HomeDiversityExpert commentary - Ruth Busby, GWR & Network Rail Wales and Western

Expert commentary – Ruth Busby, GWR & Network Rail Wales and Western

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Ruth Busby, people and transformation director (regional) for GWR and Network Rail Wales and Western, forged a career path in HR before joining the rail industry in 2018. Awarded an OBE in the 2023 New Years Honours List, she spoke to RailStaff about her journey into rail, her commitment to Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), and how wellbeing is a crucial pillar of the agenda.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Ruth. You’ve had a varied career in HR, working for some very interesting organisations. Could you tell us a little more about that and your journey into rail?

I started my career at the Home Office as a civil servant on their fast-track scheme. I was working on policy development around youth offending, criminal justice, and hate crime, that sort of thing. While I was at the Civil Service, I moved into HR and worked on an MSc in HR and became a Chartered Member of the CIPD. I was planning to go back into policy work at some point, but I stayed in HR and, in 2010, when the coalition government came in, I moved to the University of Reading as deputy director of HR. I should mention that wasn’t for any political reason, but because the coalition was making cuts to HR in the civil service. I then moved on to the Atomic Weapons Establishment doing both HR and transformation work, before moving into rail.

For my first five years in the industry, I was HR director at Great Western Railway (GWR) and, in January 2023, became people and transformation director (regional) for GWR and Network Rail Wales and Western. The move into rail came about as it was a good opportunity to move into an HR director role. I was a regular user of the railway, having commuted into London for nearly a decade, and I felt it was an interesting industry. Another attraction is that it was a customer-focused organisation – you don’t get to chat to many people when working in the world of nuclear warheads. Rail also allowed me to work in an organisation that provides a public service, through a private operator, and that really appealed to me as well.

My previous roles really gave me a good grounding for Rail, not just because I managed to get my HR qualifications, but also because working for the Civil Service has given me a good understanding of how the Department for Transport (DfT) works. I’ve brought some useful learning over from those days, which isn’t all around HR.

You’ve been lauded for your work in EDI. Could you tell us more about your activities in this space, both inside and outside the workplace?

Outside of work I’m a passionate supporter of Women in Rail. I was co-chair of Women in Rail South for a while and briefly joined the board as a trustee. I’m also a non-executive director for a nonprofit company called Youth Futures Foundation, which was set up to address the disparity in youth unemployment linked to disadvantage. Some of that is around ethnicity and particular ethnic groups, as well as young carers, mental health, and neurodiversity.

In terms of my professional career, during my first couple of years with GWR my work concentrated on how we could engage with people, how we represented the communities we serve, and how to attract people from different backgrounds.

Credit: iStockphoto.com

When the Covid pandemic began in 2020, we had to adapt quickly to make sure we were looking after people and we developed a different relationship with trade unions because we were working more collaboratively. We were adapting policies very quickly in a much more agile way and focussing to a much greater degree on wellbeing because of lockdown and homeworking. As a result, mental health became a big focus.

The most important thing for me about the EDI agenda is engaging people in conversation. There is often push back, which is why for me, having conversations about wellbeing is a fundamental part of the EDI agenda. You can embrace everyone and recognise that we all have specific challenges. For example, it is vital that we talk about the crisis in men’s mental health and the impact of suicide. Covid opened the door and allowed wellbeing to become part of the conversation we were having around equality and diversity, and to really drive change.

My current role as people and transformation director (regional), for GWR and Network Rail Wales and Western is slightly different to those I’ve held before. It’s essentially two roles spanning two organisations, leading the people and internal communications teams in both. The idea is that if you have one person leading in that joint role, you have more opportunities for cross-industry collaboration on a wide range of people issues, including mental health, diversity, the ageing workforce, and the need to bring in new talent to address that.

Drawing on your experience of other industries, how well in your opinion does Rail handle issues around EDI?

The railway has got something unique and special, particularly when it comes to wellbeing. There genuinely is that sense of togetherness, which is why I think the wellbeing agenda is so well received. For example, I don’t know any other industry, where private and public sector companies come together to co-sponsor an event like Rail Wellbeing Live which is for the benefit of everyone in their industry. That’s really unusual.

