You can’t change an organisation’s workforce and culture overnight. It takes years of dedication, as this HR practitioner knows.
Robert Brierley FCPHR paired his degree in behavioural science (majoring in psychology) with a second major in zoology. This is indicative of the kind of person he is – someone who sees things from a unique perspective.
“I was interested in looking at an organisation as if it were an environmental construct because it’s a human-constructed environment,” he says.
“One of the lessons I got from that was about systems thinking and the concept of an organisational ecosystem. It’s about all the moving parts and the various interactions and relationships that exist in an organisation. If you disrupt it too much, you end up with environmental damage.”
Brierley joined PACCAR, a US Fortune 500 company and major manufacturer of medium and heavy-duty vehicles, in 2001. He was its human resources director for over 18 years.
“When I joined it was a predominantly male-dominated culture. It was made up of 80 per cent white Australian and English employees. It wasn’t a very diverse organisation,” he says.
In 2010 Brierley created the company’s first D&I policy. It wasn’t just focused on improving ethnic diversity. At the time about 20 per cent of the workforce was female and they were being paid around 13 per cent less than their male colleagues.
“We also had an ageing workforce – the median age was 48 – and 25 per cent were over 55. We did a projection and found that by 2020, if we did nothing to address this, four per cent of our workforce would be retiring. Then we did further analysis and saw those people were some of the brightest and most experienced individuals in the organisation.
“You can’t replace people with 30 years’ service, with all of their institutional memory, overnight, not unless you have protégés who soak up all that knowledge and apply it.”
Rather than setting overly ambitious goals, Brierley suggested aiming for general improvement across all facets of the business. The aim wasn’t to set stringent diversity targets, he says, but rather to make a pledge to be open to people from a variety of different backgrounds when hiring.
Brierley used this D&I overhaul as his case study to achieve HR certification through AHRI’s Senior Leader’s Pathway.
Certified HR practitioners approach situations differently, like Robert Brierley. Discover your new approach through the APC Program.
Time to refuel
The plan was to evolve the workforce so it became younger and more gender and ethnically diverse. Even though it was set in 2010, the delivery would unfold over the next decade.
This workforce shift aligned with the company’s desire to bring a high level of innovation to the development of a new truck range.
“We needed new skill sets. We had an ambitious product development program requiring new technologies which meant we would need to look at digital, electrical and software capabilities. We didn’t necessarily have all of the skills we needed. That was the other reasoning behind the diversity push.
We had to reinvent our workforce to be able to meet the challenge of our very aggressive design and redevelopment agenda.”
Demonstrating the link between the importance of diversity of thought within the business and the creation of new products was key to getting buy-in for the D&I initiative.
“I had a simple formula – diversity equals ideas, ideas equals innovation, and innovation equals competitive advantage.
“You need a diverse workforce to be able to come up with different answers to diverse problems with innovative solutions. That’s when diversity becomes a business imperative,” says Brierley.
The workforce plan would obviously have a huge impact on culture. That’s why even though the diversity push was in swing at PACCAR since 2010, it wasn’t publicised to employees until around 2014-15. It was cemented in 2016 when PACCAR set up a diversity council containing representatives from its six business divisions, as well as production and professional staff.
There was an important reason Brierley chose to work on this in the shadows.
“Unless you have a burning platform, a pandemic-type environment where you’ve got a crisis, it can be hard to get change over the line. If you’ve had what was then 40 years of continuous success, there’s always the risk that you suffer from hubris. People have an attitude of ‘why change what isn’t broken?’. You have to be more subtle in the way you go about the change process; otherwise, you get pushback.
“It was an opportunity for the leadership to be influenced by the voice of employees, which is, after all, what inclusion is all about.”
Brierley also reassessed PACCAR’s talent acquisition process to be more open to hiring diverse candidates. He felt it was important to eliminate as much unconscious bias as possible through the training and development of those charged with hiring.
Driving the business forward
To justify a long-term plan, you need to demonstrate that the efforts made to diversify your workforce are paying off.
“You’ve got to continuously and relentlessly keep an eye on what it is that you’re measuring and what actions are being taken to achieve those measures,” he says.
“That’s a challenge for HR. We have historically come up with all these qualitative reasons, but we don’t support them with quantitative, business-oriented data.”
Brierley’s approach reaped impressive results. Ethnic diversity went from 20 per cent in 2010 to 33 per cent in 2019, with the talent pool coming from over 50 different countries.
Female employees at PACCAR increased from 20 to 26 per cent from 2010-2019 (their goal is to reach 33 per cent by 2024). Importantly, females in much-needed engineering roles made an impressive leap from three per cent to 15 per cent over 10 years, and women in leadership roles went from seven per cent in 2010 to 28 per cent in 2019.
The predicted four per cent attrition rate from retirement ended up being contained to just 1.2 per cent. Even more impressively, the gender wage gap was close to eliminated. It went from a 13 per cent difference to just 1.7.
One of the most profound lessons he learned was the value of having behind-the-scenes conversations to better influence the influencers and build a groundswell. “These initiatives can’t be seen to be just an HR thing. It’s got to be seen as coming from other aspects of the business.”