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Be Yourself: a culture of belonging at Virgin Atlantic

By: Estelle Hollingsworth

March 3, 2021

Introducing the first in a series of guest blogs from our leadership team, covering a broad range of topics from our industry and beyond. This first blog comes from our Chief People Officer, Estelle Hollingsworth, who joined Virgin Atlantic back in 2018 as the Vice President of People Experience. She then moved to Vice President of Cabin to lead our crew and cabin management teams through the pandemic, before assuming her current role before the close of 2020.

As Chief People Officer, Estelle brings over 25 years of human resources experience to the role and is responsible for ensuring our people can thrive at work, by creating inclusive experiences that energise teams and drive our vision to be the most loved travel company.


It’s probably not surprising to hear that someone in my role believes the people in an organisation define it. Since spending the last three years of my career at Virgin Atlantic, I don’t think that’s ever been truer. I’ve been lucky to experience different areas of the airline and have seen a lot of change, but one thing has endured; our company always has and always will encourage our people to let their character shine every day so that they can bring their true selves to work, whether that’s in the hangar, onboard, or at HQ.

Sadly, we can’t get far these days without mentioning the brutal impact of Covid-19 on the travel and tourism industry, most painfully through the devastating loss of jobs. I started 2020 as VP of Cabin, responsible for more than 4,000 members of our wonderful cabin crew, and ended the year taking up the role of Chief People Officer, with responsibility for a workforce of 5,700 people – almost half the size it was at the beginning of 2020. The pandemic has forced us to make some extremely difficult decisions. But it’s because of those decisions that we’re still here today, helped greatly by the power of our incredible people.

I have felt personally responsible for the wellbeing of each and every one of the colleagues we sadly said goodbye to. Pre Covid, the warmth of the human touch and conversations in person would provide our people with comfort. In a world of lockdown, we’re all relying on virtual kindness and interaction. But if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that we find a way of connecting with those who need it and that our people are quite simply, exceptional. Whether it was stories shared on video calls, an impromptu chat, a quick message or a handwritten note, our people found a way of being there for each other and sparking a human connection that was meaningful and reassuring. This is what makes our company special and creates belonging. It’s something that I will always carry with me in this role.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

At Virgin Atlantic, we have a rich history and strong culture of embracing the human spirit without prejudice or boundaries, and standing for inclusion, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, background, beliefs, or physical ability. But we know we can go further. Despite challenges presented by the pandemic, our vision to become the most loved travel company remains. This can only be realised through the power of human connection, both between our people and with our customers. Therefore, it’s crucial we commit to a robust diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategy, focusing on enabling our people to feel included and supported so that they can thrive and ultimately, feel pride in being part of Virgin Atlantic.

It’s not just a moral and social responsibility either; if an organisation wants to compete in today’s marketplace – attracting and retaining top tier talent and customers – fostering an inclusive environment is non-negotiable. To avoid tokenism, it’s important to clarify what is actually being done to drive actionable change. What does diversity, equity and inclusion really mean and why should organisations make more effort to build a deep sense of belonging for their people?

For us, diversity is about recognising difference. Better decision-making can be achieved when you realise the benefit of having a range of perspectives. Equity bridges the gap between minority and majority groups. If we identify the specific needs of different demographic groups, then everyone starts on a more even playing field. And inclusion creates an environment where people feel they belong without needing to conform, and that their contribution matters.

Diversity + equity + inclusion = an environment of growth, innovation, and liberated thinking. At Virgin Atlantic it’s simply called ‘Be Yourself’.

It’s this term ‘belonging’ which I find so important. We need to drive a culture of belonging from the inside out.

Raising awareness through internal networks

G-VPRD Rain Bow. An Airbus A350-1000 named by our LGBTQ+ internal network

We strive to raise awareness of DEI through the stories of our people. With four pre-existing, self-started internal networks, our approach is to amplify the voices of our people and help enrich understanding across the company. The groups – covering different ethnicities, disabilities, sexuality, and gender – provide a platform for our people to associate with, or learn from as an ally, in support of their colleagues. Whilst each network has an executive sponsor to drive corporate policy change, they’re led and represented by ambassadors from across the airline who can educate others and celebrate their differences.

Society often makes us worry about offending others by using the wrong term or asking the wrong question, but by building a culture where an ambassador can teach others or an ally can be inquisitive of a person’s difference, whatever that may be, we hope to break these barriers. Our people are encouraged to respectfully question their preconceived ideas, even if uncomfortable at times, in order to learn from one another and appreciate an alternative perspective.

Starting 2021 with a commitment to drive change

Being held accountable to our belonging manifesto is key. To cultivate an environment of conscious inclusion – encouraging curiosity about individual differences and taking a collective responsibility – we’ve made two big commitments to drive change.

In signing the Race at Work Charter, we stand against structural and systemic bias, racism, and discrimination in all of its forms. We commit to building a culturally diverse and inclusive workplace that values our people for their talents, abilities, and unique differences they each bring to Virgin Atlantic.

We’re focused on continuing to find ways to better support people with disabilities. Last year, we were the first airline to introduce an award-winning Hidden Disabilities Scheme. And now, by signing The Valuable 500 pledge, we’re ensuring that disability inclusion is firmly built into the key touchpoints of our people journey.

These commitments are the start of an action plan to drive positive change within our company where everyone feels comfortable expressing ideas, sharing experiences and contributing to a group where they know their input is valued.

Systematic change is progressive and takes time

Conscious inclusion is where change comes together. It’s important to point out the difference between this and unconscious bias. The latter is the recognition or awareness of certain preconceptions you may have of a person or group of people. Recognising you display an unconscious bias is one thing, but positively choosing to take action to change it, is another.

In fact, it’s often reversing DEI – to start with inclusion – that helps most as it creates solutions for the whole workforce, instead of pinpointing problems in particular areas. I recently read a quote by Lauren Tucker (CEO, Do What Matters) which resonated: “Inclusion management, if done right, with the right people in the right jobs, while leveraging their relevant differences and life experiences, capabilities, and points of view, will achieve a richer talent portfolio, and thus greater diversity and better results.”

Adopting conscious inclusion or a new way of thinking doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a challenge that needs tackling. My role is to ensure our people can be at their best and that is an accountability and commitment that I take with the utmost seriousness. At Virgin Atlantic, our ‘Be Yourself’ manifesto is at the heart of everything we do. It filters through from our amazing people maintaining our planes, operating our flights and right into the journey of our loyal customers. It’s vital that we continue to live and breathe it every day.

Estelle Hollingsworth

Estelle Hollingsworth

As Chief People Officer, Estelle is responsible for ensuring Virgin Atlantic’s people can thrive at work, by creating inclusive experiences that energise teams and drive its vision to be the most loved travel company.

Categories: Our People