Last year, the Samaritans released a report, commissioned by GWR and the Department for Transport, into the mental health of railway workers. It found that the impact of encountering trauma, physical, and verbal abuse, and the culture of grievances meant that there are unique impacts for the mental health of railway colleagues. That’s why it is so important that we come together to support one another.

In terms of diversity, one of the challenges in the rail industry, particularly among train operators and some areas of operations in Network Rail, is that people work in the industry for a long time. Because of that, it takes a long time to make the workforce more diverse. So it is important that we have an environment where everyone is made to feel welcome when they join the industry, how we address equity, and how we start conversations about things that mean a lot to people with experiences other than our own. I genuinely believe that, in terms of equality, the difference comes in having contact with people from different backgrounds.

Something else that’s really important is that we know young people consider the values of an organisation more today and are much choosier about where they work. They want to know if a particular company is a place that they’ll resonate with, if it’s a place where they’ll feel they can be themselves. It’s important that we appeal to a much broader portion of the population to attract employees and to attract and retain customers.

You were awarded the OBE in the 2023 New Years Honours List. What was it for and how did you find out?

I received the OBE for Services to Diversity in the Rail Industry. I wasn’t aware that I’d been nominated – you don’t know anything about it until you receive a letter through the post. I received the letter – which was very official, on nice paper with an embossed seal – on 20 November, but it wasn’t announced until 29 December. So, I had this really exciting news but couldn’t tell anyone except for my closest family and the press office at work. It was the most bizarre, exciting, smoke-and-mirrors type of situation.

Credit: iStockphoto.com

Can you tell us about the experience of going to receive the award? It must have been an incredible occasion.

Going to the awards ceremony was a fantastic experience. I know a few people who’ve received honours and they all went to Windsor Castle, but mine was at Buckingham Palace so quite different, but equally amazing. It was on the Friday before the London Marathon, so Constitution Hill was closed, and our taxi dropped us off around the corner. My husband and I, and our two children, were walking in our finery in front of all the tourists getting ready to watch the Changing of the Guard and my daughter said: “Someone just said ‘Do you think they’re royal?’”

When you get to Buckingham Palace, you go up the golden staircase and there was a string quartet playing Avicii. We were taken to the Picture Gallery to be given our briefing and after that, you go in to collect your award individually.
It’s very British. You form a queue, accompanied by your guests, but just before it’s your turn they’re taken to a viewpoint in the Throne Room. Then, you go into the Throne Room yourself, do your little curtsey or bow, have a chat with whoever is presenting the award – in my case the Princess Royal – and then receive the award. It’s an absolutely incredible experience.

Despite the fact that I received the award for services to EDI, when it was reported in my local paper, the headline ran: “Mum of two awarded OBE”. That was quite ironic – I doubt they’d have used a similar headline for a man, and whilst I love and am very proud of being a mum, it isn’t what the OBE was awarded for.

Finally, what do you think can we do as an industry, and as a society, to drive the EDI agenda and bring the change that’s needed?

I think there are two mistakes that are made in relation to EDI. One is that we become apologetic and don’t want to offend people who disagree with the conversation. The other is that we’re too politically correct and tell people what they can and can’t say.

That approach was taken in the early noughties and people with experience of EDI will agree that was a mistake. It meant that people closed down and didn’t engage in conversations and continued to hold the same views under the radar.

The only way we’ll help to ensure that everyone feels valued and able to be themselves at work is if we change the way people feel, and you can only achieve that through connection.

It doesn’t work if you’re apologetic, I don’t think you can tiptoe around people. You can challenge with curiosity and ask “why is it that you feel like that?” and “what is it that’s driving that?” but if you completely avoid a topic, you’re not going to get anywhere.

I also like being a bit mischievous. I once talked about providing sanitary products for colleagues at a stakeholder conference which made some people in the audience a bit uncomfortable. But why not? You need to get people’s attention if you’re going to make any change.

There are some huge challenges that need to be tackled: challenges around the success rates of people from ethnically diverse backgrounds securing jobs on the railway; around representation at all different levels; around how we appeal as an industry to the next generation who are strongly motivated by values; and around the treatment of some senior women in the railway. And if we tiptoe around these issues, we’ll never make any change.

Lead image: GWR