Unconscious bias, Flexibility and Return to Work

Melanie is an award-winning HR specialist, with over 15 years of Strategic and Operational Human Resource experience across a range of industries including Retail, IT, Healthcare and Education. The author of Leading for Growth, Melanie is particularly passionate about developing proactive leaders and managers who support their teams to take ownership and deliver excellence.

Melanie loves working with Entrepreneurs and CEOs, helping them to grow and scale their operations by providing bespoke HR Support and Advice. In 2014 she created Eden Mayers HR Consulting to help her clients to deliver their passion, knowing that their People Management is in safe hands or as Melanie calls it “Keeping Them Out Of HR Trouble”.

With a Masters in Human Resources Management, Melanie is Chartered MCIPD qualified and has a Prince 2 Project Management Qualification.

When Melanie isn’t busy supporting her clients she’s up early running, jumping out of planes and keeping up with her adventurous five and seven-year-old daughters.

Naveen: Thank you for speaking with me Melanie. I really would like to start by asking you more about your personal journey and what led you to work in Human Resources and ultimately to create your own consulting company.


Melanie: I studied computer science for my undergrad, and really enjoyed the science and the programming part of things. I think I got about two years into it and realised I enjoyed finding an issue and solving an issue. What I didn’t like so much was the coding. The thing that really excited me was working with the clients and identifying issues and finding the right solutions, but from my time at university I gathered that I would probably have to spend 5-10 years coding in the basement before I had a chance to interact with clients the way I’d like to. So, when it came to finding a job, I didn’t look to join one of the Big 4 for example, I didn’t look to go and join a consultancy. I actually started working for a newspaper.
I was their office manager and they wanted someone who could program and manage their database in a way that their journalists could write into their database. They could then take the information and use it in the newspaper or website. So, to me, that was exciting because it was something I had ownership of and could do myself.
Part of my office management role was to focus on HR responsibilities as well, and that’s when I found out we didn’t have the right HR policies and processes in place. There were all these things we needed to do that were not being done, or not being done the right way. I discovered I really enjoyed creating and implementing the right processes and putting them in place, more than I enjoyed doing the other parts of my job.
So, I went on to do a postgraduate certificate and joined a larger organisation down the line who supported me while I did my Masters in Human Resource Management.
So, I’d say I’ve had a meandering journey to get to Human Resources – but this is how I found out that I loved it.
In terms of starting my own business, I had always travelled for work and when I got pregnant with my first child Eden, whom my business is named after, I thought I could just have my baby and get back to work and it would be back as normal. I went back to working when she was six months old and I realised it was much harder than I initially thought to be away from my daughter for so long.

Melanie Folkes-Mayers

I started doing things like travelling at 5 AM in the morning so that I wouldn’t have to stay away from my family overnight. When she got to about a year old, I decided it was time to start my own thing and that’s when I incorporated Eden Mayers HR Consulting. About two months after that, I got pregnant with my second daughter.
I then basically built the business on the side while working my full-time job until it was large enough for me to make it my full-time gig.

Naveen: Thank you for that, that’s such a great story about how you started out and then built your own successful business. I’ve come across this a lot lately where more and more women are starting their businesses as a result of “starting a family”. I started building Hirestance while on maternity leave with my second baby and I do think it’s because you’re just in the mindset of doing something for you that you’ve always wanted to do and also because you realise you need flexibility. I’m not sure if owning and working on a full-time business of your own frees up any time, if anything, you still have your hands full and you’re wearing so many hats, but it is nice to not to have to worry about whether your manager will be okay with you taking a few hours off because you were up all night with a teething baby!

But, on that note, there are obviously still a lot of mothers who want to return to the job they had before they took time off for maternity or want to restart their careers in a corporate setting after a few years taking care of the family fulltime. How do you help your clients tackle that Unconscious Bias of “This person is returning to work after five years off to look after her family, will she be able to handle any big projects” or “This person is going on mat leave, will she even return after the six/nine/twelve months”?

