Tech Q&A: Channel 4 Chief Human Resources Officer Caroline Ross on driving culture, diversity and “Born Risky” through technology and innovation

In the latest in his Tech Q&A series, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal sat down with Caroline Ross, chief human resources officer at Channel 4 to discuss how technology is changing the way human resource directors can work, protect and enhance the employee experience.

Human resources directors are arguably the least well understood executives on the c-suite. Whilst the rest of the board have tangible deliverables around profit, loss and share price, the metrics HRDs have historically been asked to deliver have been far more esoteric, almost mystical – staff satisfaction, adoption of values and employer brand. But don’t be fooled, behind every successful business, you’ll tend to find an exceptional HRD.

Caroline Ross has been that exceptional HRD at far too many successful businesses for her presence there to be mere coincidence. Recently-appointed chief human resources officer at Channel 4, her career has seen her leading the people operations of the likes of talkbackTHAMES, News UK, Shine and

A digital native with a laser-focus on innovation and technology, a love of media and a deep understanding of colleagues and culture, she has found the perfect home in the challenger broadcaster that rallies under the banner of “Born Risky”.

A few days ahead of the the announcement of Leeds as the home to Channel 4’s new headquarters, I sat down with Caroline to talk about culture, technology and diversity in a world that demands radical ideas.

How do you build a culture of “Born Risky” without scaring regulators, viewers and staff away?

We’re very fortunate in that when Channel 4 was conceived, the government put innovation and diversity into its remit. From its inception, “Born Risky” have been core principles and values.

Each CEO and management team has really lived up to that. People join us because if they want to be in TV, we will encourage them to take risks. Culturally, what that means is that people feel empowered to do what they want to do, when they want to do it and how they want to do it, rather than working through existing frameworks of what can and can’t be done.

We’re mindful that we have a role to play for society, not just our viewers. We exist to help shape people’s views – to help them to think differently. People join here with multiple views. Diversity of thought and diversity of thinking are really important in terms of the people we hire, and how we unleash that internally.

In other companies, ‘culture’ falls to HRDs. I don’t get the sense it’d work here.

That’s right. In many HR roles, you’re told that you’re “the custodian of the culture”, but it can’t work like that at Channel 4. One person cannot be the culture. Nor should they be.

There’s a responsibility on HR people to ensure they don’t fall into the trap of thinking they own culture. The best job you can do as an HR leader is to coach the exec team that culture is a fundamentally important responsibility they all share.

What does an HRD in 2018 need to be successful?

Technology. When you look at the way technology has changed, even over the past two or three years, if you cannot bring that to your workforce – who, by the way, are using all the latest tech to run their own lives anyway – you are missing a massive trick.

How does that manifest itself practically?

For example, we’ve just done a staff survey, asking 1000 staff 50 questions they can answer in 10 minutes on their phone, tablet or desktop.

Some companies are still using firms that produce 50 page surveys and then spend a month pulling results. We can get comprehensive results and analysis the minute the survey closes, with analytical tools that will pull everything into sharable slides you can present to your team or function within 48 hours. Working smarter. Working efficiently. All delivered by technology.

We’re also currently testing a new product that can combat inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. It enables anyone who feels they are being harassed but don’t feel ready to report it to securely record every incident in a secure digital space. An artificial intelligence bot in the background scans for similar names, words or descriptions, to establish patterns to stop perpetrators before they can cause any further harm.

These technologies are fundamentally changing the way HRDs can work, protect and enhance the employee experience. 

Has the rise of technology created any challenges to HRDs?

What’s really changed is the public nature by which employees judge you. Be it on Twitter, Glassdoor or anywhere else, there’s a real public sense of judgement. As an organisation, you have to now think about how staff, investors, board members and the public will react to what’s said on social media.

Employers who haven’t already thought that through will pay the price. Opinion and reputation have never mattered more to consumers.

Diversity is a massive priority for you and HRDs in general. How does Channel 4 stack up?

If you were to look at our stats, you’d say we were diverse. But we can always do better.

Our board is split evenly on gender, with 25% BAME. On our exec team of eight, we have three females, and one BAME – me.

Across Channel 4, 19% of our employees are BAME. That’s a higher percentage than the demography of the London population, but we don’t think it’s enough.

The issue all organisations face is ensuring their culture allows people of all races, denominations and orientations to feel they can be comfortable and progress. Here, our staff surveys show people feel they can be themselves at work, which is great.

How do you grow a more diverse culture at pace?

We’ve just run the first cohort of Rise, our women’s development programme. Three hundred female staff participated, with the goal of giving them the confidence to make big and bold decisions about their careers, whether that’s at Channel 4 or elsewhere. We are encouraging participants to go to their line managers and ask for development plans, promotions, salary reviews etc. All the data shows us that what holds a lot of women back is confidence. This programme looks to directly challenge that.

Our BAME colleagues have told us that the biggest blocker to their moving up is their management’s lack of understanding around their backgrounds. To tackle this, we’ve created a ‘reverse mentoring’ programme for all line managers, where BAME colleagues actively mentor their line manager, to help them understand their experiences and therefore their blockers to progression.

That’s incredible.

Some people had suggested a BAME leadership programme, but that suggests that the BAME staff member is the one with the issue to address. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the organisation that needs to learn and grow.

Diversity is broader than gender and race. Age, disability, education, class and geography are increasingly important areas to tackle – how do you go about tackling them?

Most people think TV is a young person’s game. It really isn’t. We have people who have been here for 25 years. Our average age is 38.5, with lots of staff in their late 50s and 60s.

Disability is also an area we think a lot about. Channel 4 were very proud to broadcast the Paralympics. Six percent of our workforce are disabled. We’re working to double that over the next two years. It’s so important for us to make sure we are creating shows that disabled audiences feel are made for them.

What about education, class and geography?

Social mobility is a massive focus for us. Our commissioning team were deemed “the poshest”, in an LSE study on social mobility in 2016. Our commissioning teams were mainly white, upper-middle class and Oxbridge-educated. We were rightly embarrassed by that and have tried to change it since. We are now measuring the social class levels of every interviewee, based on a question devised by LSE.

Since this research was completed in 2016 we’ve moved 8 percentage points in the number of staff in our workforce who come from a working class background.

We have a lot more work to do to deliver a diverse workforce, but being a broadcaster, we need to appeal to an equally diverse audience.

And finally, geography, which is about to become a major element in the Channel 4 story?

That’s right. In the coming days, we’re going to announce our new head office location. This move is all about regional diversity, and is a major push around ensuring TV becomes far less London-centric.

We’re deciding between Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester. Beyond the benefits of being able to tap into new talent pools that will then create more diverse programming, we’ll be able to show young, aspiring people that you don’t need to move to the gold-paved streets of London to be in the television industry.

Quick Facts

Born: London

Age: 42

What excites you about technology?: The rapid degree of evolution. I love change.

Who is your mentor?: I don’t have one single mentor, but different people I’ve met throughout my career that I take problems to. There are three people I know I can meet for a coffee when I have any issue. Mentorship is amazing, but having a sponsor who champions you for who you are within your business is absolutely invaluable. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup