Australia Day has become a holiday fraught with tensions; a national-celebration-cum-proving-ground for ‘Australian’ values. This year has proven particularly divisive, as some organisations that have used the holiday as an opportunity to promote a message of inclusion and diversity have been met with opposition – and even threats of violence.
As several news stories have revealed, the push for inclusion and diversity (I&D) requires courage that deserves recognition, particularly within the HR profession.
Over the past weeks, we’ve seen several companies caught up in public debates about the role organisations should play in publicly supporting inclusion and diversity. More than anything else, these collective examples show the barriers in the way of I&D initiatives and the role that organisation’s I&D policies have to play in creating meaningful change that extends outside the workplace.
On Wednesday, the ABC reported that an Australia Day billboard with girls in hijabs had resulted in an online call to ‘bomb’ the Canberra theatre that had posted the advertisement.
This wasn’t the first time the ad was in the news. Earlier this year, it was displayed as part of the Victorian government’s campaign to promote Australia day events across the city of Melbourne. After threats were made to the advertiser, they responded by pulling the billboard. Then, in a demonstration of the central tension of our national holiday, the billboard was returned after a fundraising effort from I&D campaigners.
Similarly in Canberra, the threats of violence have been met with strong statements of support. The ACT Government released a statement that read: “The image of these young girls is a wonderful example of multiculturalism at work,” reported the ABC.
“These girls are proudly Australian but also respectful of their heritage. They are a fine example of a 21st century Australia which should be celebrated and seen by as many people as possible.”
In a story that parallels the controversial billboard retailer Target’s Back to School catalogue, which featured a diverse range of models including children with disabilities and people from various cultural backgrounds, also received criticism and support.
As reported by SBS, the catalogue’s release was met with positive responses across social media, with many congratulating Target for “breaking barriers” and using hashtags such as #equalityforall and #diversity. Advocacy groups also praised the retailer, with the Youth Disability Advocacy Services tweeting a message of support.
But social media was also the forum for a community backlash. Members of the public condemned the absence of Christian religious symbols, and expressed displeasure at other cultures being represented over white Australians.
Finally, Australia Day 2017 has seen a growing recognition of the Indigenous-led #changethedate movement, which has seen at least one city council change the date and content of their official Australia Day celebrations to better reflect wider community concerns.
Many believe celebrating on January 26 is insensitive as the arrival of the First Fleet marks the beginning of the many brutal injustices that have been inflicted on Indigenous Australians.
Along with record numbers of attendees at protest rallies in Sydney and Melbourne, this year Fremantle in Western Australia cancelled its Australia Day celebrations. In what is set to be a litmus test for the #changethedate movement, the city will hold a culturally inclusive celebration two days after Australia Day – on Saturday 28. The contentious decision has divided residents, and sparked criticism from the Federal Government and Fremantle’s business community.
Freemantle Mayor Brad Petitt maintains the council is showing leadership on an important national issue, despite the backlash. However, the ABC reports that the move has also exposed disagreements within the Indigenous community, quoting WA Indigenous elders who both oppose and support the decision.
Lessons for the HR profession
Leadership often faces challenges when it comes to inclusion and diversity, as AHRI’s most recent Inclusion & Diversity Report found, but AHRI Chairman Peter Wilson says that communication is key to ensuring that policy translates into action.
“A lot of issues around diversity come out of stigma; from people at work not feeling comfortable to say “this is me”. That’s not ok.”
“It’s fear of the unknown – of doing something new. And it can be a big risk when leaders don’t feel they’re receiving encouragement” when taking steps into uncharted territory and pushing for greater inclusion and diversity.
Yet the fact is that sticking to the same old formula is shortsighted – in the long term it’s bad for business. “The evidence is that high performing workplaces are those that are inclusive and diverse, where people feel confident about their environment. In the end that’s what creates high productivity.”
“It’s a short sighted view not to recognise this as a major issue. Leaders know the steps they can take – and more need to try and take them.”
Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR considers companies taking their I&D policies into the public domain as a net gain for all involved.
“For employees, we want to see the values that are part of the company reflected externally and ensuring that diversity is reflected in the way our organisations communicate with the world goes a long way to promoting positive practices back into the company too.”