Melanie: To be fair, I think in addition to there being that unconscious bias there is also a belief that things are just going to be a certain way and that one size fits all. For example, I’ve had clients who run their businesses and their wives work part time so that they can be with their children more so they automatically assume that all working mothers would want or need that kind of work/life balance. I think it comes from a good place a lot of the times where they actually want to help their employees by putting them on a “Mummy track” however I have had to coach them that it is up to the individual and everybody’s needs are different. There are going to be women (and men!) who want a low stress, 9-3 or 9-5 job where they can just switch off afterwards and focus on their household, but on the other hand there are others like me who are happy to work long hours if needed as long as they are given the right amount of flexibility. So, I usually remind my clients that instead of making assumptions, it is important to speak to the individual and ask them what they want and need and then to give them the best flexibility and the best tools possible so that they can do their job effectively within those parameters.

With the smaller businesses I work for, I sell them a lot on getting Returners to Work, because you can get some very experienced and talented people who will want flexibility and sometimes in the beginning, a smaller business might not have the budget for a full-time position and that will benefit the individual who wants a part time or flex schedule, so everybody wins. With the larger organisations, I tend to have to remind them of the positives and also the fact that it is really a short period of time before your children go to school, in the grand scheme of things. Your child goes to school at 4, so that’s really just a couple of years where you need to be flexible and surely anybody can do that for someone who is a good and valued employee.

Naveen: I also do find it a tiny bit frustrating that you see all these interviews where women are being asked how they juggle their careers with their children, but the men are never asked that question. We do see men sharing parental duties and housework and all of that a lot more than they did, say, 30 or 40 years ago, but they still don’t get asked these questions. In light of the pandemic and everyone juggling childcare responsibilities with work and housework, what progress do you think has been made in terms of the assumption that it is always the mother who is the default parent.
Melanie: I am definitely with you on that! Especially this year as you said, with husbands/male partners being at home, and having to be reminded that employers need to understand that BOTH parents are juggling childcare/homeschooling with their work. When one parent has client calls, the other should be watching the children. It’s all about making a schedule that works with your partner. But yes, it is really interesting that there is the assumption that the woman takes full responsibility AND does her job at the same time. Even pre-COVID, I would be in say, Lincolnshire for work and the school would call me if one of my girls was feeling ill and I would have to say, you need to call their father because school is going to be closed by the time I get to you.

Naveen: Changing the tune a bit, because we could have a whole different article on mothers being the default parent while working, and we will one day soon, but in terms of flexible working schedules and the pandemic, do you think this has changed the conversation with many employers thinking of having just two or three days a week in the office with the rest being working from home, once it is deemed safe to go back in. Will it be easier for people to request flexible working arrangements because I’m thinking if they are denied, it would be easy to say “We did it during the pandemic and it’s clear we could have been doing a lot of our work remotely or via emails/quick zoom calls rather than 3 hour in person meetings”

Melanie: I think it is a bit industry specific at the moment. There are certain industries where you need your staff to be there in person, like education, health. So, for them, this is not going to change a great deal and hasn’t done so even during the pandemic. I have found with my other clients that, they are, as you said, thinking that their staff can come into the office two or three days a week, and they can therefore reduce the footprint of office space they have. So, it can be more cost effective from a business point of view. The work can be just as good. So, quite a few clients have said that where they have had satellite offices, they might shut those down, and when they need to have team meetings, they may go hire a workspace for that time. Especially with larger corporates who have leases expiring soon. They don’t think there’s much of a point in renewing them and taking on that extra cost.

Naveen: I guess people are resilient, and we have to find ways to adjust and new ways to work, because we do have to keep going even when things are so undeniably tough. Both of us being women of colour and HR professionals, in terms of coaching candidates who are from a visible minority, do you ever do any work around that? For example, how do you encourage/motivate a Returner to Work who might be at even more of a disadvantage because of being part of an underrepresented group, particularly if they are setting out to work in a predominately white male industry?

