Mathew Paine FCPHR says one of his greatest challenges as an HR executive is selling the concept of diversity, equity and inclusion to the C-suite. Here’s how he’s had success in the past.
It was the feeling of being wronged in a Sydney hospitality job as a teenager that drove Mathew Paine FCPHR to pursue a career in HR.
He had an issue with his employer, which resulted in his pay and annual leave being withheld. Affronted, he went to the tribunal for help. It got him thinking about HR, employment rights and employment law.
“That really sparked my interest in supporting employees through their employment journeys, so I decided to dedicate my career to that,” says Paine.
“And now, at the level I’m at, it’s about the balance of creating a great place to work and making sure the organisation achieves its goals through people,” says Paine, who is the Executive General Manager, People and Culture, at the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA), which resolves financial complaints from consumers and small businesses in the financial services sector relating to everything from banking and finance to superannuation and scams.
Paine also holds two voluntary board positions – president at the Bobby Goldsmith Foundation, Australia’s longest-running HIV charity, and advisory board member on AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Panel, which allows him to champion his true passion for DEI.
Selling diversity, equity and inclusion
Creating fair and inclusive work environments is in Paine’s blood.
Throughout his HR career, he has led numerous diversity and inclusion initiatives, from helping the NSW government achieve its targets for women and Indigenous people in senior leadership roles, to driving ICC Sydney to become the first organisation in Australia to introduce transgender leave in an enterprise agreement, and ensuring AFCA services are accessible to non-English speakers.
While Paine recognises Australian organisations are starting to prioritise DEI, he believes they have a long way to go.
“When you think about the ASX 300, there’s only around six per cent female CEOs, and when you think about racial or ethnic diversity, it’s even less. At the board chair level, it’s even less again.
“The more you add those intersections, whether it’s people living with disability, Indigenous Australians, someone who is from the LGBTIQ+ community, the less representation you’ll see at the top.”
Paine believes the business case for D&I is undeniable. Inclusive workplaces create a positive brand in the eyes of consumers and employees, they help attract a diverse pool of talent and a variety of perspectives that helps to foster innovation and creativity, and they boost employee satisfaction and retention.
But this doesn’t mean selling D&I to the C-suite is easy.
The key is linking the concept to broader business goals. For example innovation, customer satisfaction and performance, he says.
It’s assessing the customer demographic and looking at the benefits of mirroring it within the organisation, or setting diversity targets in terms of employees, including in the C-suite.
“It’s about understanding the data and asking, ‘What’s in it for us?’” says Paine.
If buy-in proves a challenge, he has a few tried-and-tested strategies up his sleeve.
First is ‘listen and learn’ sessions, where employees are invited to a C-suite meeting to discuss their lived experience, such as living with disability or coming from a multicultural background, for example. The executives are invited to listen, learn and ask questions about how the employees’ work experience could be improved.
Second is taking C-suite members into communities, including First Nations communities, to meet with elders or leaders to better understand their unique perspectives, issues and how the organisation can better work with them. Third, Paine tries to relate DEI initiatives to the executives’ own lives via sponsorship and allyship.
“If they have kids or elderly parents, they might be a good sponsor for parents and carers. They may identify as LGTBIQ+ or Indigenous, or have a family member who does,” he says. “At the beginning there’s a lot of questions to explore how people connect to D&I. Then it’s targeting people to sponsor and be an active ally of those initiatives.”
Once executives are on board, it’s about persuading them to advocate for D&I, both internally and externally, says Paine.
He suggests the CEO and senior executives each sponsor a different DEI topic. They may support an event at the organisation, or oversee an internal anonymous survey to understand how many people identify as living with a disability, then ask them about their challenges, which may lead to a range of initiatives.
They could also sponsor an employee resource group and champion accessibility guidelines or policy change on behalf of them, he suggests.
Paine has learned that even the most determined executives can be turned around. He once faced a board member who didn’t want to be associated with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, despite the company publicly supporting LGBTIQ+ rights.
“It was a challenge at the time, and for me personally, it was disappointing. I had to make them understand that discrimination and harassment disproportionately affect LGBTIQ+ workers, and not participating in the event would actually cause more damage than proceeding.”
“At the end of the day, it’s impossible to change someone’s beliefs, but you have a chance at changing their behaviour.” – Mathew Paine FCPHR, Executive General Manager, People and Culture, Australian Financial Complaints Authority
In the end, Paine managed to persuade the CEO to get the board on-side and display the company’s logo on a float, allowing staff to march alongside it.
“I was able to demonstrate that there was a huge number of customers who either participated in or attended Mardi Gras.
“Inclusive workplaces are good for improving the wellbeing of individuals. But the biggest gain was for the employees,” he adds. “Some of them identified as LGBTIQ+, others were allies, but it was such an amazing experience for them.
“At the end of the day, it’s impossible to change someone’s beliefs, but you have a chance at changing their behaviour.”
Focus on fairness
Looking forward, Paine says one thing he would like to see more of is better inclusion of First Nations people in workplaces.
“In terms of understanding the perspective of Indigenous employees, we’ve got a lot of work to do in Australia and it’s likely to be very different to how we’ve operated in the past.”
Ultimately, he says, HR is about creating a great and fair place to work – for young and inexperienced employees like he once was, to mature-aged workers and all in between.
If that happens, diversity, equity and inclusion won’t need to be such a focus, he says.
“In five to 10 years, it would be nice to think that we won’t be discussing and measuring all these different demographics and diversity programs. It should be that everyone is included and feels they belong in the workplace,” he says. “But until then, we need that focus.”
A longer version of this article first appeared in the October/November 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.
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