committed to diversity was increasingly seen as a key to recruiting and retaining graduates. Organisations need to challenge themselves and examine their own biases if they wish to become truly diverse. Do we walk the talk and make people feel they belong? What is happening beyond the cead mile failte?” she asked.

Research carried out by McKinsey in 2015 adds force to her argument, if any were needed. “They produced some staggering statistics. Companies which were radically diverse outperformed industry norms by 35 per cent. We did our own research into gender balance across 50 of our locations around the world. We found where the balance was around 60/40, we had increased retention, improved engagement, profitability and performance. What really surprised us was the scale of the difference – it was up to 9 percentage points in each measure. It hasn’t been a hard job to sell the importance of diversity, inclusion and belonging. These results make a very powerful case.”

She said organisations need to allow people to be their true selves. “That’s what belonging means,” she added. “Diversity means having a good mix of people, inclusion means ensuring that they mix well, and belonging means they feel at home. Diversity is being asked to dance, inclusion means getting up to dance, and belonging means dancing like it’s 1999.”

And diversity has to span all dimensions. “Look at gender,” she said. “Invisible Women is a book by Caroline Criado Perez – it speaks of a world designed for men. That goes right down to the default settings on heating and air conditioning. How can that be alright when you think of how much a woman’s body temperature changes as she goes through life? Race – when you go around Ireland and see the mix there now, we have to ask ourselves if that is reflected in our industry. Do we have enough leaders of different races? That’s a difficult subject to have, but we have to ask ourselves tough questions. I’m very glad to hear that Traveller culture is about to be included in the Irish school curriculum for the first time.”

“On sexual orientation, one of the challenges now is the increasing number of people identifying as gender fluid. We have to develop a different understanding of the world and adapt to it. We have to think about age a lot. People will live a lot longer and will work a lot longer, and we are going to employ them for a lot longer.”

Ability and disability must also be given attention. “There are millions of people out there who are being ignored because of a disability. This is a lost opportunity for our industry. We ignore them at our peril. People on the autistic spectrum, for example, often struggle to get onto the jobs market. We have put in cubicles for those members of staff who prefer to work on their own. We have one young guy who puts on his headphones and doesn’t communicate with anyone for most of the day, but he is an absolute genius. We have to have an open mind about whom we employ.”

“People who belong feel comfortable expressing ideas, sharing experiences and contributing to a group when they know that their input is valued,” she added. “And employers will only benefit from that.”

All of that feeds into the hunt for talent. “What does your brand say about you? People want to see what organisations are doing about diversity and inclusion and so on. They want to see the reality. They want to see the evidence of what you are doing. And they will make decisions on what organisation to join based on that evidence. In the last four years, the search term ‘employee experience’ has increased by 140 per cent on Google. That’s an indication of people looking for that evidence.”

She advised organisations to get to know their people better, devote more time and attention to them, and create a space where diverse views and opinions are valued.

“By following these simple action items and communicating the importance of diversity, inclusion, and belonging in your organisation, you are well on your way to ensuring your people have the best possible experience and having the tools and platforms to outperform your competition.”