Melanie: When I talk to candidates and people who are applying for roles, I think I really focus more on them being able to demonstrate their skill set, their strengths and to just be themselves.
There is so much value in diversity and I say it to my clients all the time. There is value in having different people from different backgrounds who have different understandings. A problem can be looked at from different areas and therefore be more easily solved. If everybody is the same and looks the same as you, you are not going to get the innovation you need and statistics prove that. So, I do speak to my clients a lot about that but also when I’m talking to people who are applying for jobs, I have to remind them, don’t go in thinking you need to be a cardboard cut out of whoever it is you have seen or worked with. It can be a difficult thing because there are doubts that do come up with candidates thinking if they are being hired for their diversity or if they are NOT being hired because of their diversity.
For instance, a candidate will say “I don’t want the job because I’m a black woman, I want the job because I’m great at it.” These candidates then feel they have to try twice as hard or go above and beyond to prove themselves and their abilities. So definitely, when I’m working with my clients, I examine their interview questions and methods and their matrices, their model answers and their scoring methods.
I sit in many rooms where I am the only woman, the only person of colour, it happens all the time. What I have learned from that is there is a value in what I say in those situations, there is value in standing up for myself, there is value in showing others my perspective. We have to be brave enough to do that, and employers have to be brave enough to hear it and understand what is happening within their walls. You want your workforce to reflect what your client growth is.
It’s pointless to have people who may look differently on the outside, but you want to mould them into this box so that everybody can be the same and give the same answers and keep towing the party line. So, I speak to my clients a lot about communication, transparency and giving people the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience.

Naveen: There is so much work being done in the diversity and inclusion space, increasingly over the past couple of years. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have seen an increase in the number of D&I advisory roles that have cropped up on job boards like LinkedIn. Is this large corporations just trying to tick a box? My fear is that this is the case, and it will take years and years to do the actual work or to make a proper dent.

Melanie: I do think for a lot of people it might just be ticking a box, but I also think that for a lot of others it is a start. I think we need to remember that things do not change overnight. If I look at an organization and the higher up you go, the “pale-r and the male-er” it becomes – this is not going to change overnight. To me, if you want diverse people leading the organisation you have to be mentoring and coaching and giving them the opportunities, otherwise they will fail. If they don’t understand the business, they won’t be able to succeed, so you need to give them the right tools.
So, what needs to be understood is what is the process? Who are you going to mentor and coach? How do we identify high potential staff? Is there a balance between genders, race, etc, and if not, why not? You may need to make peace with the fact that for the first year the split might 70/30 and then in five years, 60/40 and so on. You have to make a plan and a trajectory to get there.
Not only do organisations need to capture the data, how they use it is important as well.
So more than anything else, when I’m working with clients, it’s really about building that framework and having those plans and being really clear about statistically where you want to be and how you’re going to get there but being aware that it’s a journey. You’re not just going to pick an amazing woman of colour and just prop her up there as a Director and have it be amazing automatically. You have to do some work with them. You need to make sure they’ve got the right skills and that they’ll be successful. Everybody should be mentoring someone, and everybody should be mentored. That’s why we say it works both ways. There should be someone who’s helping you progress and you should be helping someone progress.

Naveen: This is really insightful, and I really appreciate you going into depth about the work you’ve been doing with your clients. I remember you mentioning your latest project is a book which you have recently released. Would you mind telling us a bit more about that?

Melanie: It’s called “Leading for Growth” and it’s very much around building the framework that helps your employees become leaders. Good managers aren’t just born. A lot of organisations make the mistake where they promote someone who is brilliant at what they do but have no management experience and ultimately that leads to them failing in their role.
I love implementing policies and getting everything right but what I really want organisations to understand is that they need to be proactive about their people. You can have a business and a plan for where you want your business to go, but your people are what drives all of that. They need to be integrated, and if you spend a bit of extra time planning, it makes the process so much smoother. I love going out and coaching and training managers and aspiring managers for them to be the best leaders that they can be.

Naveen: Thank you again for your time and for letting me pick your brain. I look forward to reading your book!

Link to purchase Melanie’s book: LEADING FOR GROWTH: A Practical Guide to Leadership and Management eBook: Folkes-Mayers, Melanie